Words by Maeson, 21 WA
“You can’t pour from an empty cup”
The number one phrase for championing self-care. It’s a good message. To contribute to the world, we must first take care of ourselves. The longer we neglect our mental and emotional wellbeing, the more we risk suffering from things like burnout or depression.
Filling your cup and keeping it full by practicing self-care should be something I can get behind, right?
Instead, it makes my soul shudder. “You can’t pour from an empty cup” has been a successful and positive message for the masses. But every time I hear it, I just question what’s wrong with my cup.
What if my cup is too small, running dry in just days?
What if my cup is so big it takes weeks to fill?
What if my cup is made of cheap Styrofoam and cracks under the slightest pressure?
What if my cup is broken?
The capitalistic culture that ‘self-care’ has been turned into makes me question whether people are getting the right messages. Do we truly understand what self-care means?
First of all, self-care isn’t a brand-new idea that’s revolutionising the world. Historically speaking we’ve been practicing methods of caring for ourselves outside of medical institutions for a while now. Whether the concept was first thought of by “Greek philosophers, early medical minds, or generations of grandparents” passing down home-remedies, like hot tea with honey, self-care has always been part of our lives.
In the 1960’s, self-care became a political act employed by women and people of colour “to reclaim control over their health from a healthcare system that didn’t sufficiently serve their needs or respect their bodies”.
While medical care for people from marginalised communities has improved, it’s still an unequal system. It forces vulnerable people into having to advocate for their own care, or to care for themselves when professional medicine seems overwhelming, over-priced, or discriminatory.
This history is glossed over by the self-care culture we see today. Influencers make self-care too easy. Capitalising off our insecurities and reinforcing our own self-doubts in order to sell their latest product that’s ‘guaranteed to make your life better’. They make it seem like all our cups are the same, and what fills theirs is sure to fill ours.
They trivialise the issues that led to self-care being essential to our survival and potentially re-direct vulnerable people away from necessary professional care.
‘Filling our empty cups’ ignores the fact that our cups are not the same. For example, some of our cups have holes that can’t be fixed with soothing Spotify playlists. The constant barrage of ‘Goop’-like products and toxically positive catchphrases that pour into our social media feeds, leads us to ignore our individual needs in favour of the self-care rituals shown to us online. Often, these are more ‘fun’ and less pressure than putting in the effort to address deeper issues.
We hide the holes in our cups; chipped away by trauma, isolation, stress, discrimination, anxiety, depression. We cover them by ‘treating ourselves’ with bubble baths and acai bowls until we can’t see them anymore, as if covering them with cartoon plasters and purple glue.
I ignore the gaping holes in the sides of my cup, where my emotional health leaks out, every day. I drink coffee by the bucket to overlook last night’s experience with insomnia. I consciously forget about the Mental Health Care Plan written at my own request – that I did nothing with – pretending I was fine because I was meeting all my responsibilities. I ‘take time for myself’ in the name of ‘refilling’, declining the messages from friends inviting me out, until those messages stop coming.
I smile at my methods of self-care. Comparing my habits with others online and conveniently forgetting that what fills up someone else’s cup may not fill my own. I decide the holes in my cup no longer exist. I tell myself I’m doing enough, I’m doing alright. But when five days have passed, and the only times I’ve left my room are for hygienic purposes and to occasionally eat, I have to wonder if I’m really taking care of myself or if I’m avoiding something more important.
For people facing deeper mental health issues, self-care is more than candles and a facemask. While looking after yourself is incredibly important and these self-care tips can, and are proven to, provide much needed relief, isolating yourself and plastering over deeper issues with too many of them can be detrimental.
Sometimes the most important way to practice self-care is to admit you need professional help. Real self-care involves patience, self-reflection, self-compassion, and honesty. While our mental health care system could do with some major improvement, it does exist, and it exists to serve your needs. Don’t be discouraged to use it.
Get familiar with the size of your cup, determine for yourself what it needs, and how much of it. Acknowledge your cup’s holes and cracks. Pay respect to the experiences that put them there. Then enlist help to professionally fix them. Don’t compare your cup to someone else’s.
You’re unique. Your cup is unique. And it takes a unique understanding to keep it filled.
Illustration by Aileen, You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc