The difference between self-care and self-advocacy

Adriana Saso-Graves, Staff Writer

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You’re standing in line for coffee with your friend. Your eyes are burning and your body, running on four hours of sleep, feels like it’s simultaneously floating and made of concrete. You turn to your friend and say, “Should I get a small or a large?”

“Treat yourself — get a large! You’ve been working so hard lately, you deserve it.”

So you buy a large coffee and head to the library where you will probably spend at least 20 hours this weekend. But, hey, whatever it takes to get that A, right?

Even if you can’t relate to that example, it’s probable that you, too, have participated in the self-care culture of “treating yourself.” In the past few years, the movement has taken hold of students in particular, popularizing phrases like “treat yourself,” “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” and the like. Now, it’s no secret that self-care has positive and negative effects. I seek to address both sides, but especially the ways in which engaging in certain types of “self-care” can promote compulsivity, perpetuate harmful cycles and exacerbate stressors.

This movement has had myriad positive effects, such as increased attention to personal hygiene, an emphasis on taking more breaks to avoid burnout, recognition of personal limits and stressors and celebration of accomplishments. However, the idea of self-care is ambiguous, and therefore can be — and is — tailored to individual interests. The danger of buying into the movement is that you just have to believe that you’re practicing positive self-care. Anything done in the name of self-care is automatically deemed a healthy step in the right direction, regardless of its effects.

In response to stress or burnout, we often seek quick-fixes instead of fundamentally changing our routines. Quick-fixes appeal to a consumerist ideal: purchasing things or experiences because they will be gratifying or enjoyable for a short time. But making compulsive purchases to alleviate stress can be a risky game, at times affecting both financial and physical well-being. In the worst cases, it can result in addiction. It’s easy to see the appeal in treats. Who doesn’t like to indulge? Coffee, UberEats, spa days, new clothes and new hairstyles are great to have, but ultimately don’t alleviate deep-seated stress. Addressing larger structures in our lives as the perpetrators of stress is no easy task, but using treats to manage stress is like driving an old car and praying that today isn’t the day it breaks down.

But where do these high stress levels come from anyway? And when will we admit that they have overstayed their welcome on our campus? From what I have seen, it’s not enough to be just a student at Macalester — which is different than recognizing that students have important areas of their life that aren’t directly related to their academic performance. In accordance with Macalester values, we often prioritize being involved in our communities, and, due to our commitment to financial aid, we often prioritize on-campus work as well. In the past, I have held three jobs on top of my work as a student and still felt as though I wasn’t “doing enough.” My peer, Eva Stromgren ’22, recently wrote  in her opinion article for The Mac Weekly, “… Macalester as an institution wants to attract students who want to be involved with their community. But we cannot talk the talk about acceptance and self-love when our social worth revolves around being as busy and stressed as possible.”

And I could not agree more. The additional stress we put on ourselves — not just to learn and cultivate curiosity within ourselves — but to excel outside of the classroom in both paid and unpaid roles, as well as maintain our physical and mental health and have active social lives is overwhelming. In response, we bond over the idea of the overworked college student: caffeine addictions, sleep-deprivation, student debt and fears of failure. As a result of said glamorization, we perpetuate the cycle of unsustainable overcommitment by “treating ourselves” to things that motivate us to prioritize our work over ourselves. I myself do this far too often. At my breaking point, I usually reward myself for working so hard by buying a coffee that I can enjoy (while studying, of course) or I peruse high-quality stationery that I can’t afford in hopes that it revitalizes my interest in my work. Or I am so overwhelmed by my pending mountain of homework, I “treat myself” to watching three hours of Netflix which does not help me approach the real issue at hand. At that point, what have I done except push myself to dive deeper into the area of my life that is causing me the most stress?

Resolution rooted in compulsivity tends to exacerbate stressors instead of helping to resolve them, especially when it comes to stress in students’ lives. How many times have we said to ourselves, “I just need a mental health day,” and in turn we may ignore all of our work, skip class, cancel appointments and sleep the day away. But there’s something to be said about a schedule or way of life that causes us to be in such an emotional and physical crisis that we have to pull the metaphorical emergency break on our lives. Although addressing stress and making structural changes is difficult, it is possible — even if only a little bit — whether it be cutting back on an activity, adding more structure to a routine or seeking out a support system. I personally experienced a lot of stress which manifested in anxiety and depression before I reached out to available resources on campus. I thought to myself “Really? Making myself busier is going to relieve stress?” but after about a year of trial and error with my schedule, I can say it has. The difference is that I became busier with the right things and found a routine and support system. Now I know what works for me: how often I need to study, sleep, go to the gym or therapy, and I can recognize the symptoms of burnout if and when I take on too much work. Taking care of yourself might mean recognizing that you simply cannot give 100 percent at everything you do. If we are truly going to be well, we have to recognize our needs for what they really are, not what we want them to be. It’s not ideal that I need to go to therapy, cut back on work to sleep more, go to the gym or go to office hours, but the simple fact is that I do. College is not a sprint. It’s a marathon, and this vicious, unmanageable cycle left me hitting a wall the minute things got difficult.

It’s easy to push all this aside and say that it’s just an individual issue of time management and prioritization of responsibilities, but I believe that there is a larger culture that takes some of the blame for perpetuating these cycles. Self-care should ultimately be self-advocacy. For me, that means that instead of treating ourselves to things and experiences to aid us in reducing stress momentarily, we should extend ourselves the forgiveness and room to breathe that we really need and then some. At times I have to remind myself that I deserve to focus on myself. This notion has been important for me throughout my current semester abroad, and while I can’t speak to the needs of every individual, I think we could all stand to practice prioritizing ourselves in ways that aren’t instantaneously gratifying. We need to advocate for our physical and mental wellbeing, even when we might not enjoy it, and we should encourage others to do the same.

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