Let's talk about Self Care and Radical Social Change

June 4, 2021

Written by Caitlin Marshall, for MakeShift.

Gay Liberation Front member, NYU 1970, photo by Diana Davies

Here at MakeShift, we talk a lot about "Self Care".

This is a term that is used so much nowadays, flippantly and lightly. Literally its meaning is both simple and important. It's the straight up FACT that our bodies, minds, souls and hearts need to be cared for by us, as we live in them. We are not a machine, but a living, breathing, changing, evolving creature with emotions, needs, desires, hopes, dreams and goals, and therefore we NEED time, care and attention from time to time. Every single one of us.

We now see #selfcare on instagram posts, in corporate self-help books, on wellness apps, beauty products, on t-shirts. It's use has become almost glib, an afterthought in the chaos of modern life -'oh and don't forget to practice self care!'

In fact, the term 'Self Care' was popularised by black feminist writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde in the 70's. When she published "Burst of Light" after being diagnosed with cancer, her thoughts and perspectives on this idea of caring for herself took hold among her many followers. She championed a concept that it is a REQUIREMENT to care for ourselves - if we are going to be useful in the march towards justice, community fairness and change.

Image credit unknown

Since then the term 'self care' has been co-opted by the very lucrative wellness industry, and - make no mistake - this makes lotsa lotsa money for corporations claiming to be in the pursuit of that much sought after 'self care' and 'me time'. It's also a term now very wrapped up in experiences of privilege and wealth.

'Self care', in this context, translates as permission to splash cash on things that make us feel good - expensive moisturiser, nice clothes, yoga retreat. It's another achievement-focused act, another thing on the to-do list. And that version of self-care? It's out of reach. For most of us. For people working two jobs and caring for a family member and raising kids and dealing with a chronic health condition and travelling to work and back everyday. That version of self-care is for the privileged.

Even having space and time to think about self-care is a privilege compared to someone living below the poverty line, who day by day just need to find and meet basic needs to survive (we strongly believe self-care and connection IS a basic need, but that's another conversation...).

Image credit: @thesweetfeminist Instagram

The fact is, we live in a capitalist society, which relies on us to contribute to the economy as much as we can, and those that don't, or can't are valued less. A report by The Australia Institute in 2016 found that close to a third of Australian workers don't take annual leave, and that the majority of those people are on the lower-income end of wages.

We know that the systemic impacts of being born into poverty mean someone is less likely to complete education, therefore they have more limited options for employment and are most likely to only be able to have access to lower-paid work. This comes with less freedom to take leave, less resources to take holidays and, given the demand for those jobs, a reluctance to actually take the entitlements in the first place. The fear of indirect 'punishment' that can come with regularly taking sick days, annual leave, or demanding the full breadth of entitlements and provisions at work.

So, the reality is that people who lack the privilege of time, resources, education and social capital have less choice about the kind of work they do, and where and how they do it.

At the very same time, we live in a cultural moment that persistently tells us we should "DO WHAT WE LOVE" and "FOLLOW OUR DREAMS" and "MAKE A SIDE HUSTLE". This might be possible for some, but completely unrealistic and out of reach for most!

See this tension? Yikes! Alongside this pressure to WERK, and DO WHAT YOU LOVE and also LIVE YOUR BEST LIFE (all the while making sure you have enough income to care for yourself and your family, meet the needs of your employers, which have just grown and grown to exceedingly unhealthy expectations in many sectors) we ALSO now have to TAKE TIME FOR OURSELVES! That invitation can just bring up a whole lotta guilt, or pressure to 'do it well'.

Gah! No wonder some people recoil at the invitation to 'practice self-care'. It's a sad reality that the basic fact that we need to replenish our physical and emotional bodies is seen as so complicated and out of reach.

The mental health impacts of the way our society works are far reaching and well documented. Overwork, a lack of regular holidays and leave, long hours and huge workloads are linked with poor mental health, relationship breakdowns, impacts on parenting and family connection, impact on social connection and networks, increased physical health issues, and mortality. Sounds grim, right!?

