Real Self-Care - Critical summary review - Pooja Lakshmin MD
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Real Self-Care - critical summary review

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Self Help & Motivation

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program for Redefining Wellness (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included)

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0593489721

Publisher: Penguin Life

Critical summary review

Over the last decade, there has been an obvious movement toward valuing personal well-being and health, which may surprise previous generations. The Global Personal Development Market is expected to reach $42 billion by 2021, driven by an influx of new health and wellness goods. However, for many, these investments go beyond financial considerations to address fundamental beliefs.

Modern influencers inundate us with aggressive marketing, creating a collective obsession with purchasing every new health product promising improvement. While aspirational marketing emphasizes self-improvement and drive, it frequently ignores systemic challenges such as inequity and marginalization. Such approaches fail to address the core causes of stress and burnout, such as gaps in access to necessities like childcare, healthcare, housing, and mental health assistance. Additionally, societal pressures, especially on women and non-binary individuals, to conceal mental strain and shoulder disproportionate domestic and emotional burdens often go unacknowledged. When costly wellness solutions don't deliver the expected results, individuals may blame themselves unfairly.

Many wellness products and books emphasize surface-level lifestyle changes rather than the more in-depth work of self-connection, boundary setting up mental resilience, and value definition required for long-term well-being. True self-care requires a long-term commitment instead of a quick solution.

Whether you're new to the concept of self-care or feel overwhelmed by the variety of ways and products available, this book can help. It investigates why most of the self-care sector ignores structural issues such as racism, misogyny, and unequal access to resources while offering practical techniques for genuine self-nurturance.

Redefining self-care in a culture of superficiality

Pooja Lakshmin discusses the concept of self-care, mainly focusing on its evolution, cultural implications, and intersection with mental health. The main ideas revolve around the dissatisfaction and disillusionment many women experience with contemporary notions of self-care, which often manifest as additional burdens rather than sources of relief. She argues that the current cultural obsession with self-care has failed to provide genuine solace, adding guilt and pressure to already stressed lives. Lakshmin introduces the concept of "faux self-care," which she describes as the commodification of wellness behaviors and practices that are sold as remedies for women's problems. These faux self-care practices, often marketed through social media influencers and the wellness industry, do little to address the root causes of stress and burnout. 

She contrasts faux self-care with the historical origins of self-care, which emerged from health care and social justice movements. Initially, self-care was about asserting independence and preserving humanity in the face of systemic oppression. However, over time, especially with hyperconnectivity and social media, self-care has become more superficial and consumer-oriented, disconnected from its original purpose. She also highlights the necessity of seeking professional help for mental health conditions, emphasizing that self-care, whether real or faux, is not a substitute for clinical treatment. Her main message is for everyone to reevaluate the concept of self-care, urging individuals to look beyond the superficial trends and instead focus on meaningful practices that promote genuine well-being and resilience. 

She acknowledges that some people genuinely enjoy wellness practices like yoga, meditation, or energy work, and she is not here to shame those who do. However, she also proposes that true self-care is not about simply engaging in these activities but rather about the internal process that precedes them. While activities like yoga classes or meditation apps can be beneficial, they can also become forms of faux self-care if they are used as mere distractions or escape from addressing deeper issues. Real self-care, on the other hand, involves an internal decision-making process that focuses on setting boundaries, practicing self-compassion, and aligning actions with personal values.

The author also gives examples to illustrate the difference between faux and real self-care. Faux self-care is often prescribed from the outside, involves engaging in activities without addressing underlying issues, and can leave individuals feeling disconnected. Real self-care, however, originates from within, consists of making conscious choices aligned with personal values, and ultimately brings individuals closer to themselves and what truly matters to them.

She also discusses some common reasons why people turn to faux self-care, such as using it to escape from daily life or to achieve external validation or success. She suggests that individuals might create a more lasting and rewarding attitude to self-care by evaluating their reasons and concentrating on internal growth.

The revolutionary potential of real self-care

The systemic challenges faced by women, particularly in the United States, and how these challenges contribute to their feelings of burnout, despair, and hopelessness. The author illustrates these issues through the story of her patient Mikaleh, who became the sole caregiver for her father after her mother's death, despite having four adult brothers who did not offer to help. Lakshmin argues that the traditional concept of burnout doesn't fully capture the depth of the crisis experienced by women. Instead, she introduces the idea of societal betrayal, which places blame on the broken structures rather than the individual. She suggests that societal structures, such as patriarchy, capitalism, and racism, create barriers and unfair expectations for women, leading to feelings of despair and exhaustion. She places special emphasis on the importance of recognizing that women are not the problem; instead, it is the culture and systems that need to change. 

