Avocado toast, meditation, personal mantras, cold brewed coffee: these are the #muchneeded hallmarks of millennial #selfcare. This practice of deliberate attention toward personal wellness has become an increasingly popular buzzword in recent years. Whether lauded as a vital component of emotional intelligence or lambasted as a marker of snowflake syndrome, self-care and its accompanying fixtures has made its way into our contemporary vernacular.
While concerns of overindulgence are legitimate, there is much to admire in the idea of intentional rest and leisure, particularly in a culture that praises constant activity. Despite unprecedented gratification, convenience, and resources, our standards of busyness often entail personal neglect. Self-care pushes back against this unhealthy trend, encouraging a thoughtful focus on personal preservation. And it benefits us: self-care reduces stress, increases mindfulness, and enables better stewardship of our health.
Self-care champions often encourage minimizing, muffling, or removing negative influences from your life, effectively dehumanizing others so that they are no longer people, but sheer forces of influence, for good or ill.But the acquisition of this new vocabulary has led to the subtle distortion of other words. Because the term “self-care” implies a kind of responsible, justified practice, its corresponding lexicon offers similarly drastic, perhaps overwrought, terms. Healthy eating becomes self-love. Vacations are lifesavers. And, perhaps most detrimental of all, other people are often very quickly deemed toxic, a word packed with negative imagery and meaning.
Toxic conjures up visions of virulent waste dumps and festering, lethal chemicals. The connotation is clear; in the doctrines of self-care, the drudgery of everyday relationships can be poisonous, debilitating, and even deadly. Relationships must be carefully curated to maximize our own individual potential.
Before we go further, let’s be clear that toxic relationships are, in fact, realities for many. The desire to control, manipulate, degrade, violate, and mistreat others is, horribly, quite common. These kinds of abusive relationships are unhealthy and devastating, and we should unilaterally call for their end. But what of relationships that aren’t abusive, but—as relationships are wont to do—might involve challenges, foster frustration, and invite strain? Are they toxic? And what’s to be done with them? Misuse of the label toxic can blur the lines between mundane challenges of regular relationships and egregious patterns of abusive ones. It’s important to reserve the stronger term only for times it fits.
Still, hyperbole rules, often employed as justification for self-centeredness and protected by the venerated label of self-care. The most extreme advocates of self-care readily offer a collection of labels for difficult people. In the calculating logic of self-care, hints of troubling behavior become full-blown pathologies. Those prone to outbursts are (unofficially) diagnosed with anger issues. People who struggle with selfishness are often regarded as narcissists. Socially awkward people suddenly become bearers of negative energy. Actions of others was once understood as rude, spiteful, or aggressive are now diligently avoided, all in the name of self-preservation.
The problem with pathologizing human weakness, as with broad-brushing one’s own self-indulgence, is that it justifies treating others as though they are diseased. Self-care champions often encourage minimizing, muffling, or removing negative influences from your life, effectively dehumanizing others so that they are no longer people, but sheer forces of influence, for good or ill. The problems with this approach are legion, but the main issue is that removing all obstacles from our paths does not invite the reign of God. Rather, it crowns us tyrants of our own tiny kingdoms, insisting that all inhabitants of our lives bow to our preferences or suffer swift exile.
Again, there are times when severing ties is right and necessary, the only legitimately healthy way forward. There are clear Scriptural guidelines for this process, and while it may not be pleasant, it’s certainly necessary in some situations. But there is a wide gulf between a relationship that’s difficult and one that’s abusive. Let’s be honest here: abusive people are harmful, destructive—intentionally or not, their actions involve patterns of behavior that degrade and debase. Honesty demands that we see people for who they are, not stretch a label like toxic to cover everything and, therefore, by extension nothing.
Sometimes people are merely impolite. Sometimes they are tone-deaf. Even more often, people are self-centered, exhausted, inconsiderate. The distinction between an annoying relationship and a dangerous one lies in patterns, not isolated events.
Engaging in difficult relationships, refusing to turn away from the challenges other people necessarily present, leaves room to cultivate reconciliation. In practical terms, that can mean enduring unpleasant behavior for the sake of loving your neighbor. Practicing others-care isn’t instinctive, as self-care might be, but it is important.
One way to work toward others-care is to deliberately seek out the Imago Dei. This may feel like a fool’s errand, but we are promised that every human bears the image of God. The question is not whether the stamp of God’s likeness exists in difficult people, but whether we have eyes to recognize it. Look for the holy and the good, and praise it. It’s also imperative to exercise unconditional forgiveness. Don’t allow resentment to build. If you find yourself offended by another person, deal with the pain in terms of reconciliation and forgiveness, not entitlement and revenge. While confrontation is an option, forgiveness is not.
Another tactic is to focus on refining your own character. The way you treat difficult people says little about that person and a lot about you. Be aware of opportunities to practice love, peacefulness, patience, kindness, and gentleness. Allow God to use these challenges to cultivate virtue in you. Finally, it’s imperative to create good boundaries that serve both parties well. Working toward reconciliation does not mean that you allow other people to trample all over your personal space. Direct, open discussion of acceptable interaction is a kindness to everyone. Be sure to listen-sometimes both people need to improve in respecting boundaries.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with finding satisfaction in people and practices you love. The question is one of motive: are you seeking to enjoy your own life at the expense of others? Is your personal happiness worth more than your personal growth? Are you living in sacrifice or indulging your own selfishness, or the selfishness of the other person? Healthy relationships begin with the hallmarks of love-patience, kindness, endurance, hopefulness—not curating relationships that maximize your potential. If love, not usefulness, defines your relationships, you can have your avocado toast and eat it too.