Just about everyone I know is struggling right now–between brutal acts of police violence against Black people in the US, the Orlando shooting, climate catestrophe, the spectre of a Donald Trump presidency, Brexit, and everything else we’re inundated with constantly, people are struggling with self-care, mental health, and just being okay.
Because I talk a lot about self-care people seem to assume I’m a champ at it. Rather, I talk a lot about it because it’s something I struggle with, and something I see as a fundamental part of doing justice work. So in that spirit, I’m offering a few of the things I’ve been using in the hopes they may be helpful for others. They may not ring true for you and that’s totally cool, we all have different needs and histories and self-care will look different for all of us, but they’re here if you want to give them a go.
Indulge vs Nurture
One of the most helpful things I got from an old therapist was the distinction between indulging versus nurturing, and the importance of figuring out which I’m doing and which I need to be doing.
Indulging is binge watching Orphan Black and eating ice cream. It feels really good in the moment, but doesn’t always feel great after. Nurturing is doing my laundry and going to bed early. It doesn’t feel all that exciting in the moment, but it sets me up for success later.
There is a place for indulgence (both Orphan Black and ice cream are GREAT, don’t get me wrong), but it should be entered into with a clear head. Because indulgence can really easily cross into avoidant behaviour, which tends to make us feel worse in the moment and later–realizing you have nothing to wear and only slept for four hours last night doesn’t really spell sustainable self-care.
And sometimes avoidant behaviour is all you’ve got, or the best you’ve got, in which case, go for it. Sometimes we need to tune out the world to catch our breath.
But we should also be aware of the possibility that the tricksy voices of depression and/or anxiety are telling us these are the only options we have, when things like a walk, connection, nourishing food, and good sleep are some of the best tools we have to lessen those voices and enable us to find strength and hope in the face of despair.
Gentle Parent Voice
This is my favourite self-care tool, and the one I struggle with the most. The Gentle Parent Voice is the one that treats you like a beloved child, wanting only what’s best for you. Which doesn’t always (in fact, rarely) mean what’s easiest or funnest. The Gentle Parent Voice is the one that tells me to go to bed rather than watching another episode of whatever; the one that tells me to go for a walk when I’m feeling anxious and restless rather than mindlessly surfing the internet; the one that reminds me that vegetables and protein are going to make me feel good when I’m tempted to eat a bag of Doritos for dinner. The Gentle Parent Voice is also the one that counters the critical voice asking why I didn’t do x, why I don’t look like y, that points out the mistakes I made with the intent of shame. The Gentle Parent Voice counters that shaming voice with the reminder that I’m human and humans make mistakes; that I did the best I could with what I had; that I am good and worthy and lovable as I am.
I think of the Gentle Parent Voice as a recent tool of mine, but I’m realizing that I’ve tapped into her before. A few years ago, I had an odd (and somewhat hilarious) habit of getting a glass of water or tea, sitting down on the couch, and putting the drink on the floor in front of the couch. One to several times a week I’d forget it was there, knock it with my foot, send liquid all over, and start berating myself. You are so fucking stupid! Again? AGAIN?! How did you do this again? Good lord! Come on!
You can probably guess that this berating was in no way helpful. Shaming and yelling at myself didn’t alter my habit, it just got my blood pressure up and made me feel bad.
So one day I did it and started in again. You are so stupid! Seriously? But I caught myself this time and decided to treat myself like I would a child learning something. Hey now, you’re not stupid. You just made a mistake. You forgot it was there and will try better next time.
And the next time it happened I did it again. Countered that nasty voice with the gentleness of a parent teaching a young child something. It didn’t take long to completely alter my approach. Rather than launching into the berating, I’d recognize I’d made a poor decision and resolve to do better next time. And once it had stopped being so loaded, I realized I had options here. Put the glass somewhere else, darling!
For as long as I can remember I’ve been a bad sleeper–prone to insomnia, a light sleeper, I’ve spent years of my life severely sleep deprived. Which meant waking up to an alarm clock felt vile. Often times it felt physically painful.
So I’d do that thing so many of us bad sleepers do–press snooze, sink back into a restless black pit of sleep for nine minutes, and then be jarred awake again. And then press snooze. Again.
And I realized earlier this year that I was using this same principal–expending a lot of energy to avoid something unpleasant I knew I was going to have to do anyway–in a lot of areas of my life.
Earlier this year I was dealing with monstrous amounts of anxiety and one of the only tools I had to lessen it even slightly was lifting weights. But each morning I’d fight going to the gym. My anxiety made me not want to go to the gym even though the gym was one of the only surefire ways to get relief from my anxiety.
