A few years ago, Kim Tran — an anti-oppression activist, writer, and teacher — woke up and couldn’t breathe. She soon found herself in the emergency room with a diagnosis of chronic stress. As she recalls, “The doctor asked me what I did for a living. I told her and her response was: Well, that makes a lot of sense.”
Intense emotional labor coupled with a lack of self-care can snowball and take a physical toll on the body. Since then, self-care has become a much larger part of Tran’s life and is something she recommends all activists prioritize proactively. “Self-care is sustainability,” she says. “Don’t wait until you break down.”
It’s easy to approach a concept like self-care with some skepticism, considering American society is so obsessed with the individual already.
San Francisco houses a special breed of this “me” focus; swaths of tech startups appear hellbent on remedying minor individual inconveniences, while the quantified self can easily morph into quantified selfishness. A book called The Wellness Syndrome recently argued that our culture’s “obsessive ritualization of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement” (as Laura Pennie aptly summarized in The Baffler earlier this year).
But while “self-care” sometimes gets mistaken for indulgence or individualism, it’s far simpler than that — and as a result, far more important. As Dr. Laura Figoski (ND) put it, self-care refers to the day-to-day things you do to be well and stay well. Thus, self-care can and must offer the foundation for ongoing collective engagement, not just an alternative to it.
Activism — whether direct or not — stems from a loyalty to the greater good and a desire for progress. But a healthy foundation can’t go out the window just because the focus is on broader societal change.
“People who have a sense of strong motivation will push themselves too hard or neglect self-care because of that larger goal,” Figoski explains. “But you can’t pour from an empty cup. If you’re in a depleted place, you can’t do good work. The heart or the soul behind your work gets lost.”
Tran agrees. “There are really basic human needs that people start to fail to provide for themselves regardless of whether or not they’re marching everyday,” she says. Thus, self-care must start with basics like eating, hydrating, sleeping, showering, and so on.
The next level, though, brings us back to Tran’s tipping point. According to Figoski, stress management is the most overlooked aspect of self-care, and not just for activists. “Even if we’re not making great choices, most people are figuring out how to feed themselves, brush their teeth, take a shower,” she says. “But we’re neglecting stress management. Because in order to do that, we are often required to step away from the stressors.”
Stepping away from stressors represents an uphill battle against entrenched cultural norms. Social media has left many of us over-connected — and activists, who increasingly use popular social platforms for organizing, are not immune. More generally, society glorifies busy-ness and self-reliance. Even when we’re aware of these demands, they’re difficult to overcome. This can be especially challenging with activism, as there’s a sense of urgency and obligation, while actual lives are often at stake. But activists must remember that a lack of self-care can put their own lives at stake, too.
As Angel V. Shannon (MS, CRNP), CEO and practice owner of Seva Health, points out, stress is a silent killer. “Stress is the precursor of every disease,” she wrote. “And what’s crazy to me is that people wear stress and that hustle/grind … I’m so busy like a badge of honor. Don’t believe the hype.”
With activism specifically, avoiding a “badge of honor” mentality is the first step to stress management. Activism is a marathon — if marathons were a team sport.
“When you first get involved in activist work, there’s this feeling that if you don’t participate in every action, it will fall apart,” Tran says. “What helps me sleep every night whether or not I’ve done social justice work that day (or artistic work, in the same vein) is that there was someone who taught me how to be an organizer and an activist. So if you need to take a couple steps back, the struggle continues without you. There’s an army of people willing to take up that mantle, especially in the wake of the election. You’re not an army of one.”
“People, whether you’re an activist or a teacher or an organizer or just a casual person, are finite resources,” Tran continues. “None of us has the capacity to do any sort of labor — emotional or physical — indefinitely. We should think of self-care like food, like water. You have to be able to nourish yourself to get through the marathon.”
Of course, eliminating stress completely is unrealistic. Instead, having strategies in place to deal with stress continuously and proactively is key. “Stress is a part of life,” Shannon also wrote. “The question is how are you coping.” Sometimes, coping may mean engaging in activities that, on a surface level, appear more selfish than activist work — leisure activities, for instance. Recognizing such activities—which really, for effectiveness, should become habits — as self-care is also important to eliminate the guilt that can accompany breaks.
“For me, I tend to reach my quota of anti-oppression every day,” Tran explains. “I teach about oppression every day, I write about oppression every day. My bread and butter is anti-oppression work all day long, which means self-care at the end of the day is not doing that.”
“Self-care is, in a lot of respects, the pause that you need to take a deep breath,” she adds. “In 2014, it felt like we were marching every day after Ferguson. We were marching for like two solid weeks and participating in a lot of actions every day. I had a quick moment to grieve and I stopped and realized everyone I knew was exhausted. It’s important to take a temperature check on your own life and see how you are engaging with social justice. Are you running the show or is the show running you?”
Figoski echoed the importance of such reflection. “When it comes to implementing self-care, I think taking honest stock of what’s going on in your life is important. Take some moments to evaluate how this work is impacting me. Do I feel energized or do I feel drained? Just that awareness and that action of evaluation is pretty foreign to a lot of people,” she says.
It’s not just evaluating when you need self-care, but what that self-care should entail. Figoski used a junk food analogy — sometimes, we’re stressed out and reach for a Snickers. But that Snickers doesn’t actually replenish and nourish us. While individual nourishment needs naturally vary, creating a daily self-care habit is a universal starting point.
“I’m a big advocate of something small, something simple, but something that you can do every day,” Figoski says. “There are so many options — deep breathing, a gratitude journal, playing with your cat — but it’s really about the active, intentional choice. I don’t care what it is, as long as it works for you.”
Choosing an activity you genuinely enjoy will help reinforce the habit. As Figoski put it: “The thing that works is the thing you’re going to do. The regularity of it matters. Just a few minutes of deep breathing is enough to can your physiology. Those small things are tipping points for building larger habits.
Another way to reinforce those habits is to surround yourself with people who also prioritize and understand self-care. “I’ll be the first to say self-care sounds selfish, but I cannot do self-care alone,” Tran says. In addition to a self-care checklist, she has friends she checks in with regularly for accountability — friends who can tell if she is getting burned out. “Self-care begets self-care,” she adds. “There’s no way you can pursue self-care as an individual activity.”
To that end, self-care is as important to the movements it underpins as it is to the individuals implementing it on a day-to-day basis. The marathon analogy is relevant on both a large and small scale.
“If we want our movement to have roots and last,” Tran says, “then we need to have a self-care practice.”