Image courtesy Amelia Nagoski

Is ‘self-care’ anti-feminist?

Amelia Nagoski says that toxic perfectionism isn’t the answer to beating burnout
January 25, 2023

Amelia Nagoski believes that “self-care” is an anti-feminist trap. “It’s another unrealistic expectation placed on women,” the American author, speaker and choral conductor tells me via Zoom. “It suggests that engaging in specific wellness-driven behaviours like waking up at 5am to exercise can solve a stress issue. Women are told that they need to work harder to cure their burnout. Ironically, this is the exact opposite of what they need.”

Nagoski is co-author of Burnout: Solve Your Stress Cycle, a self-help book that looks at the practical tools women can use to avoid burning out. The word “burnout” only entered common usage in recent years, but mental health experts warn that the problem is on the rise. In the UK, 89 per cent of employees have experienced some level of burnout over the last two years as homeworking during the pandemic blurred the lines between work and leisure, making it difficult to clock off. 

But Nagoski thinks burnout is about more than just work: the book posits that that its primary cause among women is the gap between the societal expectations placed on them and the reality of their lives. “Women feel as though they have failed if they can’t achieve or maintain perfection. It’s a stressful place to be.”

As well as writing on the topic of stress, the 45-year-old, who lives in Massachusetts, is an assistant professor and coordinator of music at Western New England University. She was hospitalised twice for burnout while studying for her doctorate in conducting. “The stress built up in my body and caused serious abdominal, back and shoulder pain,” she says. Then, in 2015, Nagoski’s identical twin sister Emily published the New York Times bestseller, Come as You Are, which debunks common myths around female sexual pleasure. A “huge number of women” approached Emily on her book tour and told her that a chapter on stress and managing emotions “really resonated with them”, leading the pair to write Burnout together.

Stress is something that Nagoski believes is all-too easy to ignore. As a conservatory-trained conductor, she was taught to “feel” her feelings on the podium: “That didn’t mean I knew how to do it in the real world. It wasn’t until I went through burnout that I learned the tools I needed to process those emotions. When I did, it saved my life.”

Women are told that they need to work harder to cure their burnout

Her book helps female readers counter toxic perfectionism and the idea that they should be doing more. She takes umbrage at advice for “beating burnout” on TikTok and Instagram, where women are “told that they should feel better after having a manicure and a bath. When it doesn’t work for them, they worry that they are broken,” she says. 

Surely some self-care advice is useful, I suggest. Nagoski counters that there’s a difference between relaxation and getting to the root cause of burnout: “If you practise deep breathing, it can make you feel better for a moment, but that’s not enough. Relaxation is not the same as dealing with your stress. It’s ignoring the stress and letting yourself feel OK and safe ‘right now’. There is deeper work to identify where burnout is coming from.” The sisters have just launched a journal, The Burnout Workbook: Advice and Exercises to Help You Unlock the Stress Cycle, to help women “navigate the stress cycle”. 

But Nagoski believes the cure to female burnout is to build a close-knit community. “Part of our primitive nervous system knows that the safest place to be is in the middle of a herd. We feel driven to conform to society’s expectations of us for basic safety, even if we know these expectations are wildly unachievable.” By building a circle, women can tap out of Instagram-driven perfection. “It reminds women they’re in the middle of a different herd and worthy of care and wellness just as they are.”