Jo Chiang: The Neoliberal Trap of Self-Care

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Jo Chiang is a Taiwanese-American actor, writer, filmmaker, and 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 and is a founding member of The Found Co.

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

You said the topic of self-care has been on your mind a lot lately. Do tell.

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.

So basically the agent of the individual taking care of the self to make sure it is well. 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 no one is going to help us be well. 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, in that way. 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’ve been thinking a lot about this, because I and people I care about are all grappling right now 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. We need to be okay with, “I need someone to take care of me right now.”

An important part of what I would say is self-care is knowing your timing. When you need to ask for help and when you need privacy. I’ve struggled with what you’re saying. I don’t like people seeing my weaknesses. Theoretically, who does?

Isn’t that because we value being well over vulnerability? Again, it’s what neoliberalism wants.

For me, not wanting to show weakness was about fear of people disregarding my point of view because I’m fallible. At the same time, I’ve seen entrepreneurs whose market is self-improvement or self-help, and they’re in danger of being pulled into, “How do I get resources and find work by ‘helping others?'” It’s a very fine line.

I mean, 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. Some do need to be by themselves; some need to be with other people. Who am I to judge what works for you? 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. Why do we value taking care of ourselves independently over asking for help?

What I’ve been focusing on as of late is the idea of balance. How do you sustain self-care when your circumstances or feelings keep changing? How do we establish these foundations when it can be taken away from us and others have some degree of agency and control over them? We still carry the burden of dealing with these changes.

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.

How to develop self-kindess.

Right. If you need self-care because you’re overstressed and overwhelmed, those are external factors that you could change in some way. Cancel plans. Ask for assistance. Say no to an invitation. It’s the the internal stuff that’s harder to deal with. Self-doubt. Fear. Anxiety. We aren’t kind enough to ourselves.

When I’ve overcome crippling self-criticism, I think it’s generally been a mixture of both. I had to take certain actions, even if I had to wait for it to pass before I could get out of bed. To you, what seems inaccessible that makes us feel they can’t reach out?

I can only speak for myself, but I don’t feel I have the right to burden other people with my problems. I can’t place that expectation on someone else because it can be exhausting to take care of someone. Knowing that I might feel too exhausted to be there for someone else means that it can happen to other people. I don’t want to have someone go through those feelings on my behalf.

In this conversation, support systems are very important. It’s definitely a trap in today’s rhetoric that people must go through things alone. What if you belong to a community with far less resources?

I don’t know. Neoliberalism values production and profit over all else which forces people to individually labor with no reprieve. How do you build a community of trust when no one has the time or energy to be present or vulnerable with each other? It’s really difficult.

Trust is a hard one. I often group it with love because people struggle to quantify it.

It’s less that I don’t trust people. It’s more that I don’t trust the circumstances, because they are in constant flux. One week might be especially hard on me labor-wise and the next week might be overwhelming for my friend. Vulnerability needs consistency but that consistency is impossible. So we’re stuck.

I go through this conversation with myself all the time. Within the last year or so, I’ve become far less of a social butterfly than before because I just have so many thoughts in my head. There are certain things I grapple with because I don’t have the language yet. It can become very existential.

Existentialism is very annoying yet very common. I mean, it’s also annoying because it’s common.[Laughs] I’m sure there are people out there with very stable, consistent perspectives on their life and purpose, but most people I know struggle. My remedy towards existentialism is to be grounded, and I feel most grounded when I feel present and fully engaged with whatever I’m doing or whoever I’m with. Whether it’s present with people, or an event, or when I’m performing.

To be connected.

Right. But again, to be connected requires people and community, which challenges the valorization of self-care. It is care, but it’s not just on the onus of the self. For example, a big part of my self-care is to write, but the extension of that is to share my writing with other people. I want others to read it and see if they can resonate with it. So it’s again not solely about the self. There needs to be that community component.

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

Well, recently I texted a friend, “Can I see you? I really need to talk through some things.” We talked afterwards and it was really wonderful. I’m so grateful that she did that for me, and because she was so generous, I know she’ll be there for me again. 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.

So I still try to reach out first across that barrier to see if a friend needs to talk. I’m careful with the wording I use because I want to be conscious about whether I’m making it about me or if I’m just projecting. I also don’t want to make assumptions about someone’s wellness.

I have that struggle sometimes with friends who have gone through trauma I can’t begin to imagine. We are a part of each other’s lives because of our relationship, but I also house concern for them, even during times when they want privacy. It’s really hard to play psychic, so I can only present myself as trustworthy and hopefully they feel they can reach out to me. What are your symptoms when you are starved for human connection? For me, it’s often insomnia.

I don’t know if correlation is causation, but often when I feel isolated, I lose any motivation to do anything. I will crawl back into bed and feel terrible about not being productive. 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. I love the city but it can also kick you in the ass.

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. I’m also lucky that if I’m starved for human interaction I live with four really wonderful roommates. I know I’ll always get to hear about someone else’s day, even if I don’t really want to share mine.

Coincidentally, some of my best friends live in Los Angeles now, so it’s made me wonder if our relationship would be different if we lived in a different city. It’s extremely rare for me to hear people moving for anything other than their career.

Distance is difficult. Everyone is so busy that our work becomes prioritized over being present with other people. People can hang out but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re connecting. There is a really interesting article about making dates and that the strongest relationships are when you can just be around each other, not necessarily making an event out of it. Ideally, that’s why you can be so close to your roommates. There’s an ease that occurs which doesn’t when you are sitting opposite someone in a restaurant or coffee shop.

Also, no money needs to be spent in order for people to enjoy each other’s company. This goes into the idea of the neoliberal trap. You must always be doing something. Do you also think neoliberalism feeds into dating culture as well? At the end of the day, there’s only me to take care of myself, because dating sucks.

[Long groan] I hate that. I definitely had a cry or two on the phone with my mom about how hard it is for me to be in a long-term relationship. She accused me of being too independent. She thinks I intimidate people.

People also want dating to be a free market. We want it to be as much of an even playing field as possible. 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.

What’s your vision of a community that serves the well being of the community members?

[Laughs] I have this overarching idea about utopia. We are constantly working towards utopia, but it’s a project, not a product. We are always moving towards it, but we can never really achieve it. The minute you achieve it, you would think that everything is fine and there’s nothing else that needs to be done. Perfection, to me, is a neoliberal idea. The minute you “achieve” it, you can never grow or change. So the utopian project will never end, and that’s okay. It’s exciting in some ways. To move towards that vision, what I think we need is vulnerability, trust, and communication. Yet, again I never want to condemn the need to withdraw, because we all have that impulse.

Do you feel like 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! [Laughs]

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