By: Nick Lyons (they/them)
Edited by: Marie-Eve Brownell
"individual-level solutions will never solve structural level problems."
Image description: depicted in the image above is a yellow and orange mixing bowl with a blue spoon sticking out of it. Surrounding are measurements for a recipe on self-care, as well as stars, hearts and abstract shapes. Bellow the bowl it reads, "mix well & consume often".
Over the last two years, self-care has re-entered the forefront of public consciousness as a vital practice for improving our mental and physical wellbeing. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the world in far-reaching and devastating ways, we are now - more than ever before - told, at almost an ear-piercing rate, to care for ourselves. Workplaces, marketing campaigns, and social media influencers remind us almost daily to make sure we are taking time to rest, eat well, get outside, read that book, develop a skin care routine, drink kombucha, and indulge in a variety of expensive luxury items all of which promise some form of joy or relief.
The purpose of this article is not to cast judgment on how folks care for themselves. There is nothing wrong with bubble baths, naps, manicures, exercise, or strategic indulgences. I and many others have practiced these common forms of self-care with some form of beneficial outcome. At their best, these mainstream self-care practices provide, for many of us, a temporary fix to the many effects of depletion. However, self-care as described in millions of Instagram posts and marketing advertisements is frequently inadequate for addressing what produces the need to engage in self-care in the first place. Today’s self-care culture largely fails in disrupting the oppressive, capitalist structures that predictably continue to fail us in many ways - the reason being that mainstream self-care is not only embedded in those very structures, but proposes individual-level solutions to structural level problems. When self-care takes place within this frame, it becomes inaccessible to the most marginalized of folks and incapable of becoming a sustainable practice of self-love, rest, and healing. Therefore, the goal of this article is to think more radically about what constitutes self-care, which for me means remembering its roots.
The term ‘self-care’ originated from activist spaces to signal the need for community organizers, carers, and activists to collectively develop strategies for addressing the experience of burnout. Although this self-care most certainly encompassed the more mainstream forms of self-care, it also involved calling to check in on one another, reminding one another to take breaks, debriefing with community members, or just sitting with them in silence, feeling calmed by their presence. Whereas mainstream self-care views ‘caring’ as an individual responsibility and an isolated activity, self-care that is grounded in the grassroots activism of social justice movements understands connection and support to be an essential component in our ability to care for ourselves. In other words, while a $100 facial may leave your skin shiny and spirit a little brighter than it was before, the lack of meaningful interconnectedness that many of us experience in day-to-day life cannot be counteracted by a day trip to the spa.
For self-care to escape the short-circuited care logics of capitalism, we need to engage in more radical forms of self-care. Radical self-care requires fostering rich community relationships, where the weight of what depletes us can be spread out, and those most in need of healing are not required to figure it out for themselves. Living in a world that is rife with anti-trans and anti-queer rhetoric and what feels like/is a never-ending onslaught of legislation targeted at ending our existence is physically, emotionally, and spiritually depleting.
Developing self-care strategies that help us get to the root of the barriers stopping us from accessing the care and rest we need does not ensure that we will never feel depleted again, but does provide a more sustainable way of caring for ourselves and others. Caring for ourselves and our communities allows us to not only survive, but thrive - having the energy to do the things we want, to support our friends and community, and to be our most authentic and euphoric selves. Self-care is not about buying things or “treating ourselves”, but about creating and maintaining practices that help us and our communities sustain our energy and spirit. It’s about meaningfully taking care of ourselves and others, which involves being intentional in our day-to-day lives about reflecting on what nourishes, sustains, heals, and enriches us. On this note, I offer some of my own reflections on self-care, and what I have learned from those who have cared for me and helped me learn how to care for myself and those around me.
Tips and tricks on caring for yourself and others:
Despite what the most mainstream of social media influencers tell us, you do not need to cough up hundreds of dollars to practice self-care. The “treat yo’self” approach to mainstream self-care only furthers the capitalist logic that to care for ourselves we must buy that care, which in turn directly excludes working-class folks and poverty from the conversation. Instead, we should look to the legacy of collective care efforts employed by social justice movements in order to develop strategies for caring for ourselves and one another within our particular context and to address our particular needs.
Understand that self-care requires us to attend to how trauma manifests in our bodies, minds, hearts, and communities. Trauma not only affects the way in which we perceive our worthiness to receive care, but also our ability to care for others. Healing from trauma is an ongoing process that looks different for everyone; and because our trauma can pop up sometimes when we least expect it to, it is important to take the time to sit with ourselves, be patient with ourselves, and seek out the help we need to better understand how our trauma sits within our bodies and minds.
Create a self-care plan and feel free to completely throw it out the window when shit pops up in your life. Creating plans and routines that foster a habit of self-care is important to a lot of people, and can be really helpful in remembering to create the space we need to care for ourselves and others. However, it's not always realistic or helpful for everybody to create these plans. So feel free to schedule in self-care if you feel it to be necessary or helpful for you, but also take the time to listen to your body and spontaneously engage in the care you need when you need it.
Remember that self-care and collective care do not need to be at odds with one another. Self-care can include the forms of care that take place within communities. Not only can we care for ourselves by caring for our communities, but our communities can help us care for ourselves by providing the forms of energy and support we need to continue forward. Again, I repeat, individual-level solutions will never solve structural level problems.
Care, even self-care, is inherently interdependent. Lean on those around you and let them lean on you. This form of care won't always be perfect; in fact, it probably won't ever be. Embrace the messiness and learn through practice.
Take the time to be honest with yourself about what you need to thrive and what is impeding your ability to thrive. Do the same, collectively and collaboratively, with your community, peers, and supports.
Set boundaries, with yourself and others. Boundaries are an important form of caring for ourselves and being able to responsibly care for others. Setting boundaries can be difficult, especially with ourselves, and discovering exactly what our boundaries are can take time. Also, remember that boundaries shift over time and in the context of a situation, relationship, or place.
Reflect frequently on what is and is not working. Adjust as necessary.
Remember that caring involves both internal and intrapersonal conflict. It is important to develop the basis for trauma-informed, anti-oppressive conflict resolution. I recommend looking to Kai Cheng Thom’s conflict resolution workbook, So You’re Ready To Choose Love (link: https://ariseembodiment.org/free-workbook/).
Be soft with yourself and others. Demanding your existence in a world that is often very persistent in its efforts to deny it is exhausting and depleting in a way that touches you at your very core. So be soft, be patient, be gentle as you and your communities heal, repair, and build towards a world that meets your needs, and then some.
Author Bio: Nick Lyons (they/them) is a brown, latinx, queer, non-binary healer located on Treaty 6 territory, or what is colonially known as Saskatoon. He works at a mental health peer support worker and operates a collective care group for latinx queer and gender diverse folks. Nick loves long walks with his partner and dog, drag race watch parties with his friends, and helping attend to his neighbourhood's community garden. He believes that collective care is a powerful tool for fostering healing and when done reflexively can make life a little more (but hopefully a lot more) livable.