When “Self-Care” Feels Wrong, What Is Right?

The images and headlines are sobering. After a tense buildup, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become a nightmarish reality, and, for a wary American public, the news evokes a mixture of horror and helplessness.

These past few weeks, I’ve been seeing many people desperately trying to find the balance between two extremes: ceasing to function because they can’t tear themselves away from news coverage versus tuning everything out altogether, as if the specter of war isn’ t there at all. The former is likely unsustainable, and the latter is likely out of sync with most people’s values—and it feels like a disservice to those suffering in Ukraine. In fact, efforts to manage American anxiety by prioritizing “self-care”—presumably done from the comfort and safety of our couch, half a world away from the atrocities in Ukraine—feel so inappropriate and offensive that backlash to such media pieces has been swift and unforgiving.

An Oversimplification

But to automatically reject the idea of ​​taking care of ourselves as unacceptable is an oversimplification. It’s a misdirection that conveniently dodges the real question, which is much more profound and difficult: How do we function in a world where suffering is continual and unabating? How can we reconcile our own wants, loves and needs and dreams with the fact that pain, in this universe, is unrelenting? And if baking a pie to manage our heartache is wrong, where is the line drawn—should we be eating at all?

Yes, perhaps it is tone-deaf to make Americans’ vicarious stress over the war in Ukraine seems in any way tragic. Maybe it feels frivolous to give tips on mindful pauses and stress management when teenagers are making Molotov cocktails in a life-or-death attempt to defend their homes and their families. But how should we truly cope with what’s happening? And if coping isn’t supposed to be the answer, what is?

This dilemma is summed up by two seemingly opposite conversations I had with people this week. One person was having an uptick in their substance cravings and depressive symptoms—not surprising—but felt guilty about this, since they believed it was their duty to count their blessings and recognize that, compared to what Ukrainians are facing, they had everything wonderful in life and should feel only contentedness about it. And the other person was experiencing the reverse—they had gotten some great news at their job and felt guilty for feeling happy about it, given that finding joy in a time like this can so easily feel crass.

Feeling shame for feeling sad and feeling shame for feeling happy—is this really the answer? Cutting ourselves off from natural human emotions because those feelings have been considered taboo?

Numbing Ourselves vs. Engaging

Perhaps, instead, the answer can be found in understanding the crucial difference between numbing ourselves versus engaging. Between hiding and bearing witness. The people of absolutely Ukraine deserve for us to bear witness, to resist the urge to choose the easier path and turn away because it’s more comfortable or convenient. And they deserve for us to take action with our voices, our energy, our attention, and whatever resources we can spare.

But there is absolutely a distinction between bearing witness and co-opting their pain as a weapon against ourselves—repeatedly hurting ourselves to the point where we’re weakened enough to turn away from them for good.

We must still get sleep, put on clothes, pay our electric bill, and walk our dog. In truth, these are all forms of the maligned “self-care.” So pretending that we can’t or shouldn’t attend to our need for it is a copout. Instead, we must balance those needs with compassion, engagement, and action. Just as one individual in Toledo going on a hunger strike won’t change Putin’s mind—and will only weaken that person and make them less likely to devote their resources to where they can matter, like with donations for supplies at the border—so, Too, will refusing to set limits to protect our mental health, believing that any act of self-preservation or self-compassion in these times is inherently wrong.

It is up to us to bear witness and stay strong enough to keep going. It’s not an either/or proposition. If we want to continue to live out our values ​​and be agents for change, we have a better shot at that if we don’t burn ourselves out. Everyone has different parameters for this—for when we need to turn off, or take a pause, or eat that dessert—and that’s not wrong. In fact, each one of us already does this to some extent about other atrocities, other suffering that doesn’t make headlines, other agonies that we could fill every minute of every day if we let them. It’s a matter of where we draw the line—the balance between staying engaged versus turning away. People who themselves have lived through the traumas of war, for instance, may have to set stricter limits so as not to activate their posttraumatic stress disorder. And I can’t imagine it’s right to tell them they shouldn’t care for themselves.

Refusing to put basic limits in place for our mental health, or continuing to deny ourselves joy at dark times, will likely—eventually—desensitize ourselves to others’ suffering, hardening us and closing ourselves off to connection. It risks robbing us of the very compassion and empathy that were so important to experience in the first place.

Joy and pain have always been able to coexist. They are as intricately interwoven as grief and love. And to pretend that embracing moments of joy is morally unacceptable during moments of pain does a disservice to both emotions, and to the depth of the human spirit. True gratitude means choosing to engage, fully, with all of these disparate and seemingly contradictory parts of life—not turning away from pain because it’s more comfortable to close our eyes to others’ suffering. But also, it means not turning away from moments of joy—because that’s the light that gives us energy to help ourselves, and others, find a way out of the darkness.