Yoga classes, cleanses, wellness retreats: We’ve all heard these and other remedies marketed as “self-care” for life in an exhausting and distressing world. But debut author Pooja Lakshmin wants readers to know that, while these types of self-care may make us feel temporarily better, they are part of an ineffectual system that keeps people (especially women and minorities) feeling inadequate and overwhelmed. As the psychiatrist and New York Times contributor writes in her introduction to Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program for Redefining Wellness (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included), “This book is my letter to every woman out there who has flirted with hopping in the car and running away from it all.”
Lakshmin wants to help readers find ways to more authentically enjoy their everyday lives, and she uses anecdotes about her patients to illustrate what this might look like. For example, there’s Shelby, who shifted from viewing breastfeeding as imperative to something that just didn’t work out (and that’s OK!), and Clara, who started her own business after realizing teaching was no longer sustainable.
How did they get there? Via Lakshmin’s four principles for real self-care: setting boundaries without guilt, practicing self-compassion, exploring your real self and asserting power. Helpful tools, exercises, scripts and a “Real Self-Care Compass” smooth the way to the gratifying final stage, which is “facing, straight-on, the toxicity and trauma that our culture brings to women . . . and it’s only when a critical mass of women do this internal work that we will come to collective change in our world.”
Daunting? Sure. Doable? The author believes so, and she contends that the hard, ongoing work is worth it. After all, she is writing as a fellow traveler alongside her readers. “I ended up falling for Big Wellness in the worst way,” she writes. “I joined a cult!” While her time with the cult, which practiced “orgasmic meditation,” did offer some benefits (she worked with neuroscientists at the Rutgers fMRI orgasm lab, and the meditation practice “was healing for me in profound ways”), when she left the group, she was deeply depressed for quite some time.
Over time, Lakshmin realized that “real self-care is not a noun, it’s a verb—an ongoing internal process that guides us toward profound emotional wellness and reimagines how we interact with others.” In her heartfelt and empathetic Real Self-Care, she shares how she moved beyond shame and regret to a happier, more true-to-herself life, something she believes readers can do, too. Lakshmin’s first step: reclaiming the term self-care by imbuing it with self-knowledge, sustainability and joy.