Lots of people are tired these days, and it’s not just physical fatigue. On both emotional and mental levels, the burnout is palpable. We see it in health care professionals, teachers, clergy and especially among parents. There’s even a trend among young people to stay in bed all day as a form of self-care; revealingly, it’s called “bed-rotting.”

As specialists in women’s issues and mental health, we are sensitive to this very real problem, especially among women. The need for self-care is real, and arguably greater than ever. But to help women find real rejuvenation, it is important to distinguish between genuine and sustaining self-care and the heavily marketed forms of self-indulgence that can sometimes create more problems than they solve. 

This self-care market includes not just products, but a growing proliferation of women’s retreats, to include yoga retreats, goddess retreats, healing retreats, adventure retreats, burnout recovery retreats and self-discovery retreats, among others.

Clearly we all need a little relaxation and solitude to think and regroup now and again, but the expanding self-care industry, which promises emotional health in the form of expensive trips and excursions, can become more than a financial drain. 

It doesn’t help that some of these retreat environments are crafted to keep you coming back. They are so pampering and peaceful that reentry into real life can send us careening back to even worse states of minds that when we arrived.

The subtle message of resort-style self-care can be that responsibility and service are at odds with personal growth and contentment. But that’s not how self-care was originally understood — and it’s not what ultimately nurtures us.

The history of self-care

The notion of self-care was first coined as a medical term in the 1950s, before being popularized during the civil rights movement. An emphasis on self-care was later introduced into the American Psychological Association’s Code of Ethics in 2002, instructing psychologists to make sure their own personal stresses were not impacting their clients negatively.

The current APA Code of Ethics says that, even in their personal lives, psychologists should refrain from anything they believe will impact their work negatively. Because vulnerable people rely significantly on these mental health professionals, they essentially have an ethical obligation to maintain their ability to help others.

Notice that the emphasis is not on the professional’s personal desires here, but on ensuring that vulnerable people get needed help. The caregiver is encouraged to arrange her private life in order to better serve those in need. Self-care, in this light, is an activity ultimately directed at helping others.

So how did we get from this broader understanding of self-care to something more like, “I need to protect my own happiness, no matter what it means for those around me”

We flipped the script. In place of an ethical imperative to not overdo things so we can protect our stamina, we’ve come to prioritize a #MeFirst ethos. As one internet commenter put it, “My ideal version of self-care is cute pajamas, Netflix and ignoring everything else for a month straight.” 

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Clearly, this kind of self-care is not oriented toward others, but sees one’s own comfort —usually in the form of freedom from responsibilities to others — as the highest good.

But this ends up being a mirage. Because this kind of self-care isn’t making us any happier. 

The pain of self-absorption

Drawing on her work as a social scientist, Jenet Erickson recently taught that “We are not designed to be autonomous, self-actualized individuals. ... It is in connecting with another that we begin to know who we are.”

Referring to rising levels of loneliness and mental health challenges, Erickson notes that individualism, workism, the decreased marriage rate, diminished community engagement, declining religiosity and social media all seem to have played a role, with the “deepest loneliness stemming from disruption and disorder in family life.”

“A culture focused on radical individualism has left us hungry,” she said.

That nagging hunger can radiate across families. As one of us has found, when away from my kids for long periods, my absence is felt in a subconscious way, leading to negative attention-seeking behaviors in my children. This doesn’t mean that we should never spend time away from our children, but frequently checking out, physically and emotionally, can actually increase the stresses from which we want to escape. 

These are children, after all, and they instinctively need their parents close. That’s normal, and it’s healthy — not only for young children, but also for teens (and maybe even husbands, too?).

That’s what a family is. We are appendages of a larger, living self, and when one of us starts pulling away, we can unwittingly create a dynamic that generates more stress than it resolves.

Once you’ve returned from a blissful paradise to the messiness of everyday life again, you may once again end up feeling more exasperated and miserable with kids who need even more attention. Can you blame that mother for wanting to escape again?

Certainly, none of this is inevitable, since a meaningful retreat also may help parents reengage with greater vigor and heart. But if we’re not careful, our spouse and kids can inadvertently become objects of resentment — links in a chain that binds and prevents us from becoming our “full selves.” 

Over time, some of this could contribute to family relationships deteriorating from a perpetual journey of discovery and self-actualization. This is a sad irony, since it’s those very relationships through which some of the greatest fulfillment can come.  

These are not mere theoretical concerns. We’ve both seen heartbreaking situations where mothers are persuaded to essentially turn their back on crying toddlers to preserve “me time.” We’ve also seen otherwise beautiful families broken up while moms are taking off and traveling the world. It makes us want to grab these sisters and be like, “Girl, what are you doing?” 

Another kind of retreat

Again, don’t misunderstand: every person needs time to shut the world out and recuperate from its stresses. And to reiterate, the problem is not in taking breaks or even engaging in more lavish forms of self-care. We all need such reprieves.

The problem occurs when these self-care activities become their own end, alienating us from the duties and responsibilities to others that bring real peace and fulfillment. As Jessica Nudelman writes, “Preaching constant self-love has the potential to replace the love we have for others.”

Are there other ways to find such reprieve on a daily basis, so we can still show up for the rising generation? Maybe it’s time to think twice about what kind of retreat our souls need the most, questioning the dominant secular norms around us today. 

When people speak about needing a “break,” Christian author Henri Nouwen suggests that what people are really thinking about is “a time and place for ourselves in which we are not bothered by other people, can think our own thoughts, express our own complaints, and do our own thing, whatever it may be.” 

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Nouwen continues, “But this is not the solitude of John the Baptist” or other ancient disciples. “For them, solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs.”

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints likewise speaks of a “special kind of rest” available to those willing to seek higher wisdom that helps them “overcome the spiritually and emotionally exhausting plagues of the world” and align their lives with God’s truth. 

Looking for real rest? Maybe we’d be better off to look for it in this kind of sacred solitude. And if we do, maybe we’ll end up finding it, too.  

Carolina Allen is the director of Big Ocean Women, the first international maternal feminist nonprofit. Jennifer Roach is a licensed mental health counselor who lives in American Fork.

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