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Advocacy and Self Care
Nova Reid explains why self care is vital to activism, and how to practice it when you’re on the front lines
When activist Audre Lorde said “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” she wasn’t joking.
Our socio-political climate is going through monumental change. We see it, we feel it and for some more than others, we experience it. At school when teachers obsessively asked; what do you want to be when you grow up. I proudly replied “A Hairdresser.” I’m not sure where that short lived career goal came from, but regardless, it never materialised. I imagine that if it did, my life would be significantly less stressful and experiencing regular hair loss might not be an issue. Never did I imagine that I would end up being an anti-racism activist. Never did I imagine that I would be one of the growing number of changemakers and activists gathering momentum around the globe. While the work is vital and hugely rewarding, it can also take its toll.
The words of post-colonial survivor researcher Jayasree Kalathil at a recent UK symposium about mental health are haunting me “Social injustice is at the root of all distress”
Social injustice is at the root of all distressJayasree Kalathil
In an interview with Emma Gannon on CTRL ALT DELETE podcast, anti-racism activist Rachel Cargyle recounted a documented and growing trend of activists of colour continuing to die prematurely at alarmingly high rates
Activism is no joke.
We are living in curious economic and social times right now. When the whole world feels like it is in trauma, it feels incredibly overwhelming. Why wouldn’t it be if you are being bombarded with a constant and inescapable barrage of bad news?
The heaviness feels palpable. But if we do not intentionally and consistently prioritise our wellbeing, advocacy work can have a detrimental impact on our emotional, physical and psychological health.
What makes activists and social justice seekers great at our work is both our superpower and our kryptonite – empathy.
Often described as empaths, in order for us to advocate for others, we have to have the capacity to experience empathy. The same empathy that inspires us to act, can also be to our detriment. It can leave us feeling the burden of injustice and carrying it on a daily basis. We can absorb other people’s emotions or experiences like a sponge and it can leave us feeling desperate for change, drained, feeling isolated, stressed and anxious to name but a few. So it’s even more important to be self aware and manage our wellbeing when operating in this space, because self care it is vital for self preservation.
Being an activist, or a justice seeker is very much about sustainability. Much of the work we do, the effects of our work we will not come to pass in our lifetime. This is monumental societal change we find ourselves at the core of, that takes time, so no matter how long you engage in this work, sustaining yourself is crucial to having a greater impact in the world.
Establish a routine and stick to it.
Make sure the first thing you consume in the morning and the last thing at night is not negative.
Ditch reaching out for your phone and ease your way into your day.
Start your day with some exercise, mindfulness, or yoga, pilates. Or perhaps painting, listening to some power ballads or simply making a mindful cup of tea or positive affirmations.
Whatever you do – start the day centred and set your intentions for the day.
Be firm with when your working day ends. It’s easy to get drawn into debates and news stories on social media all day.
Prepare and eat a proper lunch and dinner and intentionally carve out time for the people in your life who matter. It’s vital, they are your support network and also your medicine!
Just as you eased your way into your day, allow your mind to switch off and wind down. Remove technology from your room, have a long soak in the bath, read a book or snuggle on the sofa, whatever relaxes you, set the foundations for a good night’s sleep.
Having boundaries of steel is vital.
You will automatically want to help people who are affected by what you are campaigning for. You will receive personal stories, cries for help, advice. People will also have an expectation that you advocate for every single issue related to your cause that shows up in the world.
That’s not realistic, nor are you superhuman, nor is it your sole responsibility.
Make your contact details clear. Are your DM’s on instagram open? Do you reply to comments or personal emails or can you direct people to your writing, work, website or professional services instead.
There is a misconception and expectation that advocates should provide their services for free – ‘if you care so much about helping others, why are you charging?’ Can you imagine if we applied the same logic to doctors providing care? You may choose to volunteer, or it may also be your chosen career path. If the latter, your work and time should be compensated. Don’t feel guilty about charging for your time, labour, experience the work and training you have paid for and undertook to get you to a place where you can advocate for and lead others. Expecting you to work professionally for free is a form of exploitation and slavery was supposedly abolished in the UK in 1833.
Take regular digital detoxes and consider removing social media from your mobile phone and only logging in from your desktop. Research shows restricted social media use is better for our mental health.
Don’t get drawn into debates from strangers on the internet at 2am in the morning. Get your sleep. It can wait until the morning.
You are in charge of how accessible you are. Set your boundaries, make them clear to your network and stick to them.
It can often be hard to feel thankful for when you are in the thick of activism. It can feel all consuming. Practicing gratitude is key to maintaining and keeping tabs on your own wellbeing. Research shows that practicing regular gratitude has a positive impact on our wellbeing regardless of class or background. So where there is darkness, seek out the light. Perhaps buy a gratitude diary. Or create your own by writing down 10 things a day you are grateful for and why.
Subscribe to publications like Positive News too. Notice the good in the world and your communities too.
TRY SOMETHING NEW
It’s been clinically proven that trying something new is not only good for psychological well being but it boosts confidence too. Being at the core of advocacy work can mean you may be subjected to a lot of negativity and receive a lot of hate. This can have an effect on wellbeing and self esteem, so do whatever you can to maintain your wellbeing and sense of self and boost confidence. Anything from learning a new dance class, or martial art, to joining a new choir (singing is also great for mental wellbeing) learning how to paint, knit or write poetry.
Take regular breaks.
You may be resilient, but consistently operating from a burned out version of yourself is doing a disservice to you and the cause you are serving.
Re-energise and re-fill your cup. There is a common feeling that productivity is a sign of success and some people actually fear idleness. We have to fill our cup regularly and often, not just when we burn out. The world won’t end. I often find after a break I am much more focused and more impactful in my delivery.
Are you able to remain healthy while doing this work? If the answer is no, or if you can’t sustain your health, consider is there a shelf life for you in this space? Are there other ways you can make change where you are not on the front line? There is no shame in hanging up your cape. You do not have to be a martyr to the cause.
You do not have to be a martyr to the cause.
The stats are alarming. I know that I certainly won’t be doing this work forever, but while I am, I will be taking Audre Lorde’s advice and prioritising my self care, because without our health we have nothing.
Whether your activism is for 6 months or 10 years, you are taking action, you are sowing seeds. Trust that the seeds you have sown will blossom. Know when it is time to pass the baton on, there will be another changemaker that you have inspired by having the courage to show up, waiting in the wings.
In the words of Dr Maya Aneglou – Self care is where you take your power back.
Nova Reid is a diversity campaigner and anti-racism educator who offers consultancy, workshops and online anti-racism courses. With humility and humour, she uses her professional background in mental health to focus on mindset change, to help dismantle racism from the inside-out.