Chances are you’ve heard of the concept of self-care. Self-care is presented as a set of activities people engage in to promote their health and well-being (e.g. going for walks, eating nutritious food, taking a bubble bath, listening to music etc…). One of the biggest criticisms of self-care is that it puts the onerous work of preventing mental health challenges and physical illness on the individual and does not acknowledge the role of society. For example, if you are feeling stressed and burned out at work you might have been told to engage in more self-care. But self-care doesn’t provide health insurance, paid vacations, or an anti-racist work environment. So, after your nice work out and bubble bath, you walk right back into the work place and maybe feel good for a few days before that burnout starts creeping up again.
At this point you might be wondering is self-care worthwhile? Why does my therapist keep talking about it? How does a decolonizing therapist think about this? Let’s explore some more thoughts on self-care to help you dig into these questions for yourself.
Self-care as a Mindful Practice
What if we think of self-care not as a set of activities, but as a practice? We might be practicing how to identify when (and how) to put stressors aside and take care of other needs. We might also be building our insight into what types of experiences are engaging and help us feel more restored (e.g. youtube scrolling vs playing with your dog). All of this requires insight and intentionality, which is a great foundation for mindfulness. Through this mindfulness lens, self-care is not about pushing away negative feelings or emotions but about building our capacity to hold suffering and joy simultaneously. We can have moments of joy and peace in the midst of overwhelm. By engaging in activities that help us feel restored, we are also decreasing the intensity of the negative emotions (not changing or pushing them away), which can make them easier to sit with and learn from. The insight we gain from sitting with our emotions can lead us to consider action steps to address the root cause of our suffering.
Self-care from a Mind-Body-Heart Experience
Sometimes we are caught up in our day to day lives that include toxic dynamics or unrealistic expectations but we become too habituated that we cannot feel it is actively harming us. When we take a moment to step into self-care, it provides an opportunity for our nervous system to learn what it is actually like to experience safety, comfort, and rest. We need this as humans. When we practice self-care regularly, it starts to remold our nervous system over time to learn what is ok and not ok for us and in turn inform how we think of new boundaries. Even if we cannot change the toxic dynamics we are forced to deal with (for some folks that’s work, family, or even society), we can validate ourselves that this is not ok. When we do come across spaces and people that are genuinely caring and compassionate our nervous system is more likely to recognize this as precious and vital for us to cherish.
Self-care Leading to Liberation
The criticisms of self-care as being a superficial band aide that does not address the root cause of our suffering is critical to consider and necessary to draw light away from focusing solely on the individual, to also examining the role of societies’ oppressive structures (policies, practices, and so forth). With that in mind, self-care becomes a good starting point but not the ending point in addressing our well-being. Self-care can increase our internal resources, by helping us feel more rested, rejuvenated, and at peace. We can focus this energy into understanding the root causes of our suffering, including how systems of oppression operate together to make, addressing our needs difficult. The practice of understanding how oppression impacts mental health helps reduce stigma, internalized oppression, and can increase empowerment if we choose to harness our energy into taking action.
Recently I was participating in organization for something that is supposed to enrich my life. I was finding myself experiencing an increasing amount of anxiety every time I would interact with someone from this organization (e.g. emails, phone calls etc…). I figured it was just one or two individuals who I found abrasive and dismissive but this feeling kept lingering. My normal workouts, meditation, and yoga wasn’t helping in reducing the intensity of my feelings. As interactions increased, I realized a chunk of my free time was spent managing the stress around engaging with these predominately white individuals. I decided to create a protected free time in which I turned off my notifications and went to get ice-cream with my husband and dog. We had so much fun digging into a big cone of sugary goodness and walking to a park which overlooks the ocean. It wasn’t that my stress was no longer relevant, but I was able to remind myself that my whole life isn’t just one experience. I can have moments of joy as well. In some ways, it made the moments of joy even more special because I knew it was fleeting.
Creating more moments of joy helped me regain energy to join a support group for BIPOC individuals in a similar setting. The resonance, shared experience, and validation was like a welcomed warm bath after being out in frigid winter blizzard. We laughed, we rolled eyes, and vigorously nodded when others were talking. I realized the behavior from the individuals who were dismissive and judgmental was a reflection of the larger colorblind and paternalistic policies and practices in the organization I had previously joined. Because of my support group, I have been more confidently identifying structural racism.
This led to me advocate for myself through letter writings, hard conversations, and connecting with allies. I moved away from being an object in which this oppression was happening to me, to a subject who not only will push back but support others who are experiencing the same challenges. Now I’m exploring other organizations that specifically support the BIPOC experience. But in order to keep up the advocacy and search of a new space, I had to maintain my self-care. I continued using the idea of protected time regularly. Every night around 6:30pm I put my phone on focus mode which removes all notifications and other distracting apps. Before the weekend rolls around, I intentionally identify 1-2 activities that are not centered around productivity but just fun and make them a priority. What I find is that my insight to prioritize joy helped increase my bandwidth, which in turns feeds my advocacy. My advocacy is a way that I live as closely to my values of anti-racism, which makes me feel rooted and empowered. Both actions sustain each other. It’s not a question whether self-care is worthwhile but rather, how will you use your precious life energy that can be nurtured through self-care, to make real and sustainable change to the betterment of your life and others.