Now that I have hooked you with that provocative title…
I’ve been thinking a lot about self-care lately, especially in the context of activism and non-profit work. I’ve found there is A LOT of talk about self-care in these circles, and a lot less follow-through. Often I find myself wondering if the self-care that I do see and experience being practiced here is actually aiding in sustainability, or if we’re putting bandaids on something that will never be healed through bandaids.
I have chronic pain. I have a headache every moment of every day, and depending on the hour, stress levels, and how much I’ve tried to do, it goes from being mildly annoying to intense pain that blocks everything else out. I also experience anxiety, which similarly goes ranges from something that I’m tending to on the edges, to hours of debilitating panic, often accompanied with nausea and increased headaches.
For a long time my mode of operation was: go and go and go, and give all my energy to the world and my ideas, and do all the work, and have all the fun and then…
CRASH BURN CRASH
I would get sick, or have such a bad headache that I had to stay in bed for days. After repeated attempts at smaller nudges, my body pursued more dramatic measures to get my attention. And so I would give in and rest, intensely and deeply for a few days.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
For the last few years I’ve been working on learning how to care for my body through pain and panic. In case by this point, you’re beginning to think I’ve arrived somewhere and now know all things, let me put your mind at rest: I’m still trying to figure this shit out everyday.
Here’s what I found so far: my method has been to give until I’m empty, to push through and beyond pain, to fill up every moment, and only surrender to rest when I was too weak to go on.
Guess where else this pattern lives? The empire. The system. The dominant narrative that says you are valued based on what you do, how efficient you are, how much you produce, and how much you can buy and consume. This system breeds on busyness and hurry, on not taking time to rest and heal. The more you live into it, the harder it is to stop, and the more counter-cultural it is to love yourself.
I’m afraid the pattern of reactive self-care, of showing yourself love only in response to distress or overload or your body forcing you to rest, is perpetuating the system.
The same people who are fighting for something good, something new, some world where love and justice flourish over hate and oppression – what if our patterns of self-care are actually valuing efficiency over sustainability? What if we’re copying the system we’re fighting against? What if what we’re calling “self-care” is just a quick pause button on the all consuming agenda of the system?
I’m not against self-care. I’m not even against what I’m calling reactive self-care, which often entails coping mechanisms to survive, to mark off some space for filling, instead of only emptying. These times of care in stress can be vital to get through. With all this though, I think in activist and non-profit circles, we’ve unknowingly created our systems of work and rest in the image of what we’re fighting against.
As I’ve listened to my body and lived with pain and anxiety more intentionally the last few years, I have had to completely rearrange my life to find some semblance of sustainability. I’ve changed what I eat. I’ve seen doctor after doctor. I’ve done a variety of body and mind therapies. And I’ve set up my life around times of rest. I have a day each week were all I do is rest, and I spend several hours each morning doing grounding practices that heal and fill me.
In order to actually be anywhere close to who I want to be in the world, I’ve had to dramatically alter the way I do activism, work, and rest. I have so much privilege in this, and having the time/space/money/living situation to do this. I want to acknowledge that the ways I benefit from the systems of this world are a part of why I have time to do this. And that those same systems are set up to make another way of life nearly impossible for some people while giving all the profits to other people.
I want to be a person who acknowledges my privilege and the ways I’m complicit in the system. And I want to sit with my own discomfort with that. I want my small efforts of justice and love in the world to reflect the hope and equity I work towards, not the system I’m fighting against.
It took MONTHS to feel ok with taking time to rest when I wasn’t absolutely exhausted, to feel ok with advocating for myself, to feel ok about taking care of myself as well as other people. And a lot of days, I have to keep making the choice over and over to make space for myself to rest and heal.
What if self-care moved from a reactive tendency to exhaustion and burn-out to a proactive way of life? What if making space to be grounded, to rest, and to heal became a part of activist and non-profit culture? Not rest at the expense of action, but consistent, intentional daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly patterns of self-care that fill us with energy and connect us together?
What could this look like for you?