Why the Religion of Self-Care is Really Sanctified Selfishness
“To be happy, you need to leave toxic people behind.” The preaching Peloton instructor continued, “I’m talking about people who take more than they give. People who don’t care about your dreams. People whose selfishness impedes your ability to do what you want to do.”
Oh crap. She just described my two-year-old. I guess it’s time to cut him off.
This is the gospel of self-care. The notion that the most important person in my life is me, and anyone who impedes my happiness is an existential threat to my emotional and physical well-being. You might think I’m being over-the-top, but just read this explanation for the causes of breast cancer from Goop’s website (Goop is a self-care product line created by actor Gwyneth Paltrow that has been extraordinarily popular).
“After seeing thousands of patients over my career, and going through cancer myself, I can tell you that UNRESOLVED EMOTIONAL PAIN and UNEXPRESSED DESIRES are at the core of what I call ‘DIS-EASE’ or a body-mind that’s not at ease. … Women who live only to serve and nourish the lives of others develop subconscious resentment because no nourishment is coming back to them—without replenishment they become emotionally depleted … Is it just a coincidence that these women often develop cancer in the most nourishing organ of the female body, the breast? I don’t think so.”
You read that right: breast cancer is caused by selflessness. Welcome to the gospel of self-care, where reality orbits around me.
What’s the Religion of Self Care?
No one has summarized the theology of the self-care movement better than Tara Isabella Burton:
“It’s a theology, fundamentally, of division: the authentic, intuitional self—both body and soul—and the artificial, malevolent forces of society, rules, and expectations. We are born good, but we are tricked, by Big Pharma, by processed food, by civilization itself, into living something that falls short of our best life. Our sins, if they exist at all, lie in insufficient self-attention or self-care: false modesty, undeserved humilities, refusing to shine bright. We have not merely the inalienable right but the moral responsibility to take care of ourselves first before directing any attention to others. We have to listen to ourselves, to behave authentically, in tune with what our intuition dictates. Others, after all, are potential enemies. The people in our lives, and the demands they make upon us, might well be sources of ‘toxic energy’ if we’re not careful to avoid them.”
Instead of sin, there is toxicity. Toxic chemicals and people that limit your ability to live your life fully. In the place of Christ’s call to take up your cross and die to yourself, there is a call to lay down your cross and live for yourself. In the place of sacraments are 1.7-ounce bottles of dissolvable dust from Moon Juice that sell for $42 with the promises of purification and mental equilibration. In place of pastors are gurus selling oils, and exercise instructors pedaling (pun intended) a new form of manifestation (if you think positive thoughts, you get positive things, and vice-versa).
On the one hand, most Christians are highly skeptical of the health-and-wealth gospel—just pray hard enough and give enough money and God will make you wealthy and happy and healthy like me—but we seem borderline incapable of sussing out the false gospel of self-care.
Of course, that’s one of the ironies of the self-care movement. Self-care was first popularized by Black civil rights activists in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s who said that if society refused to take care of them, part of practical resistance includes taking care of yourself. The logic here is actually sensible.
But fast-forward a few decades and self-care is mainstream in white, upper-middle-class households, which can afford the exercise bikes, special classes, miracle cleanses, magical tinctures, and babysitters necessary to keep those toxic chemicals (and little people) at a distance.
The Destructive Power of Self-Care
The question should be whether self-care actually produces the happiness and health it promises. On the one hand, there’s a value to taking care of your body and mental health. God gave you that body and mind, after all (1 Cor. 6:19).
The question is whether these self-care products and gurus actually deliver on their promise to make your body and mind healthier. When Condé Nast wanted to write a number of pieces celebrating Goop, they asked Gwyneth Paltrow if they could have a group of external scientists confirm the scientific claims they made on their website. Goop refused. The piece was never published.
It doesn’t take a scientist to guess why they said no. Because it’s all make-believe.
Pressing beyond this, the gospel of self-first is a dangerous Trojan horse. It looks beautiful on the outside—Who wouldn’t like the idea of sanctified selfishness, where self-focus is moral and healthy?—but only leads to unhappiness. Adele followed this gospel and got a divorce, but she said that rather than producing happiness, it only made her nine-year-old son unhappy. Glennon Doyle has written three books describing her continual unhappiness while assuring you that you'll find happiness if you follow her advice. Rachel Hollis canceled herself by posting a self-absorbed Instagram story comparing her bravery in divorcing her husband to the bravery of Harriet Tubman.
Jesus taught us that the key to happiness is following him, enjoying him, serving him, and walking in his path. He called his followers to pick up a cross, not lay it down (Matthew 16:24-26).
Then he led by example.
The true gospel begins with the self-denial of repentance, followed by the self-renunciation of allegiance to and faithful obedience of King Jesus. As it turns out, this is the path to happiness and joy. There is true joy and happiness in the freedom of self-forgetfulness. The freedom of loving and serving others first. The freedom of not thinking and worrying about me all the time. The joy of making a difference in the lives of others.
Want to hear more? Then you can’t miss the full podcast episode where Patrick and Keith dive deeper and go head-to-head with the religion of self-care.
Posted by Patrick Miller