Have you ever wished you were dead? Are you haunted by a childhood trauma or depressed about a relationship, your weight, body image? Most importantly, are you hesitant to talk about it?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, we’re glad you joined us because our guest this week, Anna Borges, has been there—difficult childhood, severe depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, you name it. But Anna doesn’t want your sympathy; she wants you to do the thing she avoided until it was almost too late: seek professional help.
The author of The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self Care, Anna knows that many of us struggle to prioritize our own needs. We might be the most sensitive friend or sibling, but when it comes to loving ourselves with the same enthusiasm, not so much. That’s a big problem.
Kristine Morris reviewed The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care in the November/December issue of Foreword Reviews and called it “an engaging A-to-Z guidebook filled with options for creating a personal and versatile self-care toolkit that will last a lifetime.” With help from The Experiment, we put reviewer and author together for this remarkable conversation about being your own best friend.
Kristine, take it from here.
First of all, I want to say that I really enjoyed your book! It’s obvious that self-care is a topic that’s important to you, and that you recognize that it’s not just about exercise—that it includes nourishing one’s body, mind, relationships, and spirit, too. What events or experiences in your life led you to write about self-care, especially the mental health aspect, and why do you believe it’s so important that people make it a priority?
Thank you! I kind of stumbled into writing about mental health by accident. It wasn’t until I was talking regularly to therapists and psychologists for work that I realized the many ways I hadn’t honored my own mental health needs over the years. I had a pretty dysfunctional childhood, have dealt with suicidal ideation and self-harm for well over a decade, and barely made it through college because I was so depressed. And yet, I didn’t see a therapist or consider medication until I was, like, 24. So I write about what I wish I’d known sooner: that it’s okay to ask for help, that you need to look after yourself, and that you don’t just have to settle for feeling hopeless and miserable.
Some things in your book particularly stood out for me. One is that you addressed the fact that there are so many of us out there who really don’t have the time or the money to join a gym, go on lovely yoga retreats, or enjoy regular massages, yet you’ve suggested some practical, affordable ways that the over-busy and underfunded can still engage in self-care. To what do you owe your sensitivity to the realities of the lives of these people? What is there in your background that might have contributed to this awareness?
It started with my own reality and what my definition of self-care had to look like. I certainly am not someone who has the time or money to go on yoga retreats or get regular massages or indulge in a lot of popular “self-care” fads. And while I don’t personally need any of those things, I’ve always had to get creative with my self-care. For example, a huge act of self-care for me was moving out on my own after a truly toxic and draining roommate experience—but that wasn’t always an option, and my self-care at that time involved carving out safe spaces for myself until I could afford to live alone.
But, of course, I have a great deal of privilege in many ways, so I try to listen as much as I can. One of the great benefits of being a writer on the internet, particularly one who writes about intimate topics like mental and emotional health, is that people reach out to me to share their stories—both to commiserate and to tell me where I’ve gotten it wrong. I’m always learning.
Another standout for me was that, no matter what’s trending at the time, your book makes it clear that there is no one-size-fits-all or “right” way to engage in self-care, and points out ways that people can determine what might be best for them. What types of self-care have you chosen for yourself, and how did you decide that they were right for you at this time? How will you know when it’s right for you to change them?
Figuring out the right self-care for me involves so much trial and error, and a lot of honest self- reflection. There are things that I know bring me comfort in the moment (like, say, binge-watching Netflix and eating a lot of comfort food) and I’ve had to be like, “Okay, yes, this brings me instant gratification, but I always feel tired and sluggish and guilty afterwards. Is this really self-care?” Sometimes the answer is “no,” and sometimes the answer is “yes, but in smaller doses,” and I have to recalibrate accordingly.
On the other side of the coin, there are a lot of things I hate doing but always feel better having done them, and I have to remind myself of that, too. Like, I will never be someone who likes working out, but I know that if I go too long without getting outside or exercising, I wind up feeling like crap.
So basically, my self-care involves a lot of experimenting and honoring what my brain and body tell me, even when I don’t love the answer.
How would you suggest that people silence the inner voices that tell them they must keep on with their hectic pace, that “self-care” is “selfish,” or that they will be shirking their responsibilities or letting others down if they don’t keep up with a fully-booked social calendar on top of their work life?
Sometimes you just have to remind yourself of the difference between the two. Selfishness is about profit and pleasure, and self-care is about equipping yourself with tools to survive. I know the metaphor of putting on your own oxygen mask before you help anyone else is cheesy and overused, but it really is so apt.
That said, in my personal experience, the inability to quiet that voice in your head that tells you you’re not worthy of care and attention is a sign of a bigger issue. Maybe you were taught that it’s not okay to prioritize yourself, or maybe you have a low sense of self-worth, or maybe it’s something else entirely. And to all that I say: therapy! It’s helped me a ton in that regard.
Can you suggest some ways of saying “no” to work, family, or social commitments in order to make time for self-care without impacting a career or hurting/offending family and friends?
