Being ‘selfish’ vs. Being ‘productive’: The Politics of Care


Welcome to ‘Decolonizing our Practices: Conversing about Care’, a three-part blog post series. This series is a culminating conversation between Tangent MHI and One Future Collective as a part of our collaborative initiative, which was undertaken in October of 2021, to work towards decolonizing the perceptions and practices of mental health in India.

This is the first post of this series – ‘Being ‘selfish’ vs. Being ‘productive’: The Politics of Care’. Read on to see why we think care is a political conversation and what informs our understanding of care. [Please note that for the purpose of readability, the speakers’ responses have been divided into paragraphs.

Each new response begins with their name (Ankita and Anvita), followed by their initials (A.B and A.W, respectively).]


Disclaimer: Before you go ahead, we would like you to remember that this conversation is informed by the personal and professional stances of the speakers, by their respective socio-political locations, and by the resources, they have been able to access. We recognize that this is not the only way one can think about the ideas mentioned here. We would encourage you to bring your perspectives, share your thoughts, and any other resources in the comments below!


Ankita [A.B.]: As we were thinking about the idea of care and when we came upon this topic, which is politics of care, something that, uh, I was discussing with my team and with Anvita is, what are some of the things–or what are some of the stories that come to mind whenever I think about the term, “politics of care”. I realized that it’s very hard for me to settle down on any one story or one thing that I can point out as, ‘Okay, this is what informs my thought when I think about politics of care’, because even the terminology in itself, has many layers and meanings that you can reach into. Whichever perspective you take, there’s plenty to uncover and speak about. So I’ll just try to summarize my thoughts. 


A.B.: The ideologies around the politics of care and particularly self-care, come from different personal/professional lenses. Something that I’ve noticed in my work with clients, especially over the last year and a half, is that when speaking about ideas of care, there is a sense of guilt that takes up space. This guilt may sound like, “Am I being selfish if I’m choosing to care for myself?” or “Am I being selfish if I’m choosing to set boundaries?” Even when there is a realization that these are necessary for an individual, it’s always underlined with guilt. However, if we switch the conversation with the same individuals and ask them to look at people in their life who might be debating about the importance of care – they do not hesitate to point out its importance. 


A.B.: Care can take different forms and at the end of the day, it is essential for the person to just be able to exist in society. This is what speaks to the idea of the politics of self-care – what are we learning to prioritize and why am I being taught and told by the system that if I end up prioritizing myself, I’m being selfish or jeopardizing something/ someone by putting myself at the top of this list.


A.B.: If I were to step out of the role of a mental health professional, I also can say that I am one of the people who struggle to care for themselves. We need to recognise that care can appear different for each individual and even for the same individual under varied circumstances. How I like to take time off when I’m by myself is different from how I would like to do it when I’m with somebody. That being said, I would like to hear your thoughts on this. 


Anvita [A.W]: Wow, thank you, Ankita. I agree that, oftentimes, anything around self-care can be perceived as selfish. And I think even for me, one of the first things that came to mind when I thought about the politics of care was that we can see it through so many different lenses; and how in different spheres of life, care is perceived in different ways. 


A.W: Even caregiving as a mental health professional–this is a formalized, professional way of providing care. But what about the kind of care work that home-makers do without being paid for it? You know, it’s not like they aren’t working, it’s just that unpaid care provision is not being formally recognized and valued as work. And not only do standard economic measures overlook this form of care, but often, we take it for granted in our own homes. In my household, we still automatically place certain care-related expectations on my mom that we just don’t put on my father or my brother; and I’m also guilty of doing this.


A.W: In this context, caring for others is equated with being selfless. It ends up becoming a form of sacrifice. It’s almost as if the sacrifice is what makes it meaningful and worthy of appreciation. But, of course, for centuries we’ve been placing these expectations on certain people or certain communities. And if they don’t conform to the norm of putting everyone above themselves, they’re perceived as selfish–which they’re taught is the worst thing they could possibly be. This affects their health, their social life, their autonomy—their very sense of self. What does ‘self-care’ mean for them, then? 


A.W: When I think about more formalized approaches to providing care…I completely agree with you about the notion of productivity. It also makes me think about our Sharing Circles, in which one of Tangent’s team members had mentioned that even therapy–even though it’s a form of care–ends up becoming this pursuit of productivity because, in our heads, we’re trying to meet certain goals to be ‘better.’ And that can give rise to all this pressure and, of course, so much guilt. 


