Back in January, just before Drumpf’s inauguration, I found this fantastic piece on how to stay outraged without losing your mind, written by Mirah Curzer. I’ve kept it bookmarked on my phone ever since, so if you haven’t read it, go ahead and click over. I’ll wait!
I’ve done an OK job at following some of this advice. I take breaks from the news on the weekend. I do activism work that I enjoy, like helping my CCJ fam dig their community garden, writing this blog, and planning educational events with an Intersectional Feminist Alliance. And while this blog may be heavy with criticisms, I do actually find great joy in activism – it’s introduced me to some beautiful, brave, and inspiring friends; helped me to feel like an independent woman even as a stay-at-home-mom; and given me a powerful new lens for understanding education and teaching.
But some of Curzer’s advice can be hard to follow, and I think this is especially true for those of us whose main work involves caring for others. Teachers, social workers, childcare providers, nurses, stay-at-home or work-from-home parents, therapists… We all spend our workdays (which are often 10-12 hours long!) responding to the human costs of white supremacy, classism and capitalism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination — not to mention the everyday complexities of human relationships, child development, and/or physical health as required by our jobs.
To do this kind of intense intellectual, physical, and emotional labor every day, then to do even MORE of it in the form of activism, is depleting. If we’re not careful, we will burn out, and everyone will be worse off for that.
If we want to be dedicated freedom fighters, we have to remember that the liberation movement is a marathon, not a sprint, and care for ourselves accordingly. Oddly enough, before I had Bean, I was a pretty serious runner and ran three half-marathons (that’s 13.1 miles) in an 11-month period. So I’ve been thinking… if the movement is a long slog, then why not borrow some of the self-care practices of marathon runners? I mean, you probably don’t need to keep a packet of carbohydrate goo in your pocket or spend your Sundays on an 18-mile LSD run (errr, that’s Long Slow Distance, NOT the hallucinogen!) — but you may wanna’ try some of these.
Focus your training: Runners who are getting ready for a big race make sure that they’re focused on that one big race. They don’t sign up for a marathon and then burn themselves out by running a Half the week before, and they don’t just run whenever they feel like it. They focus on that marathon and make sure that the remainder of their exercise helps them do that one event well. For freedom fighters, this means focusing on just one or two big issues that we care most about and are best prepared to tackle.
This narrow focus does not mean you’re turning a blind eye to “more important things” – it just means that you’re using your energy in the most beneficial ways possible. After all, your kickass, intersectional work on your most-prioritized cause will ripple through the others, and make life better for all. And don’t forget that your work as a caregiver IS a contribution to the movement! If your paid work is all you can handle today, then let that be enough.
Change up your training: Okay, I know I just said to focus your training, but you also need some variety in your life. Runners getting ready for a marathon do run a lot, but they also change it up once or twice a week with cycling, swimming, and strength-training to avoid burnout and injury. So as you focus your energy on just a couple of big issues, feel free to embrace multiple tactics! After spending a few days writing and calling my elected officials, it’s wonderfully refreshing to spend an afternoon handing out produce and chatting with neighbors at Feed the Community. If you’re feeling exhausted after attending a few too many political events in one week, maybe the next week you make a small donation to an organization you love and excuse yourself from laboring for a while. It takes all kinds of talents and resources to keep the liberation movement going, so go ahead and change it up!
Create a schedule: Athletes in training pre-plan everything. They figure out what other commitments they have at work, home, and in their personal lives, and decide how their training will fit into their schedules long before it’s an issue. We can do this too. If you don’t already have some kind of planner, get or make one, and write down all your big responsibilities, events, or projects (along with any short- and mid-term deadlines) in there. As much as possible, coordinate your political activism around your schedule. For me, that will mean making sure I don’t take on demanding activist tasks during parent-teacher conference days or the week grades are due. For you, it might mean combining family and activism time by attending family-inclusive meetings or events (kinda’ like when a runner pushes their 2-year-old in a stroller for an easy run).
Plus, being organized and having a schedule also helps us avoid stretching ourselves too thin because it allows us to…..
Plan (and take!) rest days: That’s right y’all — when you make your schedule, include chunks of time when you don’t do ANY work! Runners don’t run every day (usually). They include resting days in their schedule, and stick to them! We should do the same. Let yourself take a real lunch break, one where you don’t have a meeting or call any clients or look at your email. Write down “self care” in your planner just like you would a doctor’s appointment or an upcoming vigil, and keep your appointment. 8:30-9:30pm on Monday-Wednesday-Friday is manicure time for me (one of my favorite forms of self-care!). And while “rest day” means “don’t exercise” for a runner, rest days can be physically active for freedom fighters! The key is that you want to feel replenished afterward. My best friend is a clinical social worker outside of Boston; her rest days usually mean a visit to the sailing center. It may be physically tiring, but she still feels recharged even if her muscles are sore. The whole point is to make time in your life for stuff that just makes you feel good and energized.
Oh! And please, get enough sleep. All nighters might happen once in a while, but if you’re regularly getting 6 or fewer hours a night, it’s time for a change. Our bodies need rest to be their best, and you owe it to yourself (and those you care for) to be your best.
Eat and drink well: You want to be able to run for 26.2 miles? You’d better eat food that keeps you strong and energized and hydrate like woah. Same for getting through a long-ass day of taking care of students/kids/clients/patients, tackling serious problems, marching in the streets, and making sure your house doesn’t fall apart. Nothing drains your batteries quite like dehydration and too many “empty” calories. If you find yourself getting through your day on fumes, plan ahead and stock up on portable, nutritious meals or snacks. Healthy food doesn’t have to be fancy – a simple PB&J, a string cheese with crackers and apple slices, or some pre-cut veggies with hummus and a cup of yogurt are all super simple and super nutritious options. And don’t forget to have a glass of water with your meal!
