Have you ever had such low self-esteem that you’ve wanted to return every single gift you were given on your birthday?
That was me, in 2012. At the beginning of the year, I had a nervous breakdown, had to leave my job as a catering manager at a major U.K. science museum and was living on government benefits. I was never at risk of losing my home or going hungry thanks to financial support from my partner and family, but I had a very low personal income of around $100 per week.
I was in a deathly dark place and was going through the hardest stage of my depression, the part where I was certain that it would never get better. By the time my 27th birthday rolled around in December of the same year, I felt like an absolute failure. I had no job, no sustainable income and no reason to get up in the morning. So when I was presented with gifts—high-end makeup, a luxurious dressing gown and an assortment of books and DVDs—at a small family gathering in my honor, I was ashamed.
I had done nothing to earn the right to these gifts and felt like I had already bled my friends and family dry by using them for financial and emotional assistance. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone by actually handing them back, so I reluctantly accepted the sparkly gift bags full of goodies and took them home. I cried all night as they sat untouched in the corner of my bedroom.
In the years that followed I managed to get a part-time job at a local coffee shop and went through the motions of returning to society as a functioning human. I still wasn’t earning much money and any spare change I had certainly wasn’t dedicated to taking care of myself. Self-care itself wasn’t a household phrase until recently, and many people criticize the way it has been adopted by big brands in order to sell more products to vulnerable people.
An article on Forbes even claims that “the current portrayal of self-care is backward—it’s characterized as an indulgence.” The writer Tami Forman puts forward a convincing argument that self-care is not an occasional act—”think expensive bath products, luxurious chocolates, spa appointments”—but in fact a case of self-discipline that is often rather boring.
Forman’s suggestion that taking care of oneself should be done with militant regularity and involve little enjoyment does feel like an approach that would undoubtedly yield excellent results, especially for those of us who are managing pre-existing mental health conditions that can flare up without warning. However, I do believe that plenty of frivolous treats along the way are beneficial, too. Does self-care really need to be limited to taking your medication and going to bed before 10 p.m. every night? Can’t there be room to slip in a monthly trip to the nail salon or a Sunday afternoon face mask? Why does a price tag automatically devalue the effectiveness of certain activities?
I agree that much of my daily maintenance is about forcing myself to make better choices (getting out in the fresh air, daily meditation, avoiding alcohol, limiting caffeine, showering before lunchtime), but I still include spending money as a worthwhile and healthy part of my self-care practices.
Does self-care really need to be limited to taking your medication and going to bed before 10 p.m. every night?
When I was mentally unwell, I saw no value in spending the money to get a haircut, so I let it go untouched for a year. I wore my underwear until it literally fell apart at the seams and rarely bought new clothing unless it was heavily discounted or on sale in a charity shop. I couldn’t understand why my girlfriends spent hundreds of dollars in one visit to the salon for treatments on hair, nails, eyelashes or—heaven forbid—a bikini wax. It’s taken me a long time to convince my inner self that these seemingly superficial purchases are made with good reason.
The turning point was when I got my hair and makeup professionally done when I was a bridesmaid at my best friend’s wedding. She had requested that we all get a “smokey eye” along with a glamorous blowout and fake tan. I had no problem following her wishes, but I was unprepared for the end result. When the transformation was complete, I looked in the mirror and stared at myself in disbelief. Not only did I feel confident and sexy but the whole process gave a sense of occasion to the day. A sense of occasion to me and my very being. I was alive and I was celebrating myself. Yes, it was my friend’s big day but all of a sudden I felt worthy of being in the bridal party.
It might sound conceited, but this boost in self-esteem was wholly internal and nothing to do with how I looked. I remember crossing my legs during dinner and feeling my smooth skin, which had been shaven for the first time in months. I glanced down at my painted toenails and it felt good to know that even if no one else noticed them, I had taken the time to buy a special color and taken the time to carefully paint it on.
I don’t need to spend a lot of money to make myself presentable, but honestly, it just feels good. The science behind consumerism says that the more we pay for a product the more we appreciate it, and I think when it comes to self-care this can be a good thing. The more money I invest in my body the more I value myself as a person. This sense of self-worth isn’t limited to physical care either. Since I’ve started spending money on my personal development by going to live events, networking, taking training courses and reading more I’ve seen an improvement in my confidence. I am worth the time and money it takes to be my best self.
Now, spending money on myself is a regular occurrence but not excessively so. I don’t buy drugstore shampoo anymore because I’ve found a pricey salon brand that takes care of my dry ends and flaky scalp. I always have my favorite Lush face mask in the bathroom and my monthly gym membership is non-negotiable. I buy a luxury foundation brand because when I do wear make-up, I know that I’ll feel amazing because the product perfectly suits my skin type.
When I’m a bit grumpy, do I impulse-buy the odd bath bomb? Absolutely! No apologies here. I like to think that having my basic self-care routine (sleep, food, exercise, medication) in good shape gives me the right to act on my ‘treat yo’self!’ tendencies now and again, because there’s no shame in feeling a sense of self-worth. No matter how you get there.