Is eating a Big Mac a form of self-care? Maybe sometimes

by Adam Felts

The AgeLab’s CareHive team is about to conduct interviews with caregivers about their own self-care. The motive for the project is clear enough: caregiving requires a substantial dedication of resources—time, energy, and money—that may cause a person to dedicate insufficient resources to him- or herself. We want to understand that relationship better.

But self-care, as we’re learning in the leadup to these interviews, is one of those terms that is harder to define and ask about than one might expect.

At first, for our interviews, we planned to dispense with the term ‘self-care’ and instead use the comparatively everyday phrase ‘taking care of oneself.’ ‘Practicing self-care,’ may have the stink of the wellness industry about it for some people, a narrowing presumption we are trying to avoid.

But there’s a problem on the other side, too: to ‘take care of oneself’ is such a general category of activity that it may catch more than what we’re fishing for. For example, drinking a glass of water is taking care of one’s self; so is getting dressed in the morning. If we were ask someone, “How often would you say that you practice self-care?” and they reasonably interpreted it in the most general possible sense, then the only appropriate answer would seem to be ‘constantly,’ at least for most people. But that is not exactly what we are trying to understand.

The kind of self-care we are looking to study, I think, is that which takes the form of a conscientious activity performed out of attentiveness toward one’s own health and wellbeing. Let’s take nutrition as an example. Picking up a cheeseburger at McDonald’s for lunch constitutes self-care in the basic sense of ‘taking care of oneself.’ But to say that this constitutes ‘practicing self-care’ in the sense of conscientious care of oneself does not seem so appropriate—we are more likely to imagine someone preparing a salad out of fresh produce for lunch as a form of conscientious care.

Whether or not a person is practicing self-care might have more to do with her state of mind (again—conscientious) as much as whatever activity she is doing. Getting dressed in the morning or drinking a glass of water could each involve conscientious attention to one’s self, depending on the context. It might depend as much on how the person approaches the activity – how she diverts her attention, or more generally, her resources, to it – as the activity itself.

Let’s go back to the McDonald’s example: we might presume that a person is slumming their lunch in this way because they want to use the time or money they save on other activities, such as making it back to work on time. In this case, we would say that their care is directed toward some object (the demands of their job) other than themselves. They give the time they could be using to get a healthy lunch over to their work instead.

But we could also imagine a person who goes to McDonald’s and eats a nasty cheeseburger as their own peculiar form of self-care – perhaps they are doing it as a form of self-indulgence, slumming it for the joy of slumming it. They might say to themselves, “I don’t care if I won’t be able to fit into my bathing suit this summer, I want a cheeseburger!” In that case, the self-caring person’s attention is directed toward themselves and their own wants, rather than meeting a set of expectations that are enforced from outside of them.

How do we identify the practice of self-care in our respondents, given what we’re looking for? First, we plan to ask them what self-care means to them, to draw out any implicit preconceptions that they might have about term. Then we’ll ask them generally about the activities they do that they would characterize as self-care. To home in more on those activities that are conscientious in character and require the diversion of resources, we’ll ask specifically about self-care activities that feel like a challenge for our respondents, as well as whether there are any self-care activities that are just too hard or inconvenient for them to do.

That will help us to draw the line between the ‘easy’ activities that don’t register much in the interviewee’s life, and the ‘harder’ ones that really require them to make a choice about where their resources are going.

Self-care is a key challenge for caregivers, as much of their time, money, attention, and energy is directed toward a loved one. When we ask caregivers about self-care, we will want to understand whether they have the resources available to take care of themselves. We will also want to learn whether the failure to practice self-care leads to issues like burnout—and how the experience of burnout might have affected our respondents. Additionally, we will try to learn whether caring for oneself makes caregivers feel guilt about not dedicating their time to the care recipient. These are just a few questions we have in mind – but to answer them, we’ll have to make sure first that we know what we’re talking about when we talk about self-care.

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About the Author

Photo of Adam Felts
Adam Felts

Adam Felts is a researcher and writer at the MIT AgeLab. Currently he is involved in research on the experiences of family caregivers and the future of financial advice. He also manages the AgeLab blog and newsletter. He received his Master's in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2014 and his Master's of Theological Studies from Boston University in 2019.

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