The Neoliberal Trap of the Self-Care Rhetoric

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Jo Chiang is a Taiwanese-American actor, writer, filmmaker, and queer activist based in New York City. Her film work has been featured by Women & Hollywood, Athena Film Festival, Wifey.tv, Everyday Feminism, and Upworthy. She served on the Executive Board of the King's Crown Shakespeare Troupe.

Following up our previous conversation, we discuss a new rhetoric on self-care as potential bait for isolation and continued labor production.

You said the topic of self-care has been on your mind lately.

I said to you that I was starting to feel like the rhetoric around self-care might actually be a neoliberal trap. If we're going to unpack that, we should first have some clear definitions. What do you define as self-care?

It's a broad term that I use to encompass the material manifestations of taking care of yourself, alongside the internal. For me, it's all the ways we have sustainable well-being.

How familiar are you with the ideology of neoliberalism?

I would say not very, so please dive into it as much as you want.

The real brief history of neoliberalism is that it started as an economic policy. It's the idea of the free market, which valorizes the individual contribution with little oversight. While neoliberalism is first and foremost an economic policy, ideology will always impact the body. Economy is about labor, production and the value we bring as bodies into the system.

Neoliberalism wants us to be able to produce as efficiently as possible, to be as well as possible in order to produce sustainable profit. But we have to do that on our own. Self-care as an idea is important, powerful and healing. However, it's starting to seem like this idea that we have to be responsible over our own wellbeing can be a trap to ensure that we'll continue to provide labor and be responsible over our ability to do so.

Right. There's only so much you can address from an internal perspective before you have to confront the outer world.

I and people I care about are all grappling with how to stay well in the face of overworking ourselves under high pressure. We keep telling each other, "I just really need to take care of myself. I need to take some time." But it almost feels like we're withdrawing from each other because we're afraid that people wouldn't want us around if we weren't well. We feel like we have to take care of ourselves before we are of value to our friends. It's so difficult to ask other people to take care of you, yet maybe that's what we need.

I've seen self-improvement entrepreneurs grapple with, "How do I get resources and find work by 'helping others?'" It's a very fine line.

There is also danger in arguing that self-care is a neoliberal trap. I have a friend who says everyone is their agent of their own care, and it's true. It would be incredibly disrespectful and irresponsible to assume they don't have that agency. People deal with care in different ways. But I also think that because the political always exists side-by-side with the personal and we are all conditioned in certain ways, we have to examine why we think one approach is considered better than the other.

I wonder if there shouldn't be as much of a clear cut dichotomy between types of care. Maybe we need to look at care as much more multifaceted. This may be too grand or too reductive, but I think we should think more about the rhetoric of self-kindness as opposed to self-care.

To you, what seems inaccessible that makes us feel they can't reach out?

I can only speak for myself, but I can't place that expectation on someone else because it can be exhausting to take care of someone. I don't want to have someone go through those feelings on my behalf. How do you build a community of trust when no one has the time or energy to be present or vulnerable with each other?

When you feel that impasse despite wanting to reach out, what do you actually do?

I texted a friend. We talked afterwards and it was really wonderful. It was honestly difficult to decide to reach out to her, but we've had similar moments before where she needed someone and I picked up the phone. It's always easier to ask for help when that person has asked that of you. It's almost a question of who will break that barrier first. Someone has to.

What are your symptoms when you are starved for human connection?

I don't know if correlation is causation, but when I feel isolated, I often lose motivation to do anything. A part of me always knows that the feeling will pass, but it's hard to believe that right then in that moment. All I want to do is stay inside and wallow with my thoughts, even though I know that rarely helps me.

A big part of my self-care is informed by living in New York City and having that as my environment.

Last time we talked, I spoke about how walking is really good care for me. A component of that is I'll often call my family while I'm walking. It helps with combating isolation.

That's a great idea!

My mother often calls me when she's driving home from work, which I love. Any call from my family grounds me a lot. They take care of me by being a voice that listens and answers back.

People also want dating to be a free market. If you have Internet, there's always access to companionship. It's all out there for you; now it's up to you.

And if you can't find someone, there's something wrong with you. Your value must be too low and if you want to be desirable, you've got to take care of that yourself.

Do you think you can choose to acquire this level of connection of your own volition?

You can't; you fall into it. Acquisition is also a very neoliberal concept. You know those online quizzes that ask, "Do you prefer to have two best friends or 10 acquaintances?" It's ridiculous to ask someone to assign quantifiable value to the way you connect to people. That's not how this works.

To read the full interview, please visit Self-Care With Writers.