Self-Care for Activists: Stand Up for What Matters — Including Yourself

Note: This piece was originally published as a guest contributor article for Recovery Warriors

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Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.
— Audre Lorde

Let me begin with this: I want you to know that, whatever your political stances, whoever you may cast your ballot or show support for, I love you.

I love you just because we are a part of the same messy and beautiful interconnected web of existence. With that said, our present reality is indisputably one of the most divisive moments in recent decades, both within and outside the United States. And it has become a time when more people than any other moment in my lifetime are getting off their couches and becoming activists in their own right. 

Even if you don’t identify as an activist regarding the political climate in the U.S., you may be an activist in other ways — whether it’s being a champion for the environment, animals, or kids, taking a stand against fat shaming, or any number of important causes. 

Standing Up for What Matters

It is my belief that part of living a fully engaged life includes standing up for what matters to you, whatever that might be. When you’re in an active eating disorder or other addiction, you could be the most compassionate person on the planet, but 50-90% of your headspace and energy may go toward supporting ED/addiction — leaving little time and energy left to split between living your life and standing up for what matters most to you. 

This does not make you a bad person at all — it makes you a person with a mental illness who needs appropriate treatment. You simply cannot give if you are depleted. 

The words at the beginning of this post are by Audre Lorde (1934-1992), self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” and a well-known feminist and civil rights activist. As she so wisely described, taking care of ourselves is not self-indulgent, but rather, a necessary component of our activism. And they go hand-in-hand: self-care is an important part of your activism, and activism is an important part of your self-care. 

Beware of Burnout

Of course, self-care is always important (especially if you're in recovery), but it becomes even more important when you're engaging in this kind of work. First, there are all the painful feelings you may be experiencing in the face of what's happening in the world. You might feel powerless, and at times, even hopeless with the heaviness of how much there is to do and the limitations of only having two hands and 24 hours in a day. 

Yes, there is a lot of pain. There is much that needs to be done. But I will say it again: You cannot give of yourself if you are depleted. 

So right now, just breathe. Really, do it. 

Because self-care is so often put on the back burner with activism (and with work in the helping professions), we’ve had to come up with fancy terms like "compassion fatigue", “culture of martyrdom,” and "activist burnout.”

These phenomena are all too real. And it’s really a lose-lose situation, because if activists are not practicing good self-care, not only do the individuals suffer, but the work suffers too — especially when people have to abandon it altogether after reaching the point of burnout.

So how do we avoid that burnout? We have to start prioritizing self-care strategies at both the micro and macro levels. The framework of “macro” and “micro” self-care comes from psychotherapist Ashley Davis Bush. She proposes that neither one of these types is sufficient on its own, and that we must have practices that support self-care at both of these layers.

Macro Self-Care Practices

This level is really about the “big picture” aspects of our self-care. Often, these are things we know we need to do but don’t always prioritize. After all, common sense is not necessarily common practice. Where could you use a tune-up with your macro self-care practices? They could include things like:

  • Putting your recovery needs first (i.e. therapy, time for meal prep and eating, etc.) Recovery is the foundation upon which everything else can be built.
  • Setting boundaries around demands or requests for your time
  • Likewise, remembering that it’s okay (and necessary) to say no to some events, even if you’re passionate about them — that you don’t have to go to every single one
  • Being aware of “should’s” and feelings of obligation with your commitments 
  • Getting enough sleep, good nutrition, and regular movement
  • Using anger as a fuel for action
  • Being mindful of time spent on phone or social media, especially if certain groups or people feel like energy vampires
  • Staying connected with people who feel supportive and limiting engagement with ones who drag you down
  • Practicing mindfulness both formally (i.e. meditation) and informally (bringing mindful attention to daily activities)
  • Using that mindfulness to help you listen to your body as a guide pointing you toward what you need — rest? more food? a hug? 
  • Staying informed without getting sucked into the news/information rabbit hole. TheSkimm is great for this!

Micro Self-Care Practices

Think of these practices as anything you can do in two minutes or less. This can also include similar activities as some of your macro self-care practices, but in a condensed version you can do anytime. For example, perhaps yoga class is a part of your self-care a few times a week — and in addition to those classes, you can also pick one of your favorite poses and do just that post for a minute on your lunch break. Here are some other ideas:

  • Take ten slow breaths, focusing on the cool air on the inhale and warm air on the exhale.
  • Keep a book of poetry handy and read one poem. 
  • Go outside with your shoes off and feel your feet on the earth for one minute, feeling your energy flowing down through your body and out through your feet into the earth, while the earth energy flows up into your body.
  • Every time you’re washing your hands, internally repeat a mantra such as “I flow with what life brings today” (love this one from Ashley Davis Bush) 
  • Turn on a song that energizes you and dance or sing along with it!
  • Text a friend (perhaps one who’s a fellow activist or recovery warrior) a silly random GIF to brighten your day and hers.
  • Practice alternate-nostril breathing or “nadi shodhana” (the Sanskrit word for this pranayama breathing practice) – plug right nostril with your thumb, breathe in through the left; plug left nostril and breathe out through the right, then breathe in. Plug right nostril and breathe out, then in, and switch. Repeat for a minute or two.

You get the gist. Self-care doesn’t have to be hard or something we avoid because it feels indulgent or selfish. One of my favorite mantras is “Let it be easy, let it be fun.” And I have to remind myself that often, especially when the needs of the work I am called to do feel overwhelming. 

I’ll leave you with a few little truths/affirmations/reminders that may be good to copy + paste and save somewhere you can access them frequently as you’re doing this work:

Activist Self-Care Truthbombs

  •  Only if I am taking care of myself can I truly support others. 
  • Self-care is not self-indulgent — it’s actually a critical part of my activism.
  • I will take time daily to notice and attend to my physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. 
  • If I start to notice signs of burnout or overwhelm, I will reach out for support from the people I trust.
  • When I get overwhelmed with all that must be done, I will take a few deep breaths and ask myself, “what is one simple action I can take just for today?” 
  • I can do these simple actions and know that I am part of a collective effort in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. My work and my voice DO matter.
  • I don’t have to save anyone or anything. My simple actions of caring for myself and others are enough.
  • Even in the presence of fear and pain, I also acknowledge the tremendous presence of love and compassion around me, and look for examples of it to lift me up. 

Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.