When Self-Care Kills Your Friendships

Shutting people out in the name of ‘self-care’ ultimately feels like self-destruction

Not long ago, I attended a panel that featured a few established writers. An audience member asked one of them a personal question: How do you practice self-care? The answer was brutally honest.

The writer said she didn’t respond to text messages and often flaked on people. Her friends had to accept that she would be hard to reach. If they wanted to spend time with her, they would be the ones to make an effort. Her schedule was too packed for more obligations. If you want to be successful and keep your sanity, she said, you have to accept that you won’t be able to say yes to everything, including your friends. I nodded and clapped along with the audience.

I have been that friend. I never call. I forget to respond to texts. I cancel video chats because I’m “Zoomed out.” I feel guilty, then forgive myself for it — if I spent all my time keeping in touch, when would I get anything done? This is part of taking care of ourselves. It’s good for our mental health. We have to set boundaries, create strict routines, and let go of the obligation to be everything to everyone.

At some point, my boundaries feel more like a way to confine myself from meaningful relationships.

All of this is true. But through the lens of rugged individualism, I wonder if self-care becomes a way to isolate ourselves.

I often tell the harrowing story of how I worked 14-hour days in college to pay for tuition. After class, I drove to my first job dead tired and depressed, knowing I still had a second shift. On the weekends, I worked more. For years, I refused to take a break. I repeat this story as a point of pride. It fits the narrative of the strong, hard-working, self-made individual grasping for the American dream.

It’s also not entirely true. My mom worked hard to pay for my tuition, too. I had scholarships from nonprofit organizations that invested in my future success. I also had a student loan. And then there was the supportive boss who put up with me calling in “tired” more than once and said nothing when he caught me studying on the clock — and showed up to my graduation with his whole family and a big smile on his face.

No one succeeds without some kind of support. Yet our culture perpetuates the myth of being self-made because it fits with the narrative of rugged individualism. It makes for a satisfying story. It also pressures people to go at things alone when community helps us flourish and brings us joy. I create boundaries to protect my schedule and get things done, but at some point, my boundaries feel more like a way to confine myself from meaningful relationships.

Would we need so much self-care if we lived in a culture that didn’t value people by their output?

Care is important. We have biological needs to drink water and eat food and get enough sleep. Self-care is a construct that has emerged from a society that views the self as a product. Would we need so much self-care if we lived in a culture that didn’t value people by their output? By their work ethic, how much money they save, how many likes they get?

Journalist Will Storr argues that the culture of productivity and self-improvement, which includes self-care, encourages perfectionism. “There’s so much out there that makes us feel not good enough,” Storr says. “So we’re driven to this toxic, perfectionist state of mind.” And this state of mind — like the one I had while working three jobs, determined to do things perfectly and on my own — creates a workaholic lifestyle where meaningful relationships struggle to flourish. We’re stretched so thin that we’re forced to say no to plans and forget birthdays and neglect our friends. So much of what we call self-care is just a way of not caring about others.

The writer Adrienne Marie Brown calls this a problem of scarcity and provides a more cooperative version of self-care. She writes, “When movement is full of individuals with scarce energy and health, that scarcity flows in every direction — it leads to us competing with each other for resources.” Instead, Brown urges a more grassroots approach. One that doesn’t think of “self” and “others” as two competing entities worthy of care, but as an intermingled unit in which care for one entity creates care for the other.

This isn’t to say we should overextend ourselves, but what if we lived in a world where it felt good to text back a friend? And you looked forward to Zoom calls? And the best way to take care of yourself was through cultivating a mutual support system instead of encouraging a one-sided friendship? As we’ve learned from a year in quarantine, social isolation is bad for our mental health, and that’s true for extroverts and introverts alike. Relationships and community add joy to our lives. Our friendships offer support when we need it most. If all of that is true, shutting people out in the name of self-care ultimately feels like self-destruction.

We all need time for ourselves. I absolutely love doing stuff alone. And I try not to feel guilty when I forget a birthday or neglect a text message because you can’t be everything to everyone, and anyway, beating yourself up doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t repair a friendship.

Striking a balance is always tricky. But I’ve found the more I isolate myself in the name of being an introvert or taking care of myself, the less it actually feels like care. It’s difficult to nurture a relationship. And it takes you away from work. But rather than a chore, I’ve started to see it as an essential way to take care of myself. As Brown puts it, “to choose instead to value ourselves, our health, and the health of our communities — all as one, not at odds with each other, is radical, it’s self-determination.”

Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, ELLE, Travel + Leisure, and Glamour magazine.

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