Are We Using 'Self-Care' as a Way Out of Relationships?

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an illustration shows a man and a woman in blue standing on two separate icebergs that are far apart
Boundaries have a purpose in personal relationships — but experts say the word can also be used to unnecessarily avoid conflict and shut people out.  (iStock)

The silence is killing me, I thought as I locked my phone, hoping a new message notification would light up the screen. After roughly 27 messages, two phone calls and a voicemail, I’d just sent my final text to the person who used to be my best friend at UC Berkeley.

The two of us met freshman year and — since we were enrolled in almost all the same core classes — rapidly became inseparable throughout college: we routinely pulled 5 a.m. nights studying, were each other’s go-to for late-night pizza runs, and drove back to LA together almost every holiday break.

Then one day after graduation, he suddenly stopped responding, aside from claiming he “didn’t have enough time for himself.” That breakup, although platonic, was the most painful I’ve experienced: After four years of building such a close relationship, I thought I’d at least receive an explanation for why he wanted to end things. Instead, I received only a curt, indirect message about self-care and — what hurt me the most — an overwhelming silence.

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Over the past few years, the concept of “drawing boundaries” has exploded in the pop psychology lexicon. Discussions of cutting people off, “protecting your energy” and even ghosting as forms of self-care consistently dominate social media. And after nearly three years in isolation, the ways the pandemic has spurred many of us to reevaluate our relationships with others — and reclaim time for ourselves — show up everywhere in pop culture.

The benefits of self-care are fairly obvious: by prioritizing our own well-being, we’re able to engage in emotional healing, build confidence, reduce anxiety and simply rest. But at the same time, an extreme focus on self-care can lead to a distorted perspective of the world in which we always put ourselves first — even when we’re in the wrong. This narcissistic interpretation of self-care doesn’t just hurt us — it can have real, painful consequences for the people around us.

“What’s interesting about the popularization of terms [like ‘boundaries’] that have always been used in therapy is that they actually become a way to use unhelpful coping skills,” explains Elizabeth Earnshaw, a licensed marriage and family therapist who runs the popular Instagram page @LizListens. “Boundaries are actually about understanding yourself: what you're OK with and not OK with. Knowing when you can be flexible and when you can't.”

“But I think that people who are hyper-independent and avoidant will sometimes use the term as a way to describe how they’re keeping people out,” says Earnshaw. “It promotes this idea that it's OK for me to stay really distant, and to maybe not be as vulnerable with people I care about.”

Building self-awareness is undeniably crucial to improving our relationships, but in many cases, it’s just the first step: We also need to be able to address our unhealthy patterns and engage in uncomfortable conversations in order to take action. For relationship coach Fabiola Wong, communication and action are key to her practice. She structures her courses around covering mindset, letting go of past baggage and building confidence. Wong also offers a special hotline for existing clients where they can text her at any time Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., asking for advice, a pep talk or even help responding to or analyzing a text.

“I help my clients understand what their toxic patterns and weaknesses are, and help them understand who they are and feel grounded,” Wong explains. A lot of her work revolves around the importance of setting boundaries in a healthy, flexible manner, and having the kindness and compassion to communicate them with your partner. “Boundaries are like the promises you make to yourself. When you break your own boundary, that’s when you start to feel resentful.”

Unsurprisingly, she says, navigating the balance between your own boundaries and the needs of others comes down to communication — especially in moments of conflict. While conflict and compromise might have negative connotations in our extreme self-care world, they’re also inevitable: “Research has shown that, in our relationships, the majority of our problems are actually not solvable. There’s going to be continued perpetual conflict around specific areas,” Earnshaw explains. For example, if one person in a relationship is always a busy go-getter by nature, but the other likes to relax and decompress, that couple would need to find a middle ground that works for them.


“I think conflict is normal and natural. But what really makes conflict difficult for people is when we’re unwilling to let go of being right. It’s like, you can either be right or you can be loved,” says Wong. “But what actually will define whether a relationship will thrive is how quickly you can resolve conflict and whether or not it’s actually resolved.”

Even though it can sometimes feel easier for us to remove ourselves from conflict or discomfort under the guise of self-care, walking away from these relationships without a real conversation — in situations where it’s safe to do so — actually robs us and our loved ones of an opportunity for growth.

To this day, I still think of my college best friend, wondering what exactly went wrong and whether or not I could’ve fixed the situation if given the chance. Earnshaw puts it best: “I think that if we want to be people who are in relationships with other people, we have a responsibility towards them. It’s the kindest, maybe most emotionally vulnerable or mature thing to do to let someone know — even if very briefly — that we're not going to be in contact anymore. And I think we've been convinced in this hyper-individualized world that we don't owe anyone an explanation for anything.”