So one morning my guts were churning with anxiety and I lay down on my bed after putting my gym clothes on. And I did something I frequently did when I had to get up in the morning: Okay, self, you’ve got ten seconds to lie here then you have to get up. But in this particular instance these were the words I said to myself: Okay, self, you’ve got ten seconds to wallow in your anxiety and then you have to get up and go to the gym. Ten, nine, eight, sev–. I got to seven and then had an epiphany. I was CHOOSING to wallow (literally! That’s the word I used!) in my anxiety rather than get on with the one thing that would lessen that anxiety.
And then I realized I was doing this same thing–expending unnecessary energy to postpone something I knew I had to do anyway–all the time. Putting clean dishes away (don’t ask, I just loathe it)? Hitting the snooze button. Making that important phone call? Hitting the snooze button. So many things–hitting the snooze button. And I decided I didn’t want to give up any more of my energy to avoid something unavoidable. I could either spend five minutes or two hours or two weeks actively and unpleasantly avoiding an unpleasant task, or I could do the damn task and be done, and have those five minutes or two hours or two weeks to spend doing absolutely anything else.
So now when I catch myself avoiding that thing, and spending unnecessary energy in doing it, I ask myself “Are you snooze buttoning this?”
(For the record, Gentle Parent Voice and Snooze Button are two of my strategies my therapist has asked to share with his other patients, which feels like a pretty ringing endorsement.)
Sometimes it just all feels like too much. For folks engaged in and passionate about social justice I think it’s really easy to feel like we must be going at 100% all the time. Like we have a duty to run ourselves ragged in pursuit of justice. Like it is a betrayal of ourselves and our beliefs and those we try to act in solidarity with to take a break.
I’m here to tell you it’s not. This work isn’t going anywhere. We’re still going to be fighting these same fights (or ones like them) in five, ten, twenty years. And we’re going to need you alongside us. What I’ve seen happen a lot in social justice communities and movements is people burn hot and bright and then disappear–they have to leave entirely for the sake of their mental and physical health. Which I understand and support if that’s what needs to be done. But I want us to put our health and sustainability at the forefront, so we don’t have to follow that trajectory.
Emma Goldman, a foremother to anarcha-feminism (and activist on a whole bunch of fronts) is popularly paraphrased with the quote:
If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.
And I echo her sentiment by saying, if I can’t self-care I don’t want to be in your revolution. What are we fighting for if it doesn’t include the right to take care of ourselves? To prioritize our mental and physical health? To demand a politic of care for ourselves and each other?
So disengage if you need to. That might mean turning off facebook for the evening, not attending that march or that committee meeting. It might mean taking a week or a month or a year off from organizing. That’s okay. Take care of yourself and support your comrades in taking care of themselves.
Use Social Media Judiciously
Social media is wonderful and terrible. For many of us it’s one of the places where find our people. We find communities of support and opportunities to broaden our understandings of justice. It’s also where we get into fights and get trolled and despair at how people we know and love say and hold values antithetical to our own.
And often, if we’re social justice-minded, our friends and the pages we follow post opportunities to learn and despair and argue constantly. It can feel inescapable.
When I took some time off earlier this year due to burnout one of the first things my therapist and I worked on was setting boundaries around social media. I stopped following pages and people who only posted things that made me rage or despair. I started following light, silly, restorative pages. I didn’t engage around certain topics that touch my very softest spots.
Here is what I do now: Follow friends and pages that make me feel good more often than they make me despair. Filters filters filters! I use them to control who sees what and who never gets a chance to argue or #wellactually on my wall. I step into discussions on other people’s walls in places where I’m acting in solidarity, not in places where my own stuff is on the line. I don’t argue on the internet about my own softest places because there is too high a likelihood of being enraged or triggered and having my day derailed.
I have been immensely lucky to find a group of women who are wonderful and hilarious and brilliant and fiercely intersectional, and I chat with them nearly every day. We check in with each other, we bounce ideas off each other, we hold space for each other. I also have beloved folks I can text or call when I need to vent or laugh or gut-check or be rallied. I am immensely grateful to them and I am continually working on reaching out rather than folding in. Connection is vital.
Shore Up Your Toolkit
In this culture, none of us are granted a full self-care toolkit. Many of us start learning as adults what we need, how to meet those needs, heck, how to even identify them.
I’m frequently on the lookout for more and better ways to nourish, nurture, and care for myself. I ask friends, I read books, I go to therapy.