Self-care as a form of resistance

By Emma Manion

For my dissertation I have been looking at self-care in a mental health context. Self-care can be used as a technique of governance in which the individual internalizes the desires of neoliberalism or it can be the site of radical resistance from neoliberal subjectivation. I have been exploring this tension in self-care, as well as ways of understanding mental health beyond the biomedical model through my analysis of the Resilience Lab, a project in Bristol which runs workshops on self-care for young people.

Self-care is posited as activities which a person does to improve or maintain their physical and mental health and well-being. It involves the cultivation of habits and behaviours which are percieved to be good rather than destructive, and empahasises the importance of personal responsibility. However, self-care as a concept and as a performed activity is vague and contradictory. It is at once empowering, radical and conservative. Audre Lorde, in her collection of writings on her experience of cancer, declared caring for herself to be ‘an act of political warfare’. Lorde’s caring for herself is radical in the sense she is ensuring her survival in world in which she is not cared for or supported (Ahmed, 2014). This not just the survival of her physical body, but her identity as a black lesbian in a system which is difficult to endure with such an identity. Here self-care is not directed at flourishing or happiness, values which so easily leave themselves open to quanitifcation or commodification, but “finding ways to exist in a world that” diminishes Lorde, her identity and her body (Ahmed, 2014). Self-care in this sense is practical, yes, but it is also a political statement. It says my body and bodies like mine are worthy of support and should be allowed to exist. So in this sense it is individualistic, but also extends beyond the individual. Furthermore, beyond identity politics, self-care as resistance is our ability to remain fluid and create new ‘lines of escape’ (Seem, 1997, p.xvii) – it can produce ways to be other than the neoliberal subject.

However, self-care can also be understood as a technique of power (Ball & Olmedo, 2012) which operates through the subject. The subject here is defined as “a constant beginning but also a constant end” (Ball & Olmedo, 2012, p.87). The subject is in a constant state of flux, caught up in a series of power relations. In this sense the subject becomes the site of struggle, resistance and dominance. The rhetoric of self-care has been utilised for the purpose of saving money for the NHS (Self Care Forum, 2016), as well as a method of producing subjects who internalize the desires of neoliberalism. Self-care is a technique of power though which a neoliberal subjectivity is produced, in which all relations of the subject are commodified. Self-care becomes a duty for one’s flourishing and this flourishing is cased in terms of being a productive subject in the neoliberal system. Furthermore, the practice of self-care can be criticized for being a performance of normativity and the continued reinforcement of westernised ideas on agency and selfhood, as it places responsibility on the individual for their behavior. Conservative forms of self-care tend to present the subject as a static entity to be controlled and protected. For example relaxation techniques are promoted as a form self-care. Undoubtedly relaxation techniques can have their benefit for our well-being, but equally they can serve as a distraction from or obscure the reasons for our pain, as well as repressing the tensions of the self.Cultivate Nuturing & Sustainable Relationships by Phoebe Wahl (2014)

The focus of my dissertation is self-care in the context of mental health. The geographies of mental health emerged out of a movement in social and cultural geography to be more socially active and radical; to challenge the political status quo and reveal how ‘oppressive relations’ are ‘expressed spatially’ (Philo, 2005, p.585). As a field that embraces working in an interdisciplinary fashion the geographies of mental health are intimately connected to psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience, whether through utilizing the medical language and terminology of psychiatry (particularly in the quantitative analysis of the spatial distribution of mental health disorders) or criticizing the medical models of psychiatry (connected to the anti-psychiatry movement). Geographies of mental health aim to show the relationship between space and experience, understanding that space is not merely the back drop for experience but that experience ‘is constituted as space’ (Tucker, 2010, p.3). Our experiences do not just belong to us but are in a complex series of relations with other bodies and objects in that space. How and what sort of subjectivities are being produced in such spaces? In the context of mental health, geographers have been keenly interested in spaces of enclosure and exclusion such as the asylum or the mental hospital (Philo, 2005. More recently the focus has been on the movement towards the more dispersed spaces of community care, such as drop-in centers and workshops, as well as the activity of place-making and certain spaces become significant to individuals in their recovery from mental illness (Tucker, 2009. Duff, 2012. McGrath, Reavey and Brown 2008).