She discusses the concept of "real self-care," which involves addressing systemic issues and advocating for wider societal change. Lakshmin believes that true systemic change will not be possible unless a critical mass of women practices real self-care and challenges these systems. Lakshmin also provides examples of the systemic obstacles faced by her patients, including gender inequity in the workplace, racial discrimination, lack of support for working parents, and unequal division of household labor. She also discusses how societal expectations and cultural conditioning make women feel guilty for prioritizing their needs and desires. Addressing these systemic issues requires a collective effort and a shift in societal norms. She urges women to recognize their worth and value, advocate for themselves, and work towards creating a more equitable and supportive society for all.

She points out the paradoxical expectations placed on women in modern society, particularly concerning self-care and societal roles. The main idea revolves around the conflicting demands women face: on the one hand, they are expected to excel professionally and personally, while on the other hand, they are also likely to be selfless and accommodating to the needs of others, especially within the family.

She again points out Martha Beck's argument about the contradictory cultural values women navigate, emphasizing the pressure to balance self-sacrifice with professional ambition. She also mentions examples like Mikaleh, who had to choose between her well-being and fulfilling familial duties, and another woman who faced criticism for prioritizing homemade desserts over convenience.

Lakshmin also addresses the role of men in challenging existing social systems and advocating for gender equality in caregiving responsibilities. Instead of blaming men, she emphasizes the need for collective action to reform public policies, workplace policies, and family dynamics. She calls for a shift in mindset and actions towards real self-care, which involves challenging societal norms, embracing internal change, and advocating for systemic reforms to achieve gender equality and well-being.

Real self-care is a dynamic process that requires courage, authenticity, and ongoing effort

Central to her argument is the concept of eudaimonic well-being, which focuses on deriving meaning from life and aligning one's actions with personal values rather than simply pursuing pleasure and happiness. Lakshmin highlights the importance of personal growth, acceptance of one's authentic self, and connection to meaning in achieving eudaimonic well-being. 

She outlines four principles of real self-care which involve prioritizing one's own needs and desires, learning to say no, and setting boundaries without succumbing to guilt; practicing self-compassion consists of being honest about one's needs and desires and giving oneself permission to fulfill them; getting to know oneself deeply, including understanding one's core values, beliefs, and desires, and making decisions that align with them; and an assertion of power, involving making decisions from a place of reflection and consideration, and challenging toxic societal norms that keep individuals small. Lakshmin illustrates these principles through the story of Clara, a public school teacher who undergoes a journey of self-discovery and ultimately decides to start her business tutoring students with learning disabilities, aligning her actions with her core values.

She acknowledges that real self-care requires effort and may involve uncomfortable emotional and mental labor. However, she encourages readers to embrace this process to live a more fulfilling and authentic life. She stresses the importance of choice, suggesting that individuals can take breaks when needed and return to the process when ready, adopting a gentle approach rather than one focused on striving or self-criticism. She also mentions the three common misconceptions or pitfalls that people may encounter while practicing authentic self-care. These "yellow flags" serve as warnings to help individuals avoid falling back into patterns of faux self-care and instead stay aligned with the principles of real self-care.

Practicing real self-care involves taking risks and making oneself vulnerable. This may mean having uncomfortable conversations to set boundaries or prioritizing certain aspects of life over others. She acknowledges that there are costs associated with real self-care, whether financial, social, or emotional, but these risks ultimately lead to emotional well-being, ownership of one's time and energy, and positive relationship shifts. Lakshmin draws on the work of Brené Brown to highlight the connection between risk and courage, stressing the importance of having the courage to be imperfect and make decisions that align with one's authentic self. The author also cautions against the tendency to look for a single, definitive path to well-being, especially during social chaos or turmoil. She argues against the idea that there is only one answer to achieving wellness and encourages readers to recognize that real self-care is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, she emphasizes the importance of individual exploration and critical thinking, urging readers not to become passionate about any particular practice or source of authority.