At the very same time, more and more research is telling us that social connection is as important as a good diet, sleep and exercise, for our mental and physical health. In the UK, there is a Minister for Loneliness. Health services and networks all over the world are now including programs to combat social isolation as core business for improving and maintaining the health of the community. In fact, one study found that lack of social connection was a better predictor of a shorter life than smoking!

This culture of overwork, busy-ness, hyper-productivity and economic pursuit at the expense of health is bad for us. REAL BAD.

Especially if we aren't at the top of the ladder with access to work that we 'love' or choice and flexibility around when, how and where we work.

This is why practicing genuine self-care is a radical first step in acknowledging this flawed, messed up system and drawing a line in the sand about how you participate in it. It's radical because it calls out the idea that we are machines that can keep going, day by day, every day, working, producing, outputting. We can't.

When some of us reach that limit after pushing and pushing ourselves, it's described as burnout. Or overwhelm. Or we are described as someone who 'isn't coping'.

But no-one is designed to cope under those conditions!

It's not a sign of 'not coping', it's a very clear flag being waved by our physical and psychological systems to say "uh, hello!? I need BREAKS! I need some TIME OUT! I need FUN! REST! CONNECTION WITH OTHERS!

Committing to some practice of self care, as a community of people, is micro, grassroots social change. Because here is something we also know, the practice of self care builds the confidence to take time to care for ourselves, and that means to take the time to connect with others becomes easier, more familiar.

We've seen it over and over, people who begin our programs self-isolating because of their mental health - over 8 weeks - slowly reconnect with play, with joy, with things that make them feel good. And this inspires motivation - to find and connect with others who also love the things they love. We witness, time and time again, people shifting from despair, to brightness, to feeling inspired. And they want to share this with other people, even strangers.

The better and more familiar we are at practicing Self Care, the greater our capacity is to practice what is even more needed: Community Care!

Image credit: Sarah Tedder 2019

One of the critiques of 'self-care' is the way it places the responsibility back on individuals to manage their wellbeing, as opposed to, say, governments with mandates to provide services in essential health, or workplaces to ensure their culture doesn't systematically erode peoples' mental health. Self Care definitely isn't the only answer. But it is a critical part of any journey of mental health and trauma recovery. In building this capacity of people to then connect with others, we build social networks, and participation community care. It's all linked! It is also tremendously impactful when people who have experienced helplessness in the face of an overstretched health system, learn the deep work of self care and gain the power to know how to manage their symptoms.

Just think about a future society where we are giving this literacy, these skills in understanding the psychology of humans, to kids and teens? Where people understand and recognise when they are responding from a place of fight or flight? Where we can co-regulate to build understanding, compassion and connection with each other, with the skills that we've learnt about what we need, to function from this place, day to day? We can then imagine that, as a community, we would have greater capacity to notice what is going on for each other, to respond with curiosity instead of judgement, to connect and build and support. To care.

It's proven that the more connected people are in their community - with neighbours, friends, family, networks -then:

- mental illness rates are lower

- suicide rates are lower

- communities are more resilient and can resource their needs better

- creativity and innovation flourish

- discrimination and marginalisation reduces

A mentally healthy community importantly also includes lifting up and elevating voices that are marginalised, reducing oppression.

So, when we talk about self care, and our programs that focus on building habits of creative self care, we aren't talking about spa retreats and luxuries that only a few can afford.

We are talking about taking radical micro steps, one by one, little by little, to collectively inch away from the deep social programming of earning, producing, working, toiling as the only pursuit of value, and shifting towards healing, connecting, living socially and with joy and awe.

We are talking about understanding, learning and being empowered to know what you need. Empowered to create micro habits (5 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes waiting for the bus) that start you on a path to meet those needs. And taking heed in that quote, that "Masters are just beginners who kept going".

THIS self care isn't for show and tell. It's not about wealthy corporations and privilege. It's not about posting on social media, or achieving. It can be, and must be, non-negotiable moments of every day that are filling your cup up to enable you to be present, connected, calm, grounded, able to feel empathy, learn and be curious.

