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Self-care for resistance

Taking time out for yourself in the midst of a struggle can feel selfish. But avoiding burnout allows us to fight for longer. Can we take self-care and well-being away from influencers and back into the community and the movement? 

December 24 2022, 17.04pm

The definition of self-care is, by necessity, fluid. ‘Self-care looks different for everyone’ is the mantra beloved by purveyors of the practice, and it essentially means there is no ‘wrong’ way to do it. From buying expensive candles, to slapping on a face mask and soaking in a bubble bath, from cancelling social plans, to meditating every morning before opening Twitter - self-care is about prioritising your needs, your health, your wellbeing, and however you choose to do that is valid.

There is considerable comfort in this invitation to curl up and focus on the self. The world around us is growing increasingly inhospitable as our landscapes and natural resources are ravaged by the climate crisis. Our standards of living are being eroded as the cost of living spirals beyond our wildest imaginings. The NHS is at breaking point, the housing market is a mess, the war in Ukraine rages on, and the politicians in charge are actively making things worse. Flicking through the news channels right now feels like watching the opening montage to a dystopian disaster movie. 

In a strange way, merely taking a  break from the news cycle, looking away, prioritising the small things that you can control - like taking a walk each day, drinking water, getting enough rest - can feel like a tiny act of resistance,  a life-raft amid a flood of converging disasters. And the principles of self-care are both solid and hard to argue with. Setting boundaries, saying ‘no’, investing in your own physical and mental health - all of these things have clear benefits at the individual level. These little techniques and personal coping mechanisms act as a defence against the demands of capitalism that are sucking the life out of us, draining us of our energy, our time, our joy, and granting us precious little in return. 

But is it enough to merely assert our right to a bit of quietude?

The truth is that self-care, as it is widely defined today, is becoming less and less fit for purpose. 

Arguably, the concept itself was doomed from the moment it became possible to buy your way in creating an intrinsic divide between those who can afford to look after themselves and those who can’t. Simply search #SelfCare on Instagram or TikTok and you will see the issue. Self-care now has a specific aesthetic:  ‘aspirational,’ expensive and overwhelmingly white. The commercialisation of self-care has led to an erosion of the original principles of the practice. 

The global wellness industry was valued at $4.4 trillion in 2020. The Global Wellness Institute projects 9.9% average annual growth, with the wellness economy reaching almost $7 trillion in 2025. The wellness economy represented 5.1% of global economic output in 2020. Broken down by sector, personal care and beauty is worth $955 billion, and mental wellness is worth $131 billion.

There is a fundamental contradiction in the idea that the symptoms of capitalism - including exhaustion and burnout - can be addressed with a solution that is itself rooted in capitalism. As self-care has become increasingly commodified and driven by profits, its effectiveness in protecting against the social conditions that caused the need for self-care in the first place is diminished. 

“We live in a very individualistic society in the Western world,’ says Ngozi Cadmus, mental health expert and therapist. “If you come from Asian or African countries, it is very community-orientated, and in a lot of cultures that haven't been impacted by Western customs, it is actually seen as selfish to try to do things like this on your own.” 

For Ngozi, self-care is about self-regulation, bringing yourself back to your core principles that inform your work and your beliefs. She says it’s impossible to do this effectively without connecting with other people. 

“Self-care has to be balanced with shared spaces,’ she adds. “If not, you become insular, and that’s where you get blind spots. I often caution against this level of internal reflection people have. Sometimes you need someone else to tell you that you’re working too hard, that you need a break. There’s only so much you can achieve by looking inward, taking baths, pampering yourself.” 

Self care for solidarity and resilience 

The other fundamental problem with this commercialised version of self-care, is that so much of it is about looking away, hiding, and distraction. To protect our peace, we are encouraged to stay home, engage less with the world around us, swaddle ourselves in a barrier of expensive lotions and weighted blankets. There is, of course, a function in looking away to protect yourself - for example, choosing not to watch a video of racialised violence as it circulates on social media - but in the long-term, looking away is not conducive to change. If all of us only focus on protecting our individual interests, the societal issues that are causing the pain will never be improved. 

The question of how to achieve this balance between action and self-protection is especially pertinent among activist groups and communities. For those working and campaigning on the front lines of social justice - from climate activism to anti-racism - trauma comes with the territory. 

So, how do you use self-care to enable resistance?

The key here is a shift in perspective: Expand the focus away from the individual.

“Self-care and community-care are very much linked,” writes therapist Donna Oriowo in analysis earlier this year. "There is only so far self-care can go without a community around you to help support you in the moments when you may not be at your best. True self-care does not look like the hyper-individualism we have been taught." But are communities - that are often already traumatised - actually equipped to heal themselves?

Farzana Khan is the executive director of Healing Justice, an organisation that builds community-led health and healing to create capacity for personal and structural transformation. She says movements and activist groups can act in traumatised ways which can impact their ability to work effectively towards their goals.

“An example is that we might fear growth,” Farzana says. “We can fear doing bold and powerful things, because to stay safe is to stay unseen, so we can't tolerate that growth. As soon as the movement gets too big, we turn on each other, or, for example, there will be suspicion around money, because money, racial capitalism, and philanthropy is typically used against us. So when we have any kind of resources, the competition is reproduced.”

Strength and resilience are at the heart of Healing Justice’s work, and they use key principles - from somatic approaches unifying the body and mind, to trauma informed care - to help create well-resourced communities that are ‘generative, equitable and thrive beyond us.’

Activism as self-care

For Farzana, the way to achieve this goal is not as simple as pivoting from individual to collective self-care.

“We have reached a point where it's OK to talk about mental health, and we know that it’s a bit ‘off’ to say self-care is just about you,” she explains. “We know that individual illness is a very neoliberal ideology. In response, we then often default to the collectives and communities - but this argument needs more nuance. 

“At Healing Justice we have turned our attention towards structural justice because what we want to make more explicit is what happens when an entire community is continually disinfected, disempowered and disenfranchised.”

Farzana’s aim is take this conversation to the next level, to ask how we unify to build better infrastructures for public health and develop resources for radical education. 

“It is all of these types of things that meet people's material needs, not just on a baseline level, but on a degree that allows us to thrive, that lets us be well enough to then be able to show up for one another.”

The individualised self-care we are sold on Instagram is about simply getting through the day. Surviving, and being as comfortable as possible in that survival. It is a symptom of diminished expectations for our lives caused by the systemic chipping away of our rights and our opportunities to succeed. Surely, simple survival is setting the bar too low? Our aim shouldn’t be to just survive the societal conditions that are fuelling a mental health crisis, the aim should be to push back against these conditions - to arm ourselves with the tools we need to refuel and rejuvenate before we fight again. If structural justice is needed, lighting a scented candle and deleting Twitter from your phone isn’t enough. 

Farzana argues that we don’t always need to practise self-care to enable us to engage in activism, because sometimes the activism itself functions as a healing process.

“Part of our wellbeing is knowing that we can do something,” she says. “Protesting is one way that we keep hope and feel empowered. Wellbeing is not just staying in your house and soaking in a bathtub. Actually, a lot of really good trauma work asks - is the way you’re responding congruent to your context? So, if your context requires you to be protesting, actually following through with that protest, being able to access that righteous rage, is healthy. What we are not trying to do is pathologise the ways people cope and respond.”