Self Care and the Scarcity Trap

I have a confession to make. A dirty one, in the wellness world. 

At some point in the past year, I started to bristle at all of the self-care talk. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way. Something about it was making me feel like an imposter. To invoke some Christianese from my past, I was being convicted.

After a lot of external processing via text with Jamie and some deep soul searching in one of those luxurious bubble baths y'all are always Instagramming, I realized the reason why:

image by @snakelively

image by @snakelively

Too often, when I say I'm enacting self-care, what I really mean is that I'm ramming my anxiety down my own throat in the form of whole pints of ice cream only to existentially puke it back up the moment the sugar high leaves me. Or I'm using Netflix to put off difficult conversations and tough choices which are the hard, necessary work of building character. When self-care gets distilled down to gratifying your short-term desires at the expense of your long-term health and growth, it ceases to actually be care. It becomes something delusional. And, if you've been swimming in the self-care rhetoric like me, pretty damn hard to pin down and face.

I can tell you exactly when this started for me. It started after becoming a parent, and it kicked into overdrive after beginning a demanding career in education. The commonalities there? A swift, dramatic, permanent increase of the demands on my time and energy. Before that, empathy and generosity sat near the very core of my identity. In my early twenties, I was the person who would spend hours creating thoughtful handmade gifts for my friends. I dug in for the long haul when my loved ones were in crisis, offering to run errands for them or fix them dinner or stay up until dawn listening as they figure shit out. Now I'm patting myself on the back when I remember to text someone I've known since grade school happy birthday within the correct week. My kids and my job barreled into my heart like a freight train full of need, and I've been scrambling to sort out the pieces ever since.

The Psychology of Not Having Enough

There's the thing called The Scarcity Trap. It's an economic theory about why people with too little of a thing--time, money, love, sex, whatever--tend to make increasingly poor decisions in that area of their lives:

Scarcity, whether of time or money, tends to focus the mind on immediate challenges. You stretch your budget to make ends meet. People in the grip of scarcity are tightly focused on meeting their urgent needs, but that focus comes at a price. Important things on the periphery get ignored...That’s at the heart of the scarcity trap. You are so focused on the urgent that the important gets waylaid. But because the important gets waylaid, you’re experiencing even more scarcity tomorrow.
— How Scarcity Trap Affects Thinking, Behavior

So basically, when we're desperate for something we act like idiots about it until we either get it or implode. And I was really, really desperate for time and energy, y'all. What did I do? I combated my newfound anxiety with the best coping mechanisms I had.

In my work life, I became a task master--answering all my e-mails and ticking off bite-sized items on my to-do list because I could feel like a momentary badass rather than face the long-term planning that I needed in order to not have that big of a to-do list in the first place. Who the fuck has time to write a scope and sequence? I thought. There are field trip forms to get signed! In my personal life, I shied away from reading novels and making crafts in favor of Netflix episodes because they took less time and required less mental engagement. I didn't even bother trying to come up with clever gifts anymore because failing to get them done on time was disappointing and sad. When a friend would come to me with a problem, my first thought was no longer how can I help, it was how long is this going to take? 

I stopped volunteering. I stopped going out of my way to help people. And slowly but surely, I stopped caring in the first place.

Love - We're Not Meant to Be Gollum

I fell deep down the scarcity well, and I'm only just now starting to grapple my way back towards the surface. Here's the light that's guiding my climb, the thing that I still struggle to believe:

Time and energy and finite resources, but love is not, and mistaking them is fatal. When I started using unhealthy "self care" to guard those things, I made a prison by mistake. I became a love Gollum, hoarding what little I thought I had left like it was my Precious, letting it distort me, forgetting myself and the fact that that's not how love works at all, ever. 

So how do I change myself back from this moral slime creature I've become? The first step goes back to where I started, with conviction. I have to listen to that voice inside me--the one that on most days I think is God's voice--and believe it. I have to trade in "treat yo self" for "nurture yo self," and I have to stop this love hoarding nonsense. 

In that same rambling text conversation, I told Jamie that recently I had put myself out there for someone in a way I hadn't for a long time--staying up incredibly late to be a listening ear when there was work and kids and house and life lying in wait on the other side of 5 A.M. And it surprised me how not tired I was the next day. I felt great, in fact. I had given love and received love and that interaction gave me more energy than ten pages of checked-off to-do lists. There's a balance here, of course. 3 or 4 more nights like that and I really would be a zombie human revive-able only by a caffeine I.V. We can't go full tilt 24/7, but the beauty of it is that love doesn't require us to. It's literally the world's best slot machine. You put in a penny and get a flood of quarters.