Recent work on the geographies of mental health have utilized an understanding of experience which works to decentralize a humanist approach, by defining experience as something broader and less precise. McGrath, Reavey and Brown describe experience as ‘the myriad ways in which actions, sensations and thinking entangle organic (and to some extent inorganic) processes together’ (2008, p.58). In this way experience is the process of relations between different types of bodies. An individual’s experience can be understood as how they relate to and become entangled with different bodies. They call this a process of engagement (McGrath, Reavey and Brown, 2008, p.58). Experience reimagined as process means it is ever unfolding. The problematic individualized status of self-care is challenged through the application of affect theory to our understanding of space and bodies.

Cameron Duff uses Deleuze’s ideas on fluidity, relationality and the body to recast recovery as an ‘always-unfinished event’ or a form of becoming (2015, p.59). Mental health is not typified as static states of wellness or un-wellness but a process of ‘becoming-well’ which ebbs and flows and modulates dependent on a body’s capacity to form new affective relations with other bodies. He adopts the term ‘assemblages of health’ to describe how different bodies and forces come into relation in the project of recovery. This is a movement away fromunderstanding mental health as belonging to, defining or being the product of a particular individual. Duff argues that an understanding of agency as dispersed, no longer the privilege of the individual being human, could be ‘radically destigmatising’ (2015, p.64) as it avoids the conflation of mental health and identity. Understanding mental health as not belonging to individuals could allow for more holistic approaches to mental health care, as well as helping individuals construct less damaging relationships with their experience of mental health.

My dissertation will seek to show how self-care can be a form of resistance to individualising neoliberal subjectivity, reinvigorating its radical potential. From a geographical perspective it will examine how practices of self-care and recovery are situated spatially, looking at what bodies, materials and objects are intimately involved in the processes of self-care.  I will be looking at the Bristol based project the Resilience Lab. The Resilience Lab utilises a variety of therapeutic techniques including solution-focused therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, with an aim of helping young people explore how to care for their mental health. I will be looking at three key elements of the Resilience Lab: the in-house workshops, the reflective practice sessions and the external school-based workshops. I will use ethnographic methods to play close attention to how the techniques deployed in the workshop space affect participants, and how these techniques work to produce a different kind of subjectivity from the neoliberal. As a volunteer and workshop facilitator on the project, I will be also be reflecting upon my journey through the project from participant to facilitator and how this relates to my own self-care practices, to see how the techniques of project have affected me over an extended period. I will be using creative writing to reflect upon my own experiences of self-care and mental health, to produce something which expresses some of the intensities of this experience. In doing this I hope to see how such techniques could be dispersed into other spaces, beyond the confines of the workshop and whether we can open up different spaces for talking about mental health and self-care.

I am thus asking what an act of self-care that does not seek to territorialise the unruly and fluid mental health subject would look like. I hope to find a more diverse way of understanding the experience of mental health, methods and techniques for producing spaces for self-care which are resistant to neoliberal subjectification. These would be spaces of resistance which are creative and productive, enabling the subject to form new relations and find new methods of enduring the world.


Ahmed, S. 2014, Selfcare as Warfare, Feminist Killjoys, [blog] 25 August. Available at : [ Accessed on : 04/08/2016]

Ball, S., and Olmedo, A., 2012. Care of the self, resistance and subjectivity under neoliberal governmentalities. Critical Studies in Education, 54 (1), pp.85-96

Duff, C., (2012) Exploring the role of ‘enabling places’ in promoting recovery from mental illness: A qualitative test of a relational model. Health and Place, 18, pp.1388-1395

Duff, C., 2015. Atmospheres of Recovery: Assemblages of Health. Environment and Planning A, 48 (1), pp.58-74

McGrath, L., Reavey, P., and Brown, S., 2008. The Scenes and Spaces of Anxiety: Embodied expressions of distress in public and private fora. Emotion, Space and Society, 1, pp. 56-64

Philo, C., 2005. The geography of mental health: and established field? Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 18, pp.585-591

Seem, M. (1977) Introduction. In: Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1977). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated from French by Hurley, R., Seem, M., and Lane, H. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Tucker, I., 2009. Everyday spaces of mental distress: The spatial habituation of home. Environment and Planning D; Society and Space, 28 (3), pp.526-538

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