“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” ~ Audre Lorde
Today is International Human Rights Day. First commemorated in 1950, International Human Rights Day brings attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all nations. The 2014 theme, “Human Rights 365”, celebrates the fundamental principle that everyone is entitled to the full range of human rights at all times, that human rights belong equally to each of us, and these rights bind us together as a global community.
Given the pain, frustration, and unrest that have resulted in protests in recent weeks around the United States to bring awareness to the increase of policing tactics against communities of color, the constant attacks on women’s reproductive access, continuous news about hate crimes against members of the LGBTQ community, the debates surrounding immigration rights, and countless other stressors on marginalized communities, the state of basic human rights around the world is nothing short of dismal.
As social workers, counselors, and therapists, we are receptacles of our clients’ trauma. We encourage clients to work through a traumatic experience by giving voice to it, but what ends up hopefully being a cathartic release for our clients, leaves us literally holding our clients’ trauma in our hands.
As teachers, agency or nonprofit workers, or community activists, the well-being of our communities is a priority for us. We conduct needs assessments and speak to our students and community members about what needs to change within the school system, agency, or community. What ends up being a positive way for community members to voice their concerns can leave us drained because what needs to change—often at a systemic and policy level—can feel daunting.
When your communities are constantly under attacked, when there seems to be no end in sight, and when your fundamental rights are being taken away, what do you do when self care isn’t an option for you?
When times get tough, I rely on self care activities and rituals that I’ve developed for myself. I mention self care, especially to service providers and activists, because I believe that you can’t raise your voice for others if you’re not able to care for yourself.
Activists are always at conflict with self care. You always feel the need to be “on” because people look to you for guidance. I’ve had activist friends who feel guilty when they take a break from social media, or even take a much-needed vacation. Though we know that the troubles facing our communities will still be there when we return, it doesn’t feel good knowing that you’re leaving your community behind to tend to yourself. Self care sounds selfish. It feels guilty, especially when the rights of the communities you care about are being trampled on.
Service providers are no different. We face the possibility of counter-transference with our clients, our sessions can go wrong, we can feel lost when we don’t know what direction to take our clients in, or we feel flustered if we have to start a session late or when a client tries to go past their scheduled end time. We feel irritated with our clients, our energy level is low, and run the risk of using displacement with our loved ones in order to cope with our problems.
Women and girls, communities of color, and other marginalized communities receive daily reminders that they don’t have the same rights as the majority, and in times like this, it feels insincere to encourage self care to communities that never seem to catch a break. While self care doesn’t feel like an option sometimes, it’s important to remember that we will always live in stressful times, and we have to find a way to take care of ourselves in ways that are beneficial to us while also letting the communities we care about know that we are still in the fight. If we don’t take time to care for ourselves, life will always have a way of making you slow down. Not slowing down physically and mentally can manifest in behavioral and physical ways. When it feels as though we have no power, we must remember how we treat ourselves is always within our control.
We do this work because we care. We do this work because future generations depend on the changes we make today. But this work is hard. Our caring and activism is overwhelming because while we’re helping our communities heal, we’re still processing our own traumas. In a sense, raising our voices for others is a part of our self care. In it, we’re developing support networks with like-minded individuals that validate our causes. But there are still things we can do to take care of ourselves outside of the activism we do and the services we provide. There’s no right or wrong way to practice self care. A 30 minute nap, turning off your smart phone for a few hours, talking a walk, watching funny movies, saying no to taking on a new task that can be delegated o someone else or put off for another day, or giving yourself a hug are all good things.
As you go about International Human Rights Day (and every day), remember the injustices we continue to face, and find ways to become more unapologetic in giving voice to your overwhelm in order to re-energize.