Sunday Self Care: Why we Fail

We were discussing this Sunday’s self-care post, and I flippantly commented that I’m terrible at self-care so I didn’t have much to contribute. But, as I stayed up hours after my family was asleep thinking about this topic, found my brain circling around all the ways in which we are set up for failure when it comes to caring for ourselves. It was this context that allowed me to see my “failure at care” in a new light.

There are many ways that the world sets up swaths of people for failure when they stick to boundaries, try to find balance, or take time for care, and realizing that is an important first step to genuine self-care.

Unrealistic ideas of time management are some of the ways the world sets us up to fail. I spent years thinking I was simply bad at managing my time before I understood that the expectations I’ve been taught to have for myself as a parent and teacher were so great that they required more than the 16 hours of waking time that 8 hours of sleep allows. My job as a teacher is emotionally and mentally taxing, and requires planning, performance, community involvement, and creativity beyond the hours I am at work.

But for all of us, the work week is longer than in years past, and many people find it harder to get by with a single job. Ten years ago 37% of people who answered a Gallup poll reported working 45 or more hours a week (12% at 60+) and now 42% of people work those hours. The number has plateaued over the last couple years, but it’s still high enough that there nearly half of the working population of the United States is left  trying to balance their lives on less time because their work takes an increasingly large chunk of it.

Despite all this work, upword mobility has never been more of an illusion. According to an article over at NPR:

the top 1% owned nearly one-quarter of all U.S. household wealth 30 years ago…and now owns nearly one-third. Meanwhile, the bottom 50% of people have gone from 3.7% of the wealth in 1989 to 1.9% today.

The stresses of the workplace fall disproportionally on specific populations, which is challenging because those for whom these stressors do not occur are less likely to notice it. Income inequality is the most egregious example of this. According to the same NPR article, in 2016, “the median white family held nearly five times the wealth of the median Hispanic family and more than six times the median black family.” When equal work does not cause equal wealth, the stress of living and raising a family is compounded.

The wealth disparity shown with Pac Man ghosts  whose size shows how much each group has (made by Deek)

In another example, in the Gallup Poll referenced earlier found that 70% of women reported sexual harassment in the workplace as a major concern (up 15% from eleven years ago), while only 53% of men did (up only 8%). This unsurprising gap represents a greater stress and emotional labor load for women both in experiencing harassment and in living with its existence.

Well-established systems work against allowing us to manage our lives in ways that are healthy although they give the appearance of promoting healthy lifestyles.

These systems contain within their structure the measure of our undoing: a self-care philosophy that extolls the virtues of individuals managing their own self-care and finding time for self-care on their own rather than holding the community as a whole accountable for the care of the individuals within it. This is a variation of the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mistake has failed everywhere else, but we embrace it regarding self-care anyway.

The concept of “self care” as an individual responsibility has come to replace elements of basic needs such as health care here in the United States (which, again, is increasingly difficult for certain groups to access). By insisting that people find time to care for themselves, by implying that healthy individuals are able to provide themselves a series of small indulgences and healthy habits entirely on their own, we minimize the role an adequate social support and health care system plays in the well-being of individuals.

Vice has an excellent piece on the ways in which the self care movement is insidious about encouraging us to look the other way and to ignore all the places where lack of health care adds stress to our life, saying:

Ultimately, the #selfcare phenomenon is a canary in the coal mine of mental healthcare coverage. Why can’t we get the care we need, and instead have to hope matcha and meditation can take the reins?

By placing the onus for care on the individual, we ignore the ways in which a system prevents people from accessing the medical care necessary for their quality of life. Simply put, we would need less self-care if we had more real care.

Inadequate time and inadequate medical care are just two of the systemic problems that get in the way of our self-care. We need to acknowledge that some people have a greater emotional burden and stressors due to these systems, and admit that “poor self-care” is not a personal flaw, but instead a product of a flawed system. This would be a good step in creating change.

The challenge of ensuring all of us are calm and comfortable in our lives is one that will not lessen until the systems that cause us to struggle change. The first step is to acknowledge that you are not solely responsible for those moments when your care for yourself feels like its inadequate.

So, I guess this isn’t about tips or methods. This is more about being aware that  difficulty ensuring self-care is not a flaw in our nature or a bug in the system, it is the product of a system that makes life actively more difficult for many people. Those moments when we “fail” at self care, setting boundaries, and keeping the stress in our lives to a minimum, should not be cause for disappointment in ourselves. We should cut ourselves some slack, and be aware of the powerful systems we are working against when we take back time and energy for ourselves.


Deek lives with her husband, twin sons and two cats in the northwest. She teaches and writes about parenting in the NICU, her experiences as a parent of micro-preemies and skeptical parenting.

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  1. the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mistake

    Isn’t this expression an ironic comment on the impossibility of improving your lot without any help or support from anyone or anywhere else?

    I mean, just try to actually lift yourself off the ground by pulling on your bootstraps (or shoelaces) and see how far you get.

    Maybe it’s no accident that the only people who throw this out are people defending systems of privilege.

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