Thanks to advertising, we’re all familiar with the concept of self-care. The exhortation “Treat yourself!” (and the implication that you’ve earned it) neatly takes the guilt out of pleasure and can justify almost any purchase.
But for Gen Z social media has taken these concepts from marketing and pushed them into the realm of ethics. “Self-care” is no longer just a euphemism for expensive skin-care routines, it’s also a moral imperative. Any TikTok therapist or Instagram self-help tile is likely to tell you: if you’re not setting boundaries, quiet-quitting and generally prioritising your needs over your obligations to others, then you’re not living a full, happy—even, good—life.
Of course, in some ways this is a welcome shift. Before the concept was subsumed by capitalism, self-care was a rallying cry for marginalised groups. In societies that deny or denigrate your existence it really is a radical act to assert your own worth. And I’m not going to bemoan that there’s a generation of young people ready to prioritise their mental health and equipped with the vocabulary to do so.
But I do worry that self-care, while a necessary ingredient in a good life, isn’t sufficient. And that it simplifies the glorious mess of human relationships to always prioritise what we owe ourselves over what we owe to others.
Humans are social creatures: we exist in relation to other people. I’d suspect that most of us, when considering who we want to be would very quickly start to conceive of ourselves through the eyes of others: we want to be a good friend; a good parent; a good partner. So becoming our best selves can’t just be a question of our own feelings and needs—it must also take into account the feelings and needs of those around us, and our capacity to satisfy them. Paradoxically, putting other people’s needs before our own might be just what we need!
The question, then, is where to draw the line. When is self-care about getting what we want and when is it about giving to others?
This was the line I wanted to investigate in Seeing Other People. It’s a novel about two sisters and the summer that stretches their relationship almost to breaking point when they both fall in love with the same woman.
When I started writing, it was with the suspicion that self-love was, frankly, overrated. As I developed the two protagonists—sensible, duty-driven older sister Eleanor, and beautiful, emotional Charlie—my stance became more ambivalent. While self-love can tip easily into selfishness, the same is true of its opposite. Forever contorting ourselves into idealised shapes (always living for others; perpetually self-denying) can be its own kind of vanity.
The line I set out to draw was slippery: the closer I looked, the more complicated it became. If I’m suspicious of anything now, it’s any medium—from a self-help manifesto to a ten second TikTok clip—that tries to draw it clearly. And I’m grateful for fiction, which, as ever, can indulge the complexities.
Seeing Other People by Diana Reid is out now, published by Ultimo Press, £16.99 in hardback.