How Hyper-Individualistic Self-Care Culture Has Lost Its Way

For more than a year now, I’ve spoken online about the ills of toxic self-care culture. Although I am positive that this type of self-care ideology didn’t start out toxic, it has certainly become that way.

Let me quickly define what I mean by toxic self-care culture. There is a growing number of self-proclaimed life coaches, boundary experts, and mental health gurus who espouse a form of radical individualism in self-care. They prioritize self over all things, including one’s familial, romantic, platonic, and professional relationships. I sincerely believe it had a good and necessary purpose in the beginning. It began as a way to help people learn how to stand up for themselves, insist on their needs being met, and set healthy boundaries. In a world filled with folks who take advantage of people with weak boundaries and people-pleasing tendencies, this form of inward-focused self-care is needed. When it began, this orientation toward self-care was for teaching people how to navigate a world filled with people who lie, gaslight, manipulate, and abuse.

Over time, the movement seems to have lost its way. The mindset that was all about prioritizing yourself has become one that promotes hyper-individualism to the exclusion of healthy relationships. It has forgotten that human beings are designed to live in community with other people, and therefore, we must all learn how to take care of ourselves while also building fulfilling relationships with others. In its efforts to teach people how to look out for themselves, it has begun teaching people to be self-centered, entitled, and oblivious to the needs and concerns of others. And that is not how we love ourselves well.

Self-care, in its fullest form, not only empowers people to care for themselves, but also to enrich and enhance their relationships. A brand of self-care that does not enable a person to build community and connection is impotent and self-limiting.

This type of hyper-individualistic self-care only considers one half of an equation that must have balance to work. It tells people things like:

You are enough; you don’t need anyone else’s approval.

Access to you is a gift; make sure other people act like it.

Your happiness is what matters; self-love is putting yourself first.

And the thing is, none of these statements are false. They are simply incomplete.

Self-care that balances the equation takes connection and community with others into account. It recognizes that individuals exist in a world with other people—people who have their own feelings, needs, desires, and boundaries. And those people, if they are healthy and safe themselves, will not want to be in relationship with people who are so consumed with themselves that they fail to notice these things in others.

How does healthy self-care balance the equation? In my opinion, it looks something like this:

You are enough; you don’t need anyone else’s approval. But sometimes, people who love you will bring things to your attention that they need you to work on if they’re going to feel like the relationship is reciprocal. It benefits both you and your relationships with others to consider their feedback.

Access to you is a gift; make sure other people act like it. And although you have intrinsic value that can never be taken away, if access to you is a one-way street that doesn’t take other people’s needs into account, it may not feel like a gift to them.

Your happiness is what matters; self-love is putting yourself first. But radical inward-focus may leave other people feeling unseen and unappreciated, which may lead to them stepping back from the relationship. Loneliness and rejection is not good for your well-being.

Healthy self-care is quick to set boundaries and insist on our needs being met, while being just as quick to care for our relationships. Because, ultimately, having good, sustaining, and fulfilling relationships with others is one way we take care of ourselves.

Hyper-individualistic self-care culture has a purpose. I think its purpose is best served among those who are at the beginning of their healing journeys, especially people who have struggled with people-pleasing and self-neglect in their relationships. It is healthy and good for those people to learn how to stand up for themselves. And occasionally, that work must be black-and-white. For a time, they must slay the urge to default to other people’s needs so that they can prioritize their own, and radical individualism might be required for them to do so.

Self-care that is fully formed goes on to balance the equation. It recognizes that, once you’ve learned how to stand up for yourself and set boundaries, there is a softness that can come back in—a willingness to tune yourself back in to the needs of others while still honoring your own.

This doesn’t mean you go back to allowing anyone to stay in your life, no matter how they treat you. It means making sure you are in relationships with people who are also engaging in healthy, balanced self-care. Furthermore, it means allowing people who are still in the beginning phase of their journey to do that work, while creating distance from them until they are in a place to provide reciprocity and mutual regard to their relationships. It means letting them go without judgement because their peace matters, and so does yours.

That is healthy, nourishing self-care. It is the kind that radical hyper-individualism has forgotten. And it’s time for us to remind ourselves and others that there is more to self-care than self, no matter how paradoxical it sounds.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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