Ettinger: Just a Reminder, Self-Care Won’t Save Us

By Eve Ettinger

February 20, 2021

Let’s be a little kinder to each other as we all try to just survive

This is a love letter to my students. This is a love letter to all the students out there on Zoom, multitasking at work while in class. The ones trying to care for a baby during lectures, doing homework late at night when the house is quiet or early in the morning before people wake up and need things from them. 

I sat in a meeting this week discussing what mental health resources are available for students at the college where I work, listening to student representatives and staff discuss the disconnect in communication about what’s available and what the students thought was available. It’s a simple issue of siloed communication, easily fixed. There were more tools available than I had been aware of, than the students knew about, and we’re working to make sure everyone knows about them.

It’s one of those things that wouldn’t have broken down if we had been able to plan for a year plus of lockdown distance learning, but none of us expected to be in this situation this long. But even then, if we had communicated these tools and their accessibility to students early and often, these supplemental aids would still have been grossly insufficient for where we’re at now.

Everyone in This System is Struggling

Our universities do have some resources for your mental health support, and they’re trying to make those more accessible to you. This is the good news. Professors and staff are fatigued and need the same kinds of tools students do and aren’t able to access them well, either, which is a complicated extra layer. Attempts at short-term fixes are well-intentioned, but a mental health hygiene seminar or a list of local resources for counseling is not going to get us through to the end of COVID-19 lockdown.

Everyone in this system is struggling, and none of us wants to let each other down. The tools we have available were not made to get us through such an intense and sustained crisis–they were made to be patch-up fixes for normal times.

Self-care is such a popular concept these days, but it’s a treacherously classist concept that addresses the symptoms of capitalist imperialist systems and does nothing to prevent the harm caused by these systems from being inflicted upon us over and over again. Taking a bath, lighting a candle, meditating, mantras about being gentle with yourself–these are all well and good in a world that isn’t actively trying to suck the lower classes dry to prevent us from doing anything real about the fact that the 1% are flying to Cancun for the weekend with their kids in a national crisis.

We’re Just Gaslighting Ourselves

But none of these self-care hacks will actually make our lives less agonizing right now in this moment–they’ll just put off the acute awareness of how bad everything actually is for a few minutes or hours. 

This is, essentially, gaslighting ourselves. A friend who struggles with chronic depression shared this article with me about optimism bias last week, which points out that our brains are designed to protect us from assessing risks or danger accurately to protect us. We don’t believe things are as bad as they actually are, and this is a wonderful way our brains keep us hopeful and looking to the future. Chronic depression, however, seems to be a way of accurately assessing reality, which is part of why it’s so hard to shake. 

When we focus on self-care and short-term fixes for serious, systemic issues–like financial insecurity, student debt,  and insolvent social safety nets, or the fact that half the population is touched out by their children and the other half is spiraling out of lack of human contact over the last year–we gaslight ourselves into thinking that the problems are in our heads, that our stress is an overreaction. 

You’re Not Imagining It

You’re not imagining it. Things are bad. Any solutions being offered to those hardest-hit by the last year’s tribulations are insufficient and to be grateful for tiny fixes and $600 stimulus checks is to tell yourself that a piece of toast is a full meal.

This isn’t okay, the tools we have on hand are not enough, and sometimes self-care is recognizing that very little of the hardships you are experiencing is within your control. It’s not your fault that this year and last are unspeakably difficult. Maybe we’ll get through this okay, but to tell ourselves that it’s not that bad is to deny our physical experience of reality right now. 

Be gentle with yourselves right now, by recognizing that this situation is hard and it’s not your fault. And then let’s be a little kinder to each other as we all try to just survive this year.

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