Listen, as the saying goes, “No is a complete sentence.” But I know that’s easier said than done—I’m a chronic people pleaser, so saying no without a bunch of apology and explanation is hard for me. Something that’s helped me personally is reminding myself that if I say “yes” to everything, I will inevitably wind up flaking out on a few things. And I’d rather be someone who can set boundaries and may disappoint someone in the moment than an unreliable flake who lets people down. The people you want in your life will understand that you can’t say “yes” to everything.
Your book mentions Audre Lorde, the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” who said that caring for herself, especially as she suffered from liver cancer, was not self-indulgence, but self-preservation, and declared it “an act of political warfare.” What might self-care as an act of political warfare look like?
I included Audre Lorde’s quote because I know many people, myself included, find power in it, but I’m a white woman with a great deal of privilege. Caring for myself, while important, is not an act of political warfare against a system stacked against me and dead set on keeping me down, so I don’t personally consider my self-care to be radical.
If anyone wants examples and philosophy around self-care as political, I highly recommend going to the source and reading work by the many great feminist women of color, specifically Black feminists, who write on the issue. Audre Lorde’s work is obviously a great place to start. Recently, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, by adrienne maree brown, has been my go-to recommendation because of how it challenges the idea that activism and fighting against oppression has to be at odds with our happiness and personhood. I know so many people grappling with how to take care of themselves while remaining politically active, and she turns that question on its head.
Your book goes beyond issues of basic self-care to invite readers to explore some of the biggest challenges presented by America’s “discriminatory and oppressive society.” One of these issues is the right of women to exercise autonomy over their bodies. In such a society, how can women make sure their needs are being met, and what role might self-care (and the mindset needed to take it seriously) play in the struggle currently underway for this right?
Self-care is needed because existing as a person in a world that refuses to meet our basic human needs and rights is exhausting—as is the expectation that it’s on us to figure out how to solve that problem. I hesitate to give advice on what women—and non-binary and trans people who are also impacted by attacks on their bodily autonomy—should do to make sure their needs are getting met, because part of why we so desperately need self-care is because we carry on our shoulders the weight of finding these exact answers. If anyone has an answer to what we can do to make sure our needs are met, well, that’d be a lot of societal problems solved.
You’ve also given attention to mental health issues that impact a person’s ability to engage in self-care, and your book provides resources for finding therapists and 24/7 crisis help. Do you find that therapists, counselors, and/or medical doctors are good advocates for self-care? Or have you found that pharmaceutical solutions are often offered when lifestyle changes might be not only more effective, but free of side-effects?
I don’t think those two options are mutually exclusive at all! Therapists, counselors, and medical doctors can be spectacular advocates for self-care while still offering medication as part of a treatment plan. For people who don’t want medication, I understand the worry that a mental health professional might “push” it on you. But just like any profession, there are good mental health professionals and bad mental health professionals. And in my experience, there are plenty of good mental health professionals out there who will encourage both self-care and medical intervention when it makes sense for their clients.
I would even argue that I’ve heard more about the opposite problem—not mental health professionals offering “pharmaceutical solutions” in the place of lifestyle changes, but some belittling people’s pain and suffering by telling them that all they need to do is drink more water and go for a run.
There is still a ton of stigma around taking medication for mental health issues and it’s impacted me a lot. Because of a societal attitude that medication is bad and that people should be able to manage mental illnesses with lifestyle changes, it took me a really long time to allow myself to even consider taking medication for my depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. I internalized that taking the medication I needed was the “weaker” option. Luckily, I got through that and am not exaggerating when I say I owe my life to my antidepressants. Yes, some of the side effects suck, as with any medication, but the side effect of not taking them was wanting to die. I’m certainly glad there was a mental health professional who heard my worries and worked with me to find the right solution.
Medication for mental health issues certainly isn’t for everyone and many choose to manage their mental illnesses with therapy and lifestyle changes alone. But people who choose medication as part of their treatment plan shouldn’t be made to feel that they chose a lesser option, and good mental health professionals who do their due diligence by going over the myriad treatment options shouldn’t be treated like they’re in the pocket of Big Pharma or something.
Your book advises that people not beat themselves up by demanding that they get up off the couch and go for a run when they’re in the grip of emotions that would benefit more from comfort and soothing. And it offers insightful suggestions for self-care methods that address different emotional states. Can you suggest how we might open up to greater awareness of our real needs?
For me, and I think for many, it’s more intuitive than we realize. Once you start tuning into what feels right to you and when, you can be more intentional in your choices and not force yourself to do what you think you “should” do just because it works for other people. Or because you think it should work for you. Like, I’d love to be the type of person who burns off her anger or anxiety on a run, but I’m never going to be that person. It’s a slow process of getting to know yourself.
What would you most like readers to take away from reading your book?
Honestly, I hope that everyone takes away something completely different. If a reader walks away with one or two entries flagged because they discovered something that will help them that they hadn’t thought of before, I’ll be incredibly honored.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just that these questions were so thoughtful and important. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I hope these are conversations we can continue to have.