Individualism, Confidence, and Care

I’ve been thinking a bit about the recent conversation about the female “confidence gap” as the latest anti-feminist wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s old news, really – another installment in the seemingly never-ending series on how to blame the victims of structural power imbalances while appearing to offer concrete, helpful suggestions. And I do understand how this is important, because structures are overwhelming, and the human need to feel like there is something we can do to improve our personal circumstances is very much a need, as my dear friend @anma_sa pointed out on Twitter last week.

And this connected, in my head, anyway, to something I’ve been thinking a lot about with regard to the discourse of “self-care” that has become, it seems to me, ubiquitous. Now, the significance of convincing people, especially women, and especially those involved in caring professions and/or activist efforts, that putting themselves on the list of people who have needs to be met is certainly not lost on me. I have watched many a loved one burn out and suffer serious health issues because they feel they cannot stop working to meet the very real and very deep needs of others for long enough to meet their own, which inevitably seem smaller, less significant, easier to put aside. When you are caring for others who are facing addictions, suicidal thoughts, abusive relationships, and whatever else, it seems selfish to just feel tired and want a break. In that regard, I am grateful for this discourse that helps shift us from feeling “selfish” to recognizing the need for “self-care”.

But on another level, I am frustrated by it. Because in some ways, it feels like a much more well-meaning version of the individual solution to structural problems, another reinforcement of individual agency that simultaneously becomes a reinforcement of individual responsibility. I started to draft this post last week, at a time when I was feeling particularly exhausted, and basically started over because it came out really whiny, but one of the things I was feeling then was that self-care very quickly becomes yet another thing I can fail at, and yet another way I am not living up to my own expectations. The thing is, I am terrible at self-care. I can’t even tell you how many people in my life, from academic supervisors to friends to counsellors, have given the “reward yourself after finishing X task” suggestion, and I always smile and nod, and have absolutely no idea what such a reward should really look like. And the daily stuff – the exercise, the eating, the sleeping, the taking time to do something just for me – requires a level of routine that I have never managed to implement. So mostly, really, self-care for me looks like not expecting these things of myself, maybe making a few incremental comfort changes here and there, and getting okay with that.

My own strategies for self-care, though, are not really the point here. My point is that I’m frustrated by the limitations of an ethic of care that perpetuates individualism and in some ways, reinforces the mercenary mentality of capitalist society. The sense that “if I don’t do it for myself, no one is going to do it for me” may be true, but it’s sad, to me. And in saying it to the people that have been caring for others, I can hope that we are helping to prevent that burnout and those health issues I mentioned above, but we are also telling them that the “everyone is in it for themselves” mentality is, on some level, true.

Like the many others who have critiqued the ‘confidence gap’ and Lean In and all of the other versions, old and new, of capitalism in heels, I don’t want to practice an activism that focuses on individual effort to overcome barriers on behalf of the individual. I also don’t want to practice an ethic of care that emphasizes the self. I know this puts me in a position where my only personal course of action is to not really embrace ‘self-care’, and I know this puts me in a position of caring for others as a primary means of fighting what I believe to be a destructive and anti-communitarian impulse within North American society. It’s probably fortunate that I suck at self-care anyway, because I’m not missing much in the end.

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2 thoughts on “Individualism, Confidence, and Care”

  1. Some good thoughts here.

    On the subject of individual vs. societal fixes…while the latter is obviously more desirable, it’s also a lot slower. Would this be a suitable metaphor: seeking a cure for cancer, vs. undergoing individual treatment for it? Obviously one wouldn’t consider palliative measures a substitute for overall cancer research, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t enormously helpful to the people who can use them and personally benefit from them.

    Regarding this:
    “And in saying it to the people that have been caring for others, I can hope that we are helping to prevent that burnout and those health issues I mentioned above, but we are also telling them that the “everyone is in it for themselves” mentality is, on some level, true.”

    Are we, though? Is caring for oneself in order that one might better care for others truly being “in it for oneself”? I take that mentality to be more about attitude than action…not what one does, so much as why one does it. I see a parallel with use of violence in self-defense, vs. use of violence for other reasons (but I seem to recall you’re a pacifist, so that might not resonate with you?).

    1. Oh! A comment! I almost don’t know what to do with those. 🙂

      First – I get your analogy, and it’s a fair one, but oh-so-not-gonna-touch-the-pacifist-conversation.

      Second – I struggled with how to phrase that point, because I do think it’s not so simple as “in it for oneself”, for exactly the reason you articulate. In my more whiny version, I might have phrased it better, because I was thinking about all the times I have heard, from wonderful, caring, awesome people, that I need to “take care of myself” better, and sometimes I just think…where is the point where someone says “here – I will do this to take care of you”. The problem is, of course, that those people saying that tend to be care takers themselves, so putting it into their hands is not exactly helpful unless there is a systematic shift towards care-offering that allows for reciprocity. In that way, I feel like there is still a dichotomy between “those who give help” and “those who need help”, in white North American culture, and the only way those of us in the former category can accept that we may also fit into the latter category is to give it to ourselves. So it’s less a moral critique of these actions as inherently selfish/deceptive, and more a critique of the underlying cultural assumptions about individualism, community, and care.

      Or maybe I’m just being whiny.

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