A.W: I think, we’re currently in an age and in a culture where, you know, not sleeping or forgetting to eat or relying on caffeine to make it through the day is almost glorified. Uh, not always in an overt manner, but often in subtle ways; and even if it’s not glorified, it’s normalized to a certain extent. And when these behaviours become the norm is when they become a cause for concern because then we don’t question them; we just go along with them despite how they affect us. Even though we realize that they’re unhealthy. ‘Cause if you’re not conforming to the norm, then you’re not good enough to be in the system. Again, I am not immune to this. There are days when even if I have worked for a long time–for like, you know, hours and hours, and then I take a break for 10 minutes, all I think about for those 10 minutes is how I’m not being productive anymore and I’m wasting time, or like, I’m not doing my best, or something like that. And I think a lot of my self-worth is also related to being productive. This really affects how I seek and receive care. 


A.W: Yeah, these are some things that immediately come to mind. Would you like to share any reflections that may have come up, and perhaps we could also explore the next question? 


Ankita [A.B.]: Thanks Anvita! There were quite a few things that I resonated with, but there is one in particular that I would like to talk about. You mentioned how in the present system(s) we’re a part of, our worth is equated to productivity. The more productive a person is, the more they can contribute to the system. In association with this idea, I would like to mention a post I came across on Instagram. The post was made by the CEO of an organization, where they were talking about two of their employees who are very good at their job. Even so, this person is unhappy as these employees stick to time and do not stay beyond work hours. The CEO was quite aggrieved about how to address this ‘issue’ with them. From how I see it, this instance highlights your point around worth and productivity.


A.B.: If I could speak from personal experience, I am a stickler for keeping to time. My teammates will account for this! However, I also know that my association with punctuality is heavily influenced by the idea of perceived productivity. My desire to be punctual isn’t just motivated by respect for other people’s time but also by personal (sometimes overwhelming) anxiety. This anxiety further drives the idea of being an ‘ideal’, um, colleague/employee/student–whatever an ideal individual looks like. I think it’s only now that I can question the anxiety and understand if it comes from within or if it’s one I’ve learnt from the system. That is what came to mind when you were sharing. And I think I just wanted to kind of put it out there. Um, is there something that you’d like to add? Would you like us to move to the next question? 


Anvita [A.W]: I’d just like to share this one thought: what if someone actually needs that extra time? And I absolutely relate with you; I also have this thing where I try to be there before time or go out of my way to make sure that I’m not causing an inconvenience to someone because of my own learnt anxiety. 


A.W.: But also…what if the reason for someone being late is not because they don’t respect our time? What if someone genuinely needs that time because they have a mental health issue or a physical impairment or a disability? What about working people that also have to carry out unpaid caregiving duties at home? What about people who have to balance multiple jobs to make ends meet? Even the idea of a 9 to 5 workday is patriarchal. I’d come across this tweet that explained how these work hours and productivity norms were designed by men and for men during a time when their wives did all the behind-the-scenes work for them—from cooking to copy-editing. Workplaces still don’t account for the gendered division of domestic work. What if someone needs accommodation for reasonable purposes? Would they hold space for that? And I’m actually saying this from a place of privilege, too, because I don’t do most of the domestic work at my house. And considering these norms, I know I wouldn’t be able to manage to study and work if I did; and I shouldn’t have to. Nobody should.


A.W.: Also, if you don’t meet this standard of work, you’re automatically thought of as lazy or as slacking off. But these standards are defined by people who are able-bodied or who don’t have to do as much domestic labour or who aren’t working round the clock to survive. If our idea of ‘normal’ and ‘standard’ is being defined by people who have all these privileges, how does this affect those who don’t? They are constantly having to keep up, and understandably, falling short because the world wasn’t designed keeping their needs in mind. And so, what would ‘care’ look like for all of them in this unequal world, you know? That’s why the idea of care is not simply a personal matter; it’s a political issue. It’s a rights-based issue. 


A.W.: Yeah, this was a small thing that I wanted to add!

Thank you for accompanying us on Part 1 of our dialogue around care! This conversation continues in the next blog post. 

To access resources that have shaped our ideas of care, please find our resource list here. You can also find the summaries of our Sharing Circles 1, 2, and 3 with Mental Health Professionals here, here, and here, respectively; and that of the Participatory Workshop for Mental Health Users/Survivors here.


About the Speakers


Anvita Walia is a student, researcher, and eternal learner. She is a Senior Program Officer at One Future Collective, a feminist social purpose organisation with a vision of a world built on social justice, led by communities of care. To know more about OFC’s work, please click here

Ankita is a listener, a mental health professional and one of the co-founders of Tangent Mental Health Initiative. Tangent MHI began in 2020 and works in the field of mental health service and advocacy. Their work is informed by the values of intersectional feminism, inclusion and accessibility. To know more about Tangent MHI’s work, you can click here.

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