I’ll start by saying that this post is written from the perspective of a white female. Two other important things to note are I have mental health issues (severe anxiety), and I care deeply about racial justice.
This post is written with a specific focus on white people who care about racial justice, and it takes into account my own experience. If you are a person of color, please feel free to read, take what’s helpful, and leave what isn’t.
You can be anywhere on the journey from a new learner to a committed advocate.
You might be coming to understand systemic racism for the first time and seeing your unwitting participation in the system.
You may have started your learning journey may years ago. You may be tirelessly working to eliminate your own bias. You feel a sense of responsibility to expose racist structures within policies, society, and/or your employer.
Regardless of where you are on your journey, we have something in common. We know we must take action. At the same time, you might be feeling a mental and physical toll and wondering, “how long can I continue at my current pace?”
If none of these statements describe you, this post may not be for you. I will be addressing how we can care for ourselves as we work to address racial injustice.
If you feel unaffected by what is currently happening in our country, I encourage you to pay closer attention to the news. Read stories about people of color, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who were murdered by police. Watch videos of protests and some of the resultant violent actions by police. Educate yourself on the historical context of racism and police brutality, so that you can learn why this is so problematic.
How I Learned about the True Purpose of Self-Care
Some of you are already familiar with my story. I had a mental breakdown in the summer of 2018. I started experiencing severe anxiety and panic attacks.
The severity of my anxiety required me to take 6 months off of work and rebuild my capacity to manage stress.
There were two main things that contributed to this crisis for me.
First, I was experiencing severe burnout. I worked 50+ hour weeks and commuted a 1.5-2 hours roundtrip. Several months earlier, I was told that I didn’t receive a promotion. I needed to more independently manage my workload (which was code for “don’t push back”). During this time, I used self-care (eating healthy, exercising, etc.) to make my toxic work environment more bearable.
Second, the actual substance of my work was quite challenging. I led organizational development efforts for a predominantly white non-profit organization with an all-white executive team. I won’t get into too much detail, but here is what I will say. The organization was fairly elitist (they hired mainly from Ivy League schools). The organization’s leaders seemed to have a disdain for state colleges, so I often wondered how I got hired in the first place. This along with racial bias made the organization an unwelcoming place for people of color.
There were also certain organizational policies and practices that were problematic. On the surface, they seemed like normal organizational practices. But, some of these policies led to issues with retention, promotion, and satisfaction for staff of color.
Part of my job was to lead the organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work. It was my responsibility to build racially diverse candidate pipelines, educate our (mostly-white) staff about race and diversity, and revise policies to make them fairer. I did all this while trying to influence the executives to commit to change and shift the culture.
I’ll suffice it to say that despite my best efforts, I was not able to successfully influence the executive team to make significant shifts. I also completely burned myself out in the process. My panic attacks started after one particularly challenging and honest conversation with the CEO about her lack of leadership.
Looking back, I see that there were two main things at play that contributed to my mental breakdown:
- I saw self-care as a way to adjust to my own oppression. My male and Ivy League-educated colleagues were not expected to put in the number of hours that I was being asked to do. When they pushed back, they were often listened to. Yet, somehow I felt the need to prove myself in this environment. I put my head down and did everything that was asked. Not surprisingly, I was rewarded with the “promised” promotion 6 months later.
- As a white woman doing racial justice work in my organization, I didn’t believe that I deserved to take care of myself. I always heard that as a white person, I had the privilege to step away from racism. People of color don’t have that privilege. The way I internalized this message was to not step away. I didn’t take time and space to rejuvenate and recover. I pushed beyond what my body and my mind could handle, and I paid the price for it.
After my mental breakdown, I knew I needed to take care of myself and my own mental health for a period of time. I could handle almost no stress. Something as little as answering a phone call that I wasn’t expecting could set off a panic attack.
This level of anxiety limited my capacity to fight injustice and work toward causes I believe in. It still limits what I can do today.
And, I felt guilty about it. People of color cannot step away from the oppression that they experience on a daily basis. Why did I, as a privileged white woman, get to?
Yesterday, I saw this Tweet from Tatiana Mac, a black female engineer who incorporates her fierce commitment to equity, ethics, and inclusion into her work.
I encourage you to read the whole thread.
This was a powerful message. Before, when I heard that white people had the privilege to step away from racism, I thought my response should be to not step away. Stepping away brought feelings of guilt.
Now, I realize that I must use this privilege so that I can take action now and continue taking action in the future. In my case, not stepping away to recover was selfish. I did it because I didn’t want to feel guilty. These feelings of guilt kept me from being able to sustain my actions.
The last two years (and yesterday) have helped me learn two very important lessons about self-care:
- The purpose of self-care is NEVER to adjust to the oppression that you are experiencing. The purpose of self-care should be either to address this oppression or get yourself out of the situation if you can.
