The Toxic Side-Effects of the Self-Care Movement

Rachel Caldwell
6 min readMar 31, 2020

All those bath bombs and gratitude journals might be doing you more harm than good.

The Rise of the Self-Care Movement

“Start a gratitude journal!” “Count your daily steps!” “Drink more detox tea! “Have an at-home spa day!”

If you haven’t participated in the self-care movement yourself, chances are slim you’ve avoided its messages altogether. No longer a practice reserved for incense-burning, free-spirited minds, self-care is taking entire generations by storm.

The self-care movement has gone from obscure to omnipresent, and it’s easy to see why: what’s not to love about a movement that prioritizes wellbeing, happiness, and stress reduction? In a time of sky-high global stress levels, it’s no wonder that self-care has gone viral.

In the last five years alone, Google searches for the term ‘self care’ have increased over 100 percent. And searches for terms like “what is self-care,” “self-care activities,” and “self-care quotes” have increased by as much as 250 percent.

The data doesn’t lie, and neither do the dollar signs. The rise of the self-care movement is driving a thriving new economy: one that brought in $11 billion in 2019 (link). From wellness apps to boutique workout classes, there’s no end to the self-care solutions available for purchase, and we can’t get enough.

The ‘self-care movement’ is no longer a fad — it’s here to stay and has taken the world by storm. But the impacts aren’t all positive.

Four Problems with the Self-Care Movement

How could a trend that’s all about happiness and fulfillment be bringing us down? As the saying goes, there can be too much of a good thing.

Put another way, there is such a thing as the wrong kind of a good thing.

Here’s four reasons the self-care movement can end up doing more harm than good:

  1. It’s Overwhelming

Search ‘self-care’ on Pinterest and you’ll be bombarded with thousands of tips for achieving peak wellness. The overwhelming amount of advice, recommendations, tips, hacks, and ideas for mastering self-care and becoming your best self can quickly go from ‘helpful’ to ‘overwhelming.’

If you’re trying all the best ideas and still struggling with the symptoms you’re seeking to solve, the problem may be burnout — and the solution probably isn’t adding another step to your skincare routine.

Challenges like sleep struggles, skin problems, mood changes, and digestive issues are often what draw people toward self-care, but these can be the same symptoms of being overwhelmed and burned out.

And because #selfcare is everywhere (On your phone! On your laptop! In the news!), it’s hard to step back — even when taking a self-care break is exactly the self-care you need.

If you’re all-in on self-care but still struggling, consider this hypothetical: is your sleep disrupted because you’re neglecting to take care of yourself, or is it because you’re overwhelmed by everything you’re doing to maximize your self-care efforts?

Not ready to give up self-care altogether? Here’s an easy way to pinpoint your best self-care strategies: picture your ideal day, from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep. Think about what that perfect day would include, and what activities you’d prioritize. Focus on those activities for self-care, and let go of the rest.

2. It Drowns Out Your Internal Voice

Okay…maybe this is why they say meditation is so beneficial.

Simply put, the more time and energy you spend listening to other people’s opinions and advice, the less time and energy you spend tuning in to your own intuition. Over time, it can become difficult to sift through all the external dialogue you’ve internalized and find your voice. This can make it hard to learn how to listen to yourself, which is not a great habit to cultivate.

Often times, we explore self-care in search of relief from physical discomfort, emotional distress, or a slew of other related reasons. Whatever the purpose is, the act of seeking self-care is really about seeking advice to solve a problem.

But that, in itself, is a problem. Erica Jong described this issue well when she penned this famous quote: “Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.”

Why is intuition so important? For one thing, it’s the key to living an authentic, fulfilling life. To know oneself is to honor oneself…or something to that effect. Intuition also plays a major role in decision-making, and may matter as much — if not more — than your intellect.

No matter what or how much you learn from self-care experts, the knowledge they impart is no match for your gut instinct. So don’t let what they have to say drown out your internal voice. And remember: more often than not, you know what’s best for you.

3. It’s Time-Consuming

One benefit of the self-care movement is the wealth of information, stories, and suggestions that are readily available. People have easy access to wellness strategies that can truly change lives. But it can be hard to know when to step back from consuming content and focus on taking action.

On its own, spending time on self-care can be transformative. But in an era where people are busier than ever, self-care is consuming more of our limited time — which can lead to higher stress and feelings of anxiety.

What would it look like if you added up all the time you spend scrolling inspirational Instagram posts, reading self-help blogs, and listening to wellness podcasts? When you think about doing the math, do you feel anxious? If so, it’s time to re-evaluate.

Time is your most valuable resource. You can’t earn more of it, but everything you do demands it.

Spending time on education and personal improvement is rarely wasted, but it’s important to assess how much time you’re spending on self-care, and if the investment is really paying off.

4. It Neglects Mental Health Issues

This is arguably the most serious problem with the self-care movement.

No matter how many podcasts you listen to, wellness retreats you attend, or self-help books you read, they will not cure underlying clinical depression or anxiety.

Know what does? Specialized care from a licensed mental health professional, medication to address potential chemical imbalances, or a combination of the two.

And while mental health stigma has declined as a result of the self-care movement, it can be hard to distinguish between ‘self-care needs’ and acute mental health concerns. The symptoms of stress and clinical depression or anxiety can look and feel identical, but that doesn’t mean the treatment should be the same.

Self-care solutions can be pretty simple: Struggling to stay motivated? Start a bullet journal! Feeling tired? Who doesn’t? Try waking up with a golden latte. Can’t shut your mind off at night? There’s a five-minute bedtime yoga routine for that.

Here’s the problem: the same symptoms that self-care seeks to solve — like being tired, unmotivated, or overwhelmed — can mirror common symptoms of mental illnesses. As a result, people struggling with depression or anxiety might assume their experiences are simply the result of too few candles, because that’s what the internet is telling them they need in order to relax.

The kicker is that when candles don’t cure their anxiety, their symptoms may actually increase and their disease may worsen, because of the stress caused by trying #allthethings without success.

It can be hard — and scary — to acknowledge that you have a mental illness instead of simply a need for more turmeric in your life. Use your intuition to get clear on what’s truly missing in your life, whether it’s throw pillows or therapy.

Conclusion

The self-care movement has transformed the way society thinks about personal health and wellbeing, in good and bad ways. It’s up to you to decide if your self-care is improving your life or turning toxic.

If self-care is creating more stress than joy in your day-to-day, a self-care break might be just the self-care you need. Cut back on “doing” self-care, and enjoy the time, mental energy, and clarity you’ll unleash in the process.

And remember: if you think the way you’re feeling might be tied to depression, anxiety, or another mental illness, seek professional help. You may need support from a therapist — not just another bath bomb.

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