It's hard, slow change. We know. And the playing field isn't equal. And there are many other intersecting things to think about and consider in this conversation.

But this is our work, and make no mistake, it's activist work. It's cultural and social change, that starts with you, and helps you to find and make space for a moment of self care.

What even is deep self care? 

It might look like setting some boundaries for what you will and won't do - at work, at home, in the community.

It might look like prioritising your health, learning about the day to day symptoms you experience related to your mental and physical health, and figuring out what you need to do to alleviate them. In our Creative First Aid programs, we introduce the Window of Tolerance tool as a starting place for recognising some of the common ways people experience mental health challenges day to day. We talk about the strategies that are proven to offset these - energy fuelled sensory delight for hyper-arousal like dancing, exercise, knitting, stitching, painting, playing music, singing. Or slow gentle writing, walking, being in nature, talking to friends, for flatness, fatigue, hypo-arousal. It doesn't have to cost money, it' doesn't have to take enormous chunks of time.

It definitely involves rewiring that deeply programmed idea that taking time to care for ourselves is indulgent, luxurious and the last thing on the list. This social change is a shift to the acceptance that practicing self-care, everyday, is part of being human. It's non-negotiable and essential - like brushing your teeth, having a shower, eating food.

Self Care isn't the only answer for when times are tricky. Sometimes, we need expert help and support from professionals - pain specialists, psychologists, rehab providers. Sometimes we need financial support. We all need subsidised healthcare, benefits for when pandemics take our income away, family networks when we are really struggling. But these things can happen alongside self care. There are lots of hours in the day, and starting habits that take just a few minutes, over time, can add up to making a big impact on our nervous system, our sense of self, and our feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and feeling out of control.

Image credit: Sarah Tedder

And finally, but so importantly, this work means acknowledging the oldest culture in the world who knew this so deeply - our First Nation's peoples. It is a way of knowing and responding collectively to people in the community in ways that invite people to express themselves beyond the spoken word. Sometimes that's not enough. This ancient cultural knowledge is extraordinary and, as we honour and pay respects to the original custodians of this land we live and work on (stolen land), we remain committed to sitting in the space of learning and growing this valuable and important cultural lens. The Western medical approach to mental illness has much to learn from our First Nation's culture and, when we realise that as collective community, healing will occur.

Want to make a start?

> Read our post on the Window of Tolerance, and take a moment to think about where you sit. Are you grounded and in your body? Or outside of that? What do you need?

> Pay attention to that negative voice, and instead turn up the Curious Voice - 'what would happen if I set aside 15 minutes to replenish myself?'

> Pick up something you enjoy - cooking, walking, watering the garden, writing, doodling, putting on a playlist and dancing. Just do that, just for 10-15 minutes. Keep going. Notice how you feel after.

> Do it again, the next day! Notice what shifts. See if you are drawn to spending more time on that.

> Make a commitment to practice 15 minutes a day, for a week. Be curious about it. What will you notice after that week? Do you feel differently?

Learn more:

- Audre Lorde's "Burst of Light and Other Essays"

- Free book: Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice.

- Kirli Saunders' book of poems, Kindred and her beautiful conversation on our podcast, In The Making

- Article: Addressing Trauma as a Pathway for Social Change

- ArticleThe Privilege in Self Care by Veronica Leigh Milliner

- Gabor Mate's book: When the Body Says No - The Cost of Hidden Stress

- Johann Hari's book Lost Connections

- ReMind : An 8 week online and home-delivered program exploring creative, radical self-care designed for you

MakeShift's Creative First Aid programs are opportunities to learn from artists, creatives, practitioners, skills and practices that can be powerful practices of daily self care, designed to be planned around the experiences, symptoms and challenges that show up in your day.

They are about learning to experience awe and pleasure again, becoming familiar with curiousity instead of self-critique, and most of all, playing. Find out more.

Caitlin Marshall is the co-founder of MakeShift, a mental health educator and faciliator, a social worker, and advocate for the vital role of the arts and creativity in cultivating a healthy, connected community.