“Doing this kind of radical self-care work is sometimes perceived as being selfish only because we have constructed our personal wellness as being somehow outside of the pursuit for justice. That false distinction is probably the biggest lie we can tell ourselves. We have to know that being well is a right and not a privilege.”
– Dr. Fatimah Jackson Best
Now, more than ever, a cacophony of distractions pulls on our attention, making it difficult to focus on ourselves: from social media, computers and cellular devices to work, social justice issues and our interpersonal relationships. At its simplest, radical self-care work is about finding ways to ride these waves of life and not get lost in the undertow. The Crisis and Trauma Institute in Canada defines self-care as “all the things you do to take care of your well-being in four key dimensions — your emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual health.” Most of us need to do more of this.
In a 1988 essay titled “Burst of Light,” writer and activist Audre Lorde put forward the notion of radical self-care work while famously declaring, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
She further articulates that self-care has become synonymous with self-indulgence and the idea has been commercialized. Lately, even cosmetic surgeries are being marketed as an expression of self-love, as are the sale of cosmetic serums, spa visits, home decor and corsets. Although there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself to a luxury item or experience, what Lorde meant went deeper.
In broaching the idea of self-care as a revolutionary act, she was speaking specifically about people of color and the way we ought to treat ourselves. In her estimation, for too long, people of color have been made to put others first, to their own detriment. Whether we choose to continue prioritizing others or not, in order to survive and thrive we must put in the work to first take care of ourselves.
It Takes Hard Work to Rest Well
Dr. Fatimah Jackson Best, a public health researcher from Canada who specializes in mental health and centers Caribbean communities in her work, emphasizes what she refers to as “The Actual Work of Care.” While, she explains, it means different things to different people, the narrow definition of radical self-care work as a pricey tangible like a spa-day or expensive treatment can disillusion those with limited disposable income.
“We know that these kinds of self-care techniques do not pay attention to class, access, and the privilege of being able to seek out care in these ways and that excludes many women,” she said.
Instead, an act of self-care may be as simple as the ability to find beauty in decay, the way an artist appreciates the rich russets and bronze tones in fall leaves. Approaching self-care from an elemental perspective — earth, water, fire, air — ask yourself how you can balance those elements within. Do you need to take a trip to the ocean, or can you create a similar experience in your bath, soaking in warm, mineral-rich water as you immerse yourself in your tub? Can you simply step outside to appreciate the warmth of the sun and breeze caressing your skin?
Perhaps, this is where radical self-care work really begins — having the audacity to claim the air we breathe as a gift and not a commodity.
Cultivate Your Own Healthy Self-Care Practices
Giving yourself permission to feel all your feelings, and finding healthy ways to manage those feelings, is self-care. You are allowed to be hopeful, joyful and cranky at the same time. That’s called mindfulness, one of many tools you can use to cultivate your own self-care routines. Here’s a list of other practices you can try as you build your arsenal:
- Set reminders on your phone to find joy, find something to laugh about or take a break to breathe deeply.
- Run some warm water over your hands, or splash some cool water on your face.
- Keep a gratitude journal where you write down 10 things you’re grateful for upon rising and at least five things you’re grateful for before you go to bed.
- Setting up simple spaces or personal sanctuaries with images of loved ones, things that inspire you or remind you of goals you aspire to achieve.
- Get a pet that you can afford to take care of monetarily and time wise.
- Create inspirational playlists on YouTube with your favorite teachers, music, poetry, artists and comedians.
- Journal using prompts that you find online, in books, in magazines or from your own intuition. One prompt from Iyanla Vanzant’s book “Acts of Faith” that you might try is, “If you had to tell someone in 10 words or less what you stand for in life, what would you say?”
- Get a daily inspirational book to read from first thing in the morning. It’s a great way to set the tone for your day.