The greatest form of self-care comes from youPixabay/modified by Varsity

There is an increasingly materialistic attitude towards self-care. Bath bombs, scented candles, over-the-counter anxiety medication - you name it and there is probably a product out there for you. But the greatest form of self-care doesn’t come with a price-tag, it comes from you. Your words; your actions; your choices - no financial sacrifice required.

A google search of ‘self-care package’ brought up a range of pastel coloured boxes of inspirational quotes and skin care products mainly ranging from £20 - £50. Luxury products like these are at best temporary remedies to get you in the right headspace to tackle the underlying issue, or at worst an all-consuming distraction and symbol of your denial to confront the very thing that is making you unhappy. The effects of material self-care are temporary and short-term. Buying a deluxe bottle of bubble-bath may soothe you for that evening but it may not banish the current of overwhelming thoughts for as long as you were led to believe. On the other hand, you can take far better care of yourself if you examine what you say and how you choose to act, both on your own and around others.

The effects of material self-care are temporary and short-term

‘No’ is a powerful word in your self-care arsenal. Saying ‘no’ is probably one of the most important preventative acts of self-care you can perform. Saying ‘no’ can reduce the number of times you end up in a difficult position. Saying ‘no’ can guard you from toxic relationships, crises of confidence, imposter syndrome. But, within Cambridge, the word ‘no’ often feels shameful to say. The fear of missing out dominates far too easily here, and comparison with your peers feels inevitable with the constant barrage of social media posts and LinkedIn gloating. But you shouldn’t let it dominate you. Saying ‘no’ doesn’t always close off an opportunity for good - more often than not it just delays it. If ‘no’ feels too final, replace it with ‘not yet’. Pace yourself.  Draft emails / messages / texts in advance that you can use to cancel plans if you think you won’t be in the right headspace to say ‘no’ when you need to.

Similarly, ‘yes’ in certain contexts can be difficult to say. Often, it’s hard when we have to directly acknowledge our vulnerability, our shortcomings and our many, many insecurities. A friend, now in their second year at Cambridge, told me that part of succeeding here is ‘practising your poker face’. Faking being okay when you’re really not okay, as though Cambridge was a ‘thrive or survive’ environment. Self-care is easy to ignore when there is so much to do here to keep busy and distract yourself. It’s easy to commit yourself to societies, work commitments and wider social life - but the ‘work hard, play hard’ environment shouldn’t make it feel as difficult as it is to stop and look after yourself. With short terms and a rigorous day-to-day life, it is hard to practice self-care for extended periods of time here, and that is emotionally exhausting.

Give yourself the permission to practice self-care as intensely as you need and for as long as you require it

A difficult part of opening up about practicing self-care and needing help is an ingrained feeling of ‘gratitude’ experienced by many students here. We are made to feel that we should be ‘grateful that we are even attending this university’; that the fact we are struggling is simply evidence of us ‘being challenged and properly stimulated’; and even that such struggles should make us feel ‘even more grateful we attend such a prestigious institution’. But gratitude can be very misleading. It can cause you to ignore your well-being and base your validation on the approval of others: whether that be your supervisor, your friends, or even those back home. So give yourself the permission to practice self-care as intensely as you need and for as long as you require it. Saying yes to a chat and cry with a friend is a greater sign of strength than weakness. So say ‘yes’ to getting food with someone. Say ‘yes’, you need a rest. ‘Yes’, you need an essay extension. Yes, you need some time out. When someone asks ‘do you need anything?’, say yes.


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Self-care, your way

Self-care isn’t always pretty or aesthetically pleasing. It doesn’t always fit into that wholesome Instagram post that will instantly generate loads of likes and approving comments. Self-care can be a pretty ugly business, and we don’t talk about that side of it enough. At Cambridge, there is a lot of emphasis on external actions and very little on talking and confronting the issues affecting you. As helpful as it is to do your washing and cook a decent meal, talking about it with someone else is probably more effective at addressing the problem long-term. Part of your self-care regime may be creating an environment for yourself that makes you feel more prepared about doing that:  admitting you need help, ending a relationship, crying in public until you burst a blood vessel or two. I have done all these things and I would not be the first to admit that facing those parts of our lives is terrifying.

Yet, in time, I have learnt that they can be some of the bravest and the most healing actions we ever perform ourselves.   Being willing to show my authentic self at its worst and its best to more people has been one of the most significant acts of self-care I have performed. And doing so doesn’t mean feeling obliged to over-share or feel that your experiences and emotions aren’t as valid as anyone else’s. Being brave in looking after yourself will help you be brave in helping others when they need it.

In a way, self-care is one of the simplest yet most challenging things to do for yourself. In an environment of work, opportunity and excitement, we often put ourselves last. But learning about what makes effective self-care is very much learning about yourself, knowing your limits and discovering what makes you happy. Those are questions that a bath bomb won’t solve, but that saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to both yourself and others, with honesty, truly will.

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