- In order for me to be able to work toward the cause of racial justice today and in the future, I must take care of myself. Not doing so centers on avoiding my own experience of guilt rather than focusing on what the world actually needs.
The real purpose of self-care is to address oppression and to do it in a way that allows us to continue addressing it in the future.
Tips for Self-Care
There are many ways to practice self-care. I will focus on a few specific practices in this post.
Protect Your Time and Energy
We live in a culture that glorifies being busy. Working extra hours is seen as a virtue. If we have a lot of social engagements, we feel more important. In our culture, being busy equals success, importance, and value.
In reality, this culture can lead us to do things like:
- Work extra hours when it’s not required
- Do activities we don’t want to do that don’t add value to our lives
- Go from place to place and feel like we can never get ahead of things in our lives.
In reality, we can get ourselves out of the “crazy busy” cycle. The first step is to build awareness of our tendency to be busy for busy sake.
We need to reflect on our activities while keeping this in mind. We can eliminate non-essential activities that have little impact and drain our energy.
We can start to set clearer boundaries at work and at home. We can limit our news and social media consumption (while still staying aware of what’s going on). We can start saying “no” to things that don’t matter that drain our energy.
Reduce Emotional Vulnerability
These are the things that I would typically consider to fall under traditional self-care. It’s important to remember that when we do these things the purpose is not to adjust to oppression or a toxic situation. The purpose is to get us to a place where we are able to take effective action.
Things that we can do to reduce emotional vulnerability include:
- Sleep 8+ hours per night
- Eat healthily (and enough)
- Address physical pain and illness
- Exercise regularly
- Avoid mood-altering substances like alcohol or coffee
- Incorporate recovery activities into your day, such as meditation, yoga, a walk, listen to music, read a book, or anything else that helps you to build your energy reserves
Building up our ability to be mindful is perhaps the most important thing that we can do for our self-care. It allows us to take action now and ensure we stay balanced enough that we can take action later too.
Many people think that mindfulness and meditation are the same. They aren’t.
Mindfulness means that we are fully aware of the present moment. Mindfulness allows us to accept our emotions, thoughts, and feelings without judgment. If we can learn to be more mindful, we can more easily identify our limits and stay in balance.
Meditation is a practice that can help us build mindfulness. Other practices include journaling or regularly checking in with your emotions and feelings.
I used to struggle with mindfulness. In fact, I didn’t think it was important to pay attention to my emotions at all. I’d been taught that I should strive for “mind over matter” and choose my emotions. Because of this, I used to push myself forward until something external (a physical injury or mental illness) stopped me.
I recently read Essentialism, a book that focuses on how to “do less but better” – to focus your time on what matters most.
There was a story about the CEO of a microcredit organization that has stuck with me. He was so committed to his work and the mission to reach millions of families around the world that he pushed himself past his limits. He traveled 60-70% of the time. He slept 4-6 hours/night. At the age of 36, his body started shutting down.
He started having panic attacks. His blood pressure got so low that he would blackout if he stood up to fast. His heart rate was erratic. He experienced physical pain and body aches.
He got to the point where he had to take two years off of work and rid himself of everything that created stress in his life. After these two years, when he was asked what he learned, he said that “he had paid a high price to learn a simple yet essential lesson: protect the asset.”
I was struck by this phrase because I realize how true it is. Our best asset for making meaningful contributions in our world is ourselves. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we are damaging what we need to make our highest contribution.
Here’s where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness allows us to know how far we can push without compromising our ability to take part in meaningful change in the future.
Self-Care Overflows to Care for Others
No one can pour from an empty cup. When we refill our cup, it allows us to take action to help transform our world.
There are so many ways that we can take action. We need to remember to find a balance so that we continue taking action tomorrow.
Ways to take action:
- Advocate for Policy Change: You can attend a protest, add your name to a petition, call your elected officials, and vote.
- Support others who are advocating for change: Donate money to organizations supporting protesters and racial justice work; reach out to friends and colleagues of color to offer your support; start or contribute to a “self-care fund” as Kerry Ann Roquemore did for activists in Detroit or Jillian Johnsrud is doing for black female personal finance content creators.
- Educate yourself: Work to understand your privilege; learn about the historical context and the legacy of racism and how you have unwittingly participated in this system. For example, one thing I’m committing to is researching companies who use prison labor, so that I can support other companies with my dollars.
- Advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism work with your employer: Ask your HR team what their practices are to ensure racial diversity in candidate pipelines; ask your leadership what has been done to audit your company’s policies to ensure that there are not disparately negative impacts on people of color.
Working toward justice is not easy, but it’s necessary. We need to take care of ourselves so that we can continue the work “today, tomorrow, and until the end of time.”