Use caffeine judiciously: Any runner will tell you that a little caffeine is great for a quick energy boost, but too much leads to serious trouble (google “The Trots” if you don’t know what I’m talking about). It’s totally fine to have some coffee to help you feel perky in the morning, but if you find yourself relying on giant-ass Red Bulls and 20-oz sodas to get you through your last 3 hours on the job or an all-night work session, that’s an issue. Caffeine and stress both significantly increase your blood pressure, can cause digestive upset, and can contribute to anxiety symptoms in some folks. Plus, if you’re replacing meals with caffeinated drinks regularly, you’re not fueling your body and mind – you’re running on empty, and you’ll hit the wall hard. You deserve better!
Reflect on your practice: A big part of marathon training is maintaining a journal or finding other ways to reflect on your training. Reflection helps you notice patterns in how you feel at different points in time, recognize what is and isn’t helping you improve, and motivate you make changes if needed. Self-reflection is one of the most challenging aspects of self-care for me, but it is also the most beneficial. A little more than a year ago, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed with excruciating sadness and terrifying anxiety. Through journaling, I was able to detect patterns in my moods, which led to my PMDD diagnosis. Without that self-reflection, who knows how long I would have suffered with no idea of why!
Self-reflection not only helps us understand ourselves, but it also makes us more accountable to the movement. Know this: whether you are a leader or an ally, someone is relying on your contributions to our collective liberation. Reflecting on your role, actions, and strategy allows you to consider how well you are supporting your activist community and proactively prevents conflicts. Don’t want to write? That’s fine! You can draw, pray, meditate or try somatics as methods of self-reflection.
Train yourself to push through discomfort: So this one is mostly for the white and privileged allies, but it may apply to other folks as well — being an ally in minority-led movements is incredibly uncomfortable. When you’re used to your feelings and opinions being centered, becoming an ally can often feel like being demoted from lead vocalist to back-up singer. So I have good news and bad news. Bad news: that feeling will really never go away, not completely. You will fuck up and want validation and not get it and struggle with white guilt and not get any sympathy for it. This is just how it is, and it is hard, but we also have no right to complain (well, not to our friends from marginalized groups) because it’s nothing compared to the pain of white supremacy and state violence. The good news? You will experience joys like nothing else through liberation work. You will feel some of the strongest love and connectedness on Earth. You will know that you are doing what’s right.
To make it easier, do what marathon runners do: train your brain to push past discomfort. If insecurity starts to kick in, do something unrelated to movement work that makes you feel confident. Focus on positive things that happened that day or week. Talk to a supportive person (this can include therapists, btw) about your feelings. Write in your journal (see? told ya!) about it. But whatever you do, don’t assume that your discomfort will just go away. You gotta’ do some work.
Have a mantra: I ran my first 5k in a slushy snowfall, wearing a hat that looked like a shark (my inner child is alive and well!). I honestly don’t know if there’s anything less fun than running in freezing cold slush. To keep myself going, I told myself, “Sharks never stop moving.” Runners use mantras all the time, and social justice workers do too — we just call them “chants.” Finding a simple message that resonates with you can be an excellent motivator, and help you feel calm and centered when stress kicks in. We gotta’ keep our morale up, y’all!
Don’t want to talk to yourself? Hang motivating messages in your workspace, make time for mediation or prayer, or attend a non-appropriative yoga class for a similar boost!
Know when to back off: Running coaches will tell you that if you ignore the warning signs of injury, you’ll do way more harm than good, and might ultimately sabotage your whole training regimen in the process. The movement may not give us shin splints, but anyone who is a caregiver can tell you that the threat of burnout is real, and it is constant. Unlike running, where the signs of injury are about the same for everybody, the signs of burnout vary from person to person. My friend Vahisha is the director of Movement in Faith, an organization dedicated to mental health healing through faith and social justice. She recently posted on Facebook, “My initial measure for distress is not making my bed. I just realized I haven’t made my bed in 6 days. Time for some assessment and additional self care.
What is your initial measure? What are your warning signs that let you know when you are in distress?”
We need to know what our Initial Measures are. Mine is resorting to fast food. My husband’s is needing more than 2 cups of coffee. My best friend’s is not wanting to walk her dog. Learn what distress feels like to you, and use your reflection and self-care time to address signs when they come up. Our jobs take so much out of us, and we have to make sure not to give more than is sustainable.
Celebrate your accomplishments! There’s a reason every marathon has a huge party at the finish line – because finishers deserve to celebrate! So do you. The job you do is hard. Activism is fucking hard. Raising kids, maintaining your home, balancing the million and one things we gotta’ do every day/week/month/year is hard. So when we do something kickass, we deserve to celebrate it! Did you just power through 8 hours of parent-teacher conferences? Celebrate with a fancy drink and a bubble bath. Did the police department roll out new accountability measures because of your activism? Get with your squad and party! Celebrate not only your accomplishments, but those of your colleagues and friends. Did someone in your activist group finish writing a policy proposal? Give her a little thank-you gift or a heartfelt note. Everyday tokens of appreciation keep our morale up and make the hard work 1000% worthwhile.
Remember, always, that YOU DESERVE TO BE WELL. You are loved, you are needed, and you are valued. You deserve to be cared for.
What are your tips for self-care? Have you ever experienced burn-out? How did you cope? Let’s talk!