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Beautiful Burn-Out

Jul 25, 2019 | Featured

(or what I saw at the Self-Care Revolution)

Last week I attended the first “Self-Care Summit” hosted by the Create & Cultivate Group. I was intrigued and excited to dive deeply into this seemingly secret society of influencers, representing the peak state of mindfulness and dewy exfoliation.  And, as I stood waiting to check in, all seemed to be in place. Floral print maxi-dresses? Check. Cute boho straw fedoras?  Check. Cheeky and cheery wall size aphorisms ready for selfies? Check, check and check!  But the day was not the smug celebration of self-care achievement that I had anticipated. Instead, I seemed to be surrounded by earnest and exhausted women, trapped in a maze of over-thinking, self-questioning, and a deep fear of having somehow missed the mark. People seemed both frantic and hungry to get to better and I sensed frustration with the smoothie recipes being offered as a panacea.  For me, the most poignant and honest reflection of the day came from one participant’s question during a panel on healthy rituals.

“When does the Peace part show up?”

Human beings seem to have always been on a path of self-improvement and self-optimization.  As far back as Ancient Greece, there have been treatises and  templates on how to live “the good life”.  Today is no different. Although we feel like pioneers in the arena of self-awareness and the desire for purpose and peace, the goal over all these centuries has been the human quest for meaning. And this is no small undertaking  – the challenge of living and creating a life that really matters is a formidable one. Today, as we dash from one trending methodology to the next, the pursuit seems almost Sisyphusan – an endless and joyless undertaking. If we all are trying so damn hard, why aren’t we getting anywhere?

There is no denying the power of Self-Care in today’s world.  In 2015, the Pew Research  Center revealed that millennials reported making more personal improvement commitments than any generation before them.  They spend twice as much as previous generations on workout regimens, diet plans, life coaching, therapy and apps to improve their well-being. Per the November 2017 Barkley Report, “the volume of discussions surrounding self-care octupled in 2015 and 2016 compared to a decade prior.” Self-care has gone from being seen as selfish to a something shameful if it isn’t done. Post the 2016 election, self-care seemed to go from a slightly-out-of-control backyard bonfire to a 5-alarm rager. As our anxieties flared, so did an onslaught of products, people and planners set on soothe. And it all seemed to make sense. If we couldn’t change the world we were living in for the better, the thinking went, perhaps we should just try to change ourselves.

But when did it become so public? Journalist Jordan Kisner, in a thought-provoking piece published by The New Yorker, makes the point that America itself has been built on a public platform of self-reliance. From the Pilgrims to the Pioneers, we have been taught to showcase our ability to care for ourselves as proof of our citizenship. (And isn’t that part of the immigration debate today – our rejection of the idea of a ‘welfare state’ for those seemingly incapable of doing the same?) Kisner posits that “Self-care in America has always required a certain amount of performance: a person has to be able to not only care for themselves but to prove to society that she can do it.”  Cue the big guns of social media. Facebook and Instagram have provided ample, and some might deem aggressive turf for us to display our earnest commitment to our personal paths of betterment. Unfortunately for many, this same rich ground seems better for sowing  feelings of failure and inadequacy. If everyone is wearing clay masks and attending sound baths, while starting a side business of quilling, no wonder we don’t feel better. Maybe, we simply aren’t trying hard enough.

Logically, we all know that these channels predominantly represent ‘highlight’ reels of otherwise challenging lives that contain their fair share of struggle. But if we are hard wired for self -improvement, it is incredibly difficult to switch off the promise of better living that pours through our screens. Some companies are attempting to quiet that tide: in late April of this year, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, announced at Facebook’s annual developer event that a test that hides ‘likes’ attributed to posts would be initiated in some markets.  “We don’t want Instagram to feel like a competition,” Mr. Mosseri said. “We want people to worry a little bit less about how many likes they’re getting on Instagram and spend a bit more time connecting with the people they care about.” This test has led to an outburst of emotions on social.  Professional influencers resent what they view as an abrupt and unnecessary dismantling of all of their hard work spent building communities. Pedestrian users, at least anecdotally, seem to welcome it.  They see it as a chance to relax their grip on the filter buttons and really share a life that is a bit more authentic. Only time will tell.

A recent book, Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement”, tells the story of authors Carl Cederstom and Andre Spicer as they plunged into the world of life hacking wisdom, ranging from physical optimization, to programs to increase their spirituality, creativity and wealth. At the end of the experiment, Spicer reflects that looking back, he realized he had spent the whole year focusing on himself, to the exclusion of everything and everyone. His relationships had suffered, and he felt isolated from his communities. Worse, he didn’t feel like a better version of himself – he felt like he had been trying on all sorts of different people, none of which were him. It seems that ‘self-optimization’ can actually be a dangerous form of trying to fit in.

So where does this leave us? If we go back to our Ancient Greek friends, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, it seems the whole point of self-improvement and self-actualization is to form a strong and ethical foundation for a community, a people, and a civilization. The work is a starting point, not a destination.  Instead of so much time analyzing ourselves, perhaps the time has come to look up and out at each other. Maybe the better focus for self-care gatherings is to connect and find ways we can care for each other, from our own authentic, albeit imperfect selves. Anyone down for a “World Care Summit” ? I think I know one that could use our help.

(but in case you’re not ready to join in just yet, here’s  another thought!)

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