Mental health

What Lies Underneath Self-Care

Posted by Carmen Elle on February 22, 2019
woman meditating

Self-care is everywhere. It’s a phrase that, when googled, yields over 3 billion results. It’s a concept that has come to inform the way we eat, the way we think, the way we love, the way we age and the way we die. It has evolved from a tool that helps us manage stress to a way of life and an industry that shows no sign of slowing down. This week for #SelfCareSunday I want to take this incredibly broad concept of self-care and pull the focus way in on what’s most important: you.


In the past few years, self-care has become branded content. It has its own aesthetic, which can look something like a tall crystalline glass of water perched on a white marble countertop alongside a basket of incandescent dewy lemons or a smiling woman doing an effortless yogic backbend in a sun drenched hard loft. When I tried to look after myself on tours with my band I would search for ways to mitigate my extreme anxiety. I would find myself spending all my money on supplements, spending all my time on fad diets and chasing wellness trends to figure out the best way to self-care. There was always something new to try, some guaranteed-to-help-cure-all just around the next corner. What I noticed was that the self-care practices I was trying looked good, but they didn’t feel right. I’m not sure anything I tried was really “wrong” but what feels most important to talk about today isn’t what you do to self-care, but how.


I think that one of the hardest parts of experiencing mental illness is the ways that we manage to be cruel to ourselves. Sometimes it can be tempting to beat ourselves up for not feeling the way everyone else feels or for having a different need. As a touring musician, I have felt very ashamed of my panic attacks and have felt the need to hide them from my bandmates. I spent many long weeks sitting in a tour van feeling like I was going to faint, puke or pass out but couldn’t bring myself to share how I was feeling. It didn’t take long before I turned on myself by creating a massive blanket of shame and embarrassment that I hid under. I called myself names and made everything feel so much worse than it already did (which was pretty bad). In turn, that attitude influenced my self-care attempts. If I didn’t make it to the gym 3 times a week I would get really upset with myself. If I gave in to a sugar craving I would punish myself for it. As the months went by I started to gain clarity on this missing piece of what self-care is:


If you don’t want to nurture yourself, self-care will not help you feel better.


Self-care is a tool that we can use to cope with the stresses of daily life, but if you don’t feel like you “deserve” to feel better, then how can you?


The most radical change I have ever made was dropping the core belief that I deserved to feel “sick.” That has been the medicine here. Self-care isn’t about how much vitamin D you take, or how many fancy aromatherapy candles you buy. Self-care is about thanking yourself for taking that vitamin D and loving yourself for buying that candle. It is the revolutionary act of loving and caring for yourself even in the deepest pain, the hardest grief and the most burdensome feelings we carry with us when we experience mental illness.


The hardest lesson I have learned on this revolutionary road has been patience. As it turns out, it’s not always easy to love ourselves. It can take time and effort to get to a place of radical self acceptance and that’s not something I read much about in any of the 3 billion available articles on self-care that I read. Self-care is the difficult practice of meeting ourselves where we are at — be it in pain, be it in sorrow, be it in fear — and saying to ourselves “it’s ok to feel this, I love you, I’m here, I’ll hold you until it passes.”


If you are reading this and are thinking about ways to self-care then I know you are a kind, warm-hearted person who is ready, or has already started, to make big changes in your life. I encourage you to hold yourself in the tenderness of your pain and your joy. I invite you to try to care for yourself from the place where the two intersect, because that is where your strength lies.


The Unison Benevolent Fund provides counselling for Canadian music-makers in times of need. Wherever you are on your self-care journey, help is only a phone call away. Register with Unison and call 1-855-9UNISON to access counselling. For more information about the help provided, please visit our Counselling & Health Solutions page.


About the Author

Carmen Elle is a musician/songwriter from Toronto. She began writing music, playing shows and recording albums in her teens and for the past decade has played in several bands, most notably: DIANA, Army Girls and Austra. Carmen has opened for Tegan and Sara, Iron and Wine and Cocorosie, performed at SXSW, Iceland Airwaves and The Great Escape in the UK. In 2014, DIANA's debut full length Perpetual Surrender was long listed for the Polaris Music Prize.


In addition to working as a musician, Carmen has written and spoken about her experiences with Anxiety and Depression. She has been featured in Nylon Magazine, Vice, MTV and the Toronto Star speaking out on behalf of musicians who struggle with mental health.