“If the outside feels bad, focus on the inside." Self-care truisms like these have a tendency to miss the bigger picture, and they make me angry.
Please do not misunderstand me, internal stability and wellbeing is something to work on and without that, the external world can forever feel threatening, no matter what the circumstances. However, the focus of the self-help industry on internal emotional work as a means to cope with external pressures fails to address the way structural inequality intrudes our mental and physical health.
The more we are taught that we are the sole orchestrators of our own misery, the less we challenge the external forces that mould our experience. You fail because you do not earn enough, you are not thin enough or toned enough, not successful or popular enough. You fail because you do not look a certain way. You fail because you suffer, and it is not the system that causes your suffering, but your individual inadequacy.
You fail because perfection is everywhere – and in order to cope with the eternal feeling of failure, you are invited to step into the rituals of self-care.
I’m not entirely sure when the concept of self-care became farcical – maybe around the time it was fully and completely subsumed by corporate advertising and social media – but at some point, self-care went from taking the time to rest and invest in your own physical and mental health to “buy these products and you will feel better”, “read this simple guide and you will find peace” or “accept what you cannot change and take a bath to wash away the pain of unemployment, inequality and structural racism”.
Even Vogue writers – bastions of anti-establishment, heralding the revolution, as we well know – advocate self-care as a way to prevent activism burn-out. This corporate sloganeering sits uneasily, with companies like Nike commanding female ‘empowerment’ campaigns worth billions of US dollars while simultaneously pushing Congress to dilute the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Bill in December 2020 (in their words, they had “constructive discussions”).
These sentiments are far removed from the richly-quoted Audre Lorde’s “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare […].” (in A Burst of Light" and Other Essays).
But Audre Lorde was a civil rights activist, a writer, and a queer feminist of colour. Rest was and is a necessary part of perseverance. Few of us can really claim to carry the same weight. Nevertheless we live in highly-pressurised societies where without caring for ourselves properly, we burn out.
In 2016/17, burnout and the correlated symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety were at the root of 40% of work-related ill health. As the product of unrelenting stress, you don’t have to be an activist to feel the physiological toll of tedious, gruelling, badly paid jobs; leaking, dilapidated, ugly flats; hours stuck stuffed in swollen tube carriages or traffic; atomised livelihoods stretching to support yourself and loved ones as council budgets are cut and social care funding dwindles.
Companies excavating socio-political thought and movement is nothing new. But how do we reconcile vapid commercial messaging on one hand with the very real need for self-care on the other? And what does self-care in the contemporary age look like? Can we limit it to individual practices, or is there scope for exercises in communal care? What might these look like?
If self-care is an act of self-preservation, or what The Guardian’s André Spicer terms “lifestyle advice for an age of diminished expectations”, are we condemned to settle for survival above striving and, dare I say it, thriving? Could self-care be more than that? Is it even possible to consider activism – an activity that in itself can be traumatic, draining and tends to lead the activist into the firing line of state violence – as a form of self-care?
I believe it could be. It might be worth mentioning here that this idea is less directed at those already heavily invested in challenge and in change. These are bodies for whom activism is not a choice, but a necessity. Bodies that struggle with rest because their personal and political are too intertwined. Bodies that are inherently political because of social and visual markers such as race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. Bodies as a site of constant struggle.
No, this is an article directed at the more privileged, who are removed from the direct attacks of social, economic and political subjugation, but feel their weight, nonetheless. Instead of surrendering to scapegoating and relying on simple solutions – the immigrants are to blame! The poor are to blame! The poor immigrants are to blame! – this is a call to invest in the community, and thus, in the self.
And yes, in case you were suspicious, this is inspired by Marxist ideology (“The free and full development of each is the precondition for the free and full development of all” etc).
I see activism as a two-pronged approach: investing simultaneously externally and internally; actively challenging the many faces of injustice on one hand and on the other, passively turning inwards, focusing on rest and wellbeing.
Both, working in tandem, lead towards radical recovery, on the individual and social level.
The danger of self-care stripped to the subjective experience, a temporary relief from the pressures of everyday existence, is that it addresses the symptom without addressing the cause. Self-care in this instance becomes an extension of neoliberal thought, lifting the individual out of the collective experience of suffering. Bathing and journaling will not put an end to those that exert that pressure, but it might provide the energy to challenge them in the first place.
If we consider political activism as a form of self-care it can assuage feelings of anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness and atomisation. This kind of self-care takes control where the other relinquishes. This kind of self-care holds governments to account and demands a better future. This kind of self-care asks for more commitment towards climate change, accessible education, gender parity and the dissolution of white supremacist structures. This kind of self-care gives to gain: energy, time and resources to build a more equitable society through working with unions, charities and NGOs.
How can we integrate practices that invite the process of knitting together a sense of community, strengthening bonds and cooperative interdependence?
I would say that in theory, any activity that emphasises collaboration, restoration and creation, contributes to forging stronger social bonds, especially if there is an invitation to people of all walks of life. Gardening, reading, knitting, studying our local and communal roots, cooking, educating… these can be joyful practices. When profit or gain is not the sole driver, there is space for collective joy, which in turn, leads to individual wellbeing.
We can be inspired and excited by difference, embrace the experiences of others as a way to learn about life. We revel in the other and in a sense of togetherness.
It can be tiring and draining, but the focus is the long-term: it is weaving a sense of self and a sense of communal. It involves set-backs and frustrations, but it bears the possibility of a better future, as opposed to surrendering to the status quo where no change is guaranteed. But I think we need to move away from the idea that our individual wellbeing is somehow completely separate from our environment, and that we do not have a responsibility to invest in both.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that for many of us, loneliness contributes to burnouts and mental health issues. We extract purpose, value and meaning from our social communities. Being cut off from our loved ones is stressful and therefore an additional incentive to reinvest into the people and places around us.
Self-care is subjective but it is not a completely individualised, lone endeavour. What you are able to do and to what extent you are able to rest depends on your circumstances, and these are influenced by the society you live in. For those who are constantly involved in caring for others – women, particularly women of colour – self-care is often defined by rest, where it is possible. For activists who fight because their lives depend on it, that same life also depends on rest. When life is defined by constant fear, anxiety and vigilance, then rest is needed to refuel to meet these issues head on.
For those with more privilege, more space to breathe and to more comfort to work from, self-care could be more – it could mean creating more space for others.