Dealing with guilt and setting boundaries

Everyone must learn and appreciate the value of setting boundaries, as well as practical advice on how to build the skills required to do so effectively. Lakshmin identifies four essential skills for creating boundaries, beginning with placing guilt in the background.

She illustrates this point with a story about Tonya, a new mother who faced pressure from her family to allow visitors after the birth of her baby, despite her pediatrician's recommendations against it due to the baby's health issues. Tonya struggled with guilt over potentially disappointing her family members, particularly her in-laws. Still, Lakshmin highlights the significance of learning to tolerate guilt and recognizing that it does not necessarily reflect a moral failing. Instead, it's essential to understand that guilt often stems from societal expectations and cultural norms, particularly those imposed on women. Here, she introduces the concept of cognitive defusion, a technique from acceptance and commitment therapy to distance oneself from overwhelming feelings of guilt. By creating space between oneself and one's thoughts and feelings, individuals can diminish guilt's power over their decision-making process.

She then discusses strategies for practicing cognitive defusion, such as visualizing thoughts as plates of sushi passing by on a conveyor belt, considering the function rather than the content of guilt-inducing thoughts, adding catchphrases to detach from guilty feelings, and imagining the form and location of guilt within oneself. Lakshmin shares her personal experience, where she reflects on her struggles with setting boundaries, particularly in the context of societal and familial expectations. She shares a poignant example from her twenties when she felt pressure to conform to societal norms and rushed into marriage, ultimately leading to a painful divorce. Through this experience, she learned the importance of setting boundaries and advocating for oneself rather than succumbing to external pressures.

She recognizes the difficulty of setting limits, particularly in familial and cultural contexts where such actions may be received with resistance or condemnation. However, she emphasizes the need to put one's needs and preferences first, even if it means disappointing others or risking broken relationships.

Embracing imperfection and prioritizing rest

Lakshmin gives a frank revelation of the importance of self-compassion, looking into its uses in personal development, societal reform, and everyday life issues. She moves through the challenges of quieting the inner critic, distinguishing between shame and guilt, and achieving a healthy balance between self-care and caring responsibilities using illuminating anecdotes and practical suggestions.

She explains the roots of the inner critic, often based on childhood traumas and proposes ways to overcome its negative impacts. She argues for developing self-compassion as a contrast to shame-based thinking, encouraging acceptance of flaws and adopting a "Good Enough" mindset.

She also helps readers overcome the challenges of embodiment and relaxation, stressing their value in nurturing well-being and resisting societal demands. She makes us understand how valuable it is to recognize and process emotions, including anger, and encourages readers to seek help and prioritize self-care without feeling guilty or hesitant.

Through practical exercises and thought-provoking insights, Lakshmin empowers everyone to embark on a journey of self-discovery, resilience, and authentic living. Her narrative extends beyond personal transformation, envisioning a ripple effect of empowerment that extends to societal realms, where self-compassionate individuals catalyze positive change and foster meaningful connections.

Final notes

In her book, Pooja Lakshmin inspires us to explore the virtues and vices of self-care programs designed to alleviate stress, burnout, and fatigue. Many of us are familiar with the promises of quick fixes that pledge more energy or a tidier home, but often, these solutions fall short of their claims. The reason lies in the individualized nature of self-care; it must address our unique experiences and circumstances to be genuinely effective.

Central to genuine self-care is challenging the inner critical voice that can leave us feeling inadequate or unworthy. Recognizing the limits of self-care and knowing when to seek professional help is also crucial. The book outlines four core principles of transformative self-care: setting boundaries, practicing self-compassion, aligning with personal values, and asserting personal power.

Through relatable scenarios, readers are encouraged to reconsider their self-talk and approach to setting boundaries. Individuals can reclaim their power by prioritizing their well-being and authenticity and resist oppressive systems that demand self-sacrifice. Real self-care isn't about indulgences but self-respect and empowerment in navigating life's challenges.

12min tip

If you're intrigued by the mysteries of innovation and how groundbreaking ideas shape our world, Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" will take you through fascinating patterns and environments that create genuine innovation, tracing them across history and diverse disciplines.

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Who wrote the book?

She is a board-certified psychiatrist and New York Times contributor renowned for her pioneering work in women's mental health. Her debut book, "Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program for Redefining Wellness (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included)," garnered national acclaim, becoming a bestseller and earning a spot on NPR's Best Book list in 2023. As a clinical as... (Read more)

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