By Georgia Elander
CN: Politics, self-care,
Trump presidency, anxiety
The concept of ‘self-care’ is everywhere now in feminist, queer and other activist circles.
It comes from Audre Lorde’s incredible statement that ‘caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’ – and it has radically changed the way that many of us engage not just in activism but in the world around us.
It has also made many activist spaces more accommodating, more accessible, more understanding. But for those of us whose day to day lives are not always a struggle for existence, it may be worth re-evaluating where caring for ourselves ends and refusing to care about others begins.
Just over two years ago I started getting involved in politics, and it was a total revelation that changed my life. I met a group of people with whom I felt at home for the first time, I developed skills I didn’t even know I had, and I began to feel like I had a real purpose. Quite quickly, however, it began to consume my life. By the summer of 2016, when I was running a campaign on the EU referendum, politics was coming before not only my studies and my friendships but my well-being: I was constantly exhausted and so riddled with anxiety that I’d get heart palpitations every time my phone buzzed.
“Politics was coming before not only my studies and my friendships but my well-