The idea of self-care has become more and more popular in recent years. Self-care as it is currently conceptualized is defined as anything we do to help take care of our mental, physical or emotional well-being. A quick Google search pulls up literally hundreds of ideas from yoga, to journaling, to drinking enough water. In other words, the primary focus of self-care is on how people can address feelings of stress or sadness on a very individual level. It answers the question: What can I do for myself to help myself feel better? The importance of self-care in managing distressing situations cannot be denied; however, primarily focusing on it can often leave people feeling frustrated, exhausted, or like a failure when it does not have the impact they were hoping for.
Sometimes, feelings of depression and anxiety are caused by individual or internal factors: chemical imbalances, unhelpful thinking patterns, or lack of coping skills. Other times, there are additional factors that are much larger than anything one person has control over. Systemic issues such as racism, sexism, Capitalism, or poverty can also cause emotional reactions within us and, because these causes lie outside of our individual behaviors, self-care can feel inadequate in the face of them. Take, for example, someone who is in a low wage job, struggling to pay their bills and put food on their table. If financial instability is a major contributor to this person’s feelings of sadness or depression, it makes sense that individual behavior changes, though perhaps helpful, cannot be realistically expected to solve the underlying cause of the distressing emotions.
So what do we do when self-care isn’t enough to fully blunt the effects of larger, systemic injustices and oppressions?
- Acknowledge the structural and systemic forces that are playing a role in what you are experiencing. Recognize that, many times, it is not just about not doing enough, or not doing something well enough, or not being enough. To believe those things can honestly feel pretty empowering because it gives you a way of feeling in control- if I’m the problem then I can fix it. But it’s not always true and you may inevitably reach a place where all the self-care in the world still leaves you feeling in your bones the unjustness of things you cannot control. Sometimes it’s safe enough to name what you know to be true out loud and sometimes you can only say it to yourself. Either way, there is power in acknowledging these forces which often operate in a collective silence.
- Create change externally as well as internally. When structural inequalities are the cause of your distress, working to challenge those structures can be an important piece of resolving your distress. This may mean advocating for yourself, or engaging in protests, or lobbying governmental representatives, or joining a community that sees your struggles. This is not always without risk and can also drain energy, so this may mean that you sometimes have to make a choice between this and self care and that’s okay.
- Find communities that validate your experiences. One way that systems often contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety is that they are structured to foster disconnection. Everything from social media to our workplaces fracture us into silos that make it easy to feel as though our problems are individual to us, when the reality is that many people may be impacted by systems in very similar ways. Knowing you are not alone in your experiences can be a meaningful step towards having compassion for yourself and how you have chosen to survive in difficult circumstances.
- Have realistic expectations when you practice self care. Self-care is an important tool in helping manage our experiences, but don’t be surprised if self-care isn’t enough to make the uncomfortable feelings you’re having go away. Remember that if lack of self- care is not the sole cause of the problem, it can’t be the sole solution, so accept that there may be limitations to the impact of your self-care that have nothing to do with whether or not you are “doing it right” or “doing enough”.
- Allow yourself your emotional experience. Sometimes, the hardest, but most powerful thing we can do is to create space to feel whatever we are feeling without judgment. Navigating complex structures and systems, whether they exist in your place of work or the country you live in can make you feel angry, or sad, or scared. And while we don’t want to drown in these feelings, we do want to accept that they are normal responses to injustice and oppression and it is okay to feel them.
Self-care is a way of navigating upsetting situations, and sometimes, luckily, we find that it is enough to bring us the comfort that we need. When our reactions are about something larger, and more powerful than ourselves, however, self-care should be viewed as a tool whose limitations challenge us to let go of the idea that we are a problem to be fixed and encourage us to find healing in community and solidarity with others.