When we’re having a rough time in our lives (for example, coping with a global crisis and accompanying difficulties for an indefinite period of time), we are often told to turn towards self-care. Ramp up the self-care. Make time for self-care. Focus on self-care. Self-care, self-care, self-care.

And what is self-care? Depends who you ask. But typically, it’s an activity. Something you do for yourself, by yourself, to take care of yourself. Often included are things like resting, practicing mindfulness, engaging in hobbies, and getting outside. Good things, right?

The thing is, wellbeing is a collaboration between the inside and the outside. Inside ourselves, we can notice what’s up, figure out what we might need, make plans to address that need, or signal that need to others for support.

But the outside has to provide. The outside has to help us understand our sense of what’s up; validate what we might need; provide the time, energy, and resources to address that need; and respond to the signals for support.

In a society with a vested interest in not providing collective care on the outside, of course individual acts are going to be the focus. To varying degrees, we are left to our own devices to do the entire job for ourselves. Unfortunately, that’s often what’s being referred to with the term “self-care.” We signal to the outside that we need to work less, rejuvenate more, have better access to supports and resources, live more sustainable lives, and the response we get is “Do yoga, then get back to work.”

Nothing against yoga! But we need (and may be in the midst of) large-scale transformation of the equation we’re dealing with. Less exploitation, more support. A system actually designed to promote wellbeing for humans, not bottom lines. Let’s hope we’re headed that direction, and let’s do what we can to make it so.

In the meantime, though, what do we do with our needs?

We do our best with what we’ve got. Under these conditions, self-care is, actually, essential. It does actually help to find ways to do what nourishes you. It does actually help to tend to yourself as much as possible.

But even better is to collaborate in the caretaking of you and others. There’s a big difference between the “I’m taking care of myself alone” brain and the “we’re taking care of each other” brain. We are not wired to be exclusively fending for ourselves for long stretches of time (despite capitalism’s insistence otherwise). It’s necessary to go it alone sometimes, but even in moments of solitude, we tend to do better when we feel we have backup.

Social distancing is cramping our communal style. But, there are still things we can do. In friendships, couples, families, neighborhoods, workplaces, communities of all kinds, we can make our care more collective. Some ideas:

1. Talk about it. Have conversations with people close to you about a need you have, your plan to address it, and if there’s a role for them to play. A role could be as simple as them remembering. Even knowing the other is aware of your need is a shift from holding it all inside, to holding it in mind together. But, the role could be as involved as you agree upon! Perhaps the other could help you come up with the plan, check in with how your plan is going, or be part of implementation.


2. Make it mutual. Not all care can be, or ought to be, reciprocal. But, it can help to find ways to spend time together that support both/all’s needs. Maybe both/all take a walk while talking on the phone. Or, maybe both/all do a craft project and share the results with each other. Netflix Party (which lets you watch Netflix together with far-away friends) is a solid example.


3. Open-source it. If you’re the type to create a document or calendar with your self-care ideas or routines, share it! Use technology to make it something both/all of you can benefit from. Or, let loved ones access your plan so they can know and ask how it’s going. We do this type of thing for work documents all the time, in order to share information and collaborate more easily. Why should we have to be any less connected and intentional when it comes to our wellbeing?


4. Invite support. Sure, you could probably do the thing alone. You might not “need” help. We’re taught we need to justify reaching out, that only if we fail alone do we ask for assistance. But you don’t have to wait until you’re struggling before involving others. Wanting to feel supported is a good enough reason to invite someone in. Is there something someone can do to support you, even if you are also capable of that thing on your own? And vice versa!


5. Get connected. We are experiencing a surge in mutual aid and community connection. Now is as good a time as any to find a collective, or to tap into the ones you already belong to. Whether they’re neighborhood groups, religious organizations, activity-based communities, or something else, chances are you can both offer and receive by being connected there.

How are you collaborating in the caretaking of yourself and others during this time?