[10 min read] [Or you can skip to the bottom for the self-care syllabus link 😉 ]
Last week, I went on vacation. Aside from a mid-week layover in my apartment I was, as we say in Michigan, “up north.” It was absolutely gorgeous.
Miners Castle, along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Lately, I have this heightened yearning to be deep in nature, and it’s nature exactly that the UP offers. Specifically, I prefer the Great Lakes, even more specifically Lake Michigan and (now I can add to my list) Lake Superior. Looking out over these unending, crystal blue entities is my happiest place. I love the clean, silky sand and the grassy dunes. It’s picturesque.
It’s magical that these bodies of water exist inland and that I am so privileged to have grown up near them. It makes me feel like I am part of a special club consisting of anyone else who has frequented these lakes and felt similarly. It also reminds me that in so many ways I am connected to and mutually dependent of nature, and that I 100% require regular exposure to thrive.
To be perfectly honest, while everything above is absolutely true, it’s also accurate to say that being in nature makes me quite anxious. The person who has grown up with technology and relies on it around the clock also understands nature time to mean that I am more far than usual from any mall, trendy cafe, craft cocktail, and gluten free restaurant. It’s a different part of my millennial “comfort zone,” to say the least.
What made my recent vacation especially simultaneously luxurious and anxiety-provoking was that I chose to delete most of my social media apps from my phone. It’s true, I used Instagram for photos and texted a few people, but I was proud of myself for ignoring email, facebook, snapchat, and honestly not really checking Instagram other than to post myself.
It took me at least 3 days to settle in to this.
I realized on day one how anxious I was. I was listening to a podcast where a Buddhist monk and meditation expert described the process of being confronted with his thoughts, after what he called the “honeymoon” period of his studies.
Listen to that podcast HERE.
Hearing him put words to my loosely acknowledged thoughts forced me to realize what was coming, and it was physically unbearable. Nervous energy bounced around in my chest, up through my shoulders, and wrapped itself around my jaw, sending my upper and lower jaw into a soft collision.
As is not always the case, I was in safe company to let out as many lion’s breaths as I needed to.
The first few days, my hand reached for my iPhone out of habit, my thumb searching for that spot sort of on the middle-right part of the screen where I normally found a “social media” folder. I felt unstimulated, bored, unsettled, and discontent.
But, after day three, it started to feel really, really good. My mind stopped searching for the right response to this one email that was tripping me up, and I didn’t feel the need to constantly be thinking, creating, doing. With much beautiful sight-seeing interspersed, I looked forward to the moments when I could simply sit outside, reach, stare into nowhere with insane purpose.
Since I’ve been home, I’ve continued to muddle over some reflections about why self-care is important. Despite that upon my return I gleefully checked every notification I could, I have returned with an amplified sense of my self-care strategies, from the drastic social media fast to lower-hanging fruit.
Returning readers know I often contemplate the role of health and wellness in activist communities. This post is no different, but I also want to take a moment to explore my definition of activism, which is quite broadly defined. Activists are present across many realms of our life, and our expression of activism similarly shows up in multitudinous ways.
I consider my work as a public health professional and social worker activism. I consider my yoga teaching practice activism. I consider my personal yoga practice activism. I consider the way I interact with wage workers activism. I consider seeing a therapist activism.
Though there is breadth in my definition, however, I absolutely believe what constitutes activism and makes an activist is depth. Broadly defined does not mean that I take this definition or identity lightly. Simply signing petitions is not activism, in my point of view. Patting yourself on the back for going against the grain and doing one thing “right” is not activism. True activism requires an enormous amount of commitment and intention mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically.
I’ll also reiterate (from previous posts and public discourse) that this is especially true for marginalized folx, who have been, are, and will always be less able to unplug their awareness of discrimination and social inequity.
One thing social media has been super awesome for is facilitating informal and authentic conversations about self-care. While many of us may already be on board and recruiting our loved ones to join us I think that self-care’s popularity, as is true with many trends, causes us to participate without critical analysis of what it is and why we should do it. So, after much thinking over my vacation, I categorized a few of my own perspectives on it.
1: In case of emergency, please put on your own mask before assisting others.
Ok so I know this one is over-used, but it’s a good one, so I’m gonna talk about it anyway. Because much of our culture is detrimentally individualistic, activists often feel that they must be unwaveringly self-less. Sacrifice, we say, is necessary for the movement. This is true to an extent, yet, to me, it’s also about balance. From my perspective, the concept of sacrifice has more to do with giving up your individual sense of control and considering the needs of others in addition to yourself, rather than in spite of yourself.
If you are truly invaluable to the movement – and each one of us unequivocally is – you need to make sure you’ve got the energy to stay the course. Everyone’s energy is different, and that’s fine. It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. Our beautiful friends who organize protests every other week and are always the first to risk arrest are key, but so are those of us who facilitate dialogues on diversity, or who work for food banks, or may have more introverted activist tendencies. We have to infiltrate every single level, people!
Finally, when you take time to put on your own mask and breathe some much needed O2, it sets an example for others. What if we all were able to talk more openly about our needs and our limits? I think we’d be better equipped to maintain momentum by knowing when to pick up the slack of others and trust that they’ll do the same for you in the future.
2: I can see clearly now the rain is gone.
The last few times I’ve stepped away from my own expressions of activism, as well as other projects, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the ways I have felt stuck open up and the answers I couldn’t seem to find come to me with much greater ease. Letting go – not just a little bit, but a lot – helps me see with greater clarity. I can think more critically about the issues, see them from multiple sides, and think about long-term and indirect consequences.
And, to keep it 100, sometimes I find that the letting go simply helps me accept ambiguity a bit easier. Social change work is full of that stuff, that’s why we’ve been struggling with it since the beginning of society as we know it. Yeah, I know some answers are crystal clear and we’re just waiting for the stubborn straight wealthy white guys to get it, but the majority of our work is layered, complex, and answers found often reveal more questions.
3: Comfort in discomfort.
The biggest misconception about self-care, yoga and mindfulness is that it will always feel good. In fact, grappling with how to confront this both myself and in helping others has kept me up many-a-night; my blog posts, for example, are an attempt to communicate to others that the goal is not pure comfort, happiness, and fun.
Tolerating anxiety is a crucial life skill in general, and especially relevant in activism, as the very things we’re dealing with are painful, uncomfortable, unpredictable, and frightening. My first few days of vacation and the social media fast I was so anxious I could barely stand it.
Where’s the nearest bottle of wine? Maybe if I eat this I’ll feel better. I need to be alone – NO! I need to be with others. Shit, I hope I can sleep tonight. Did I answer that email? Ugh, I hope I didn’t sound too rude. What will I do over this break?
Not all of our self-care practices will test us in this way, some of it will be incredibly pleasurable; but the kind we need to truly evolve will very likely challenge us.
It’s easy, and perhaps common, to assume it’s better to ignore your own shit and just keep moving forward. But if we can’t handle our deepest anxieties, our darkest thoughts, our longest-lasting fears, how the hell are we supposed to solve centuries of sexism, racism, classism, and other injustices? These things are not outside of ourselves – they are our day-to-day experiences, from microaggressions to overt discrimination, no one is really immune.
Thus, we are called to action. Not only for the benefit of our communities or other communities, but for ourselves, as well. Self care looks different for everyone. Though my story illustrates how breaks from social media are one (yes, more is better, right?!) of my self-care practices, I realize for others that may be too much, or simply not enough. Thanks to many friends, and some strangers, I’ve put together this critical self-care syllabus. Take a peek and explore what self-care looks like for you! Hold onto your hat – it’s going to be a bumpy, terrifying, but also rejuvenating and inspiring ride!