As the care crisis intensifies, we are repeatedly urged to take care of ourselves. Ubiquitous, too, is the talk of ‘wellbeing’ to which, as we know, a whole industry of products, apps, advice and therapies is devoted, piling into the gap created by the dismantling of societal responsibility. There are two sides to this self-care fix that together articulate an outlook on the world that is congruent with the logic of financialised capitalism. First of all: take care of you, because you are your own most valuable asset – a form of human capital that will yield high economic returns if you look after it. Second: take care of you, because nobody else will.
Instead of fighting for better regulation or even a transformation of capitalist production, instead of joining forces with other social and political movements seeking systemic change, what is on offer are personalised, market remedies that do not call consumption itself into question. The responsibility for change lies, once again, with individuals, while the ability to strategise and implement that change lies with people with money to invest, or who can attract investors and start-up capital. Power resides in the strategic alliance between consumer demand and entrepreneurial drive. However, congruent consumption is not the same thing as acting together.
Nonetheless, the idea of self-care really stems from progressive and radical impulses. Within professions that involve care for others, such as nursing, therapy or social work, self-care practices are crucial to avoiding compassion fatigue, burnout and exhaustion. Self-care practices redirect care away from the sole focus on others and towards protecting oneself so as not to be used up in the attempts to help others – whether one wants to help, has an obligation to help or is paid to help. Providing care under duress or in particularly difficult or precarious working conditions necessarily impacts on a person’s ability to care, but also on their ability to maintain positive perceptions of self-worth. For example, someone experiencing compassion fatigue will start to feel overwhelmed and overexposed, like they are running on empty. This intensifies when they have been working under conditions that do not provide them with support and respite in order to replenish their caring capacities. They start to feel drained, are tired all the time and the smallest of tasks feels overwhelming. They feel they cannot cope and they start to blame themselves. The more someone blames themselves and the more it feels like there’s no change in sight, the more despair they feel.
When her sister died three years ago, Ms. Ingersoll joined the ranks of older Americans considered “kinless”: without partners or spouses, children...