In April, Anna Borges wrote “I’m am not always very attached to being alive,” an article for The Outline that quickly went viral and helped foster an online conversation about passive suicidal ideation. But Borges’s brush with virality wasn’t her first time leading important conversations about mental health: She’s currently the senior health editor at SELF and has covered wellness for BuzzFeed and Women’s Health. In 2018, Borges wrote “Self-Care: An A to Z Guide” for BuzzFeed, and the success of the piece (and its usefulness in a world where self-care content is churned out without much attention paid to how functional that content is) became the linchpin for her first book The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care.
Borges’s book holds its own in an oversaturated market by focusing on action steps. The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care is not a book full of inspirational quotes or lighthearted phrases about mental health. Instead, as the self-care has become a kernel in a larger wellness space warped by capitalism, Borges combines real anecdotes from people who are figuring out how to take care of their mental health with advice from experts and more than 200 tips that readers can return to in their time of need. I talked to Borges about the inherent risk associated with brands capitalizing on self-care and how to combat the watering down of such a life-saving concept.
What made you decide to turn your expertise in health and wellness reporting and editing into a book?
It wasn’t [something] I had considered before. On top of writing about mental health and nonfiction journalism stuff [at] my day job, I’m also a fiction writer. Batya [Rosenblum], my editor at The Experiment, saw the self-care article on BuzzFeed, which is what this book was inspired by. It fell into my lap in a fun way. I wrote that [article] because I could point to this [one central location] when people ask me how I define self-care. Now, I have a book that I can point to as an exhaustive guide to self-care. It’s wonderful to have it all in one place.
Many conversations about mental health and self-care are happening online. Why did you want to put those digital conversations in book form?
I love some of the way we talk about self-care online, but when we talk about it online, it’s [only] when it crosses your path, like when you see a great story outlining a cool self-care practice, thought, or philosophy. Having it all in one place that [can be] reached for whenever was very important to me. The internet is kind of a void, and you can never find anything you want to find unless you’re smart about bookmarking it (which I am not). Plus, a lot of my self-care involves being offline, so it seemed like a natural fit.
Self-care has been watered down, which is a critique you level in your work. It feels like self-care is losing its meaning. Why?
Any conversation that we have online has to be streamlined. We have 280 characters on Twitter. No one’s going to be able to sum up the nuances of self-care [on that platform]. And even when we’re looking at the thoughtful [digital] articles and essays about self-care, sometimes people skim the headlines and don’t dive in. There’s also the fact that self-care is now associated with consumer culture and capitalism, which can happen with anything: something becomes part of a cultural conversation, and brands are like, how do we turn this into money?
Who is the audience for this book?
Everyone. As I [write] in the introduction, the entire book comes with a big old disclaimer: Not everything will apply to you. Take what you like and leave the rest. I wanted [everyone], from someone who needs a little pick-me-up to people who deal with mental illness, struggle with suicidal ideation, and need something nice to remind them that taking care of themselves is okay, to be able to turn to this book. I made sure to bring in as many other voices as I could, so hopefully, someone—or as many people as possible—can see themselves in a couple stories or tips in the book.
Your book is so action oriented. Conversations about self-care can be so vague and ephemeral, especially on social media, where people are saying, “Take care of yourself, girl!” Can you speak to that?
The entry on affirmations is one of my favorites [in the book]. Guy Winch’s book, Emotional First Aid, talks about why affirmations and inspiring quotes don’t work for many people. If you’re someone who needs affirmations or inspiring quotes to make you feel more secure, there’s a good chance that you don’t believe those affirmations. It creates what Winch calls the “believability gap,” and it just winds up making you feel worse. You see affirmations that are super sparkly with like, “Just get out there and do it! You can take over the world!” Most people’s brains [respond], “Sure can’t.” That’s not real!
It’s also how I’m oriented. I’m a service writer first and foremost. When I write, I’m constantly in dialogue with [experts] and psychologists and people who are well-versed [in the space].
How did you decide on the structure of the book?
This idea was borne [from] wanting to do an A to Z guide. The question that I was trying to [answer] with the original article was, what can I contribute to this greater conversation on self-care that isn’t a personal essay? So many other people have done that well. The exhaustive guide was my way into this conversation to show how sprawling self-care could be. In terms of the things that I added once we turned it into a book, such as the stories throughout from other people about their self-care routines, that came largely from me anticipating feedback that people wouldn’t want to just be told, “Self-care! Go for a run.”
Why are action steps so important to have when you’re pursuing self-care for yourself?
I get cranky when people tell me what to do. I wanted to show what self-care looked like in the real world for people in different situations with different experiences to serve as a reminder that it looks different for everybody, but most people can define it [for themselves].
Self-care is so overwhelming. [Many] people have a definition of self-care, which is to take care of yourself and set aside time to make sure you’re looking after your mental health. What the hell’s that mean? I hope that someone flips through the book and sees one thing that they [can say], “I can actually try that today.” That would be a gateway to more self-care habits.
The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care seems like it’s been a passion project for you. It perfectly aligns with your professional interests and your career path. So what comes next?
Everything I write, including the fiction I write, is [rooted] in mental health. I’m a YA writer, so I’m writing for teenagers. [As a teenager], I very much wanted books that were about mental health without being “issues” books. When you think of the YA books about mental health, they’re [mostly] capital I “Issues” books like 13 Reasons Why, where someone is dying, someone is in the hospital, or someone is having a mental breakdown. My goal as a fiction writer is to infuse the space with characters who deal with mental illness or who struggle with their mental health, [but] it’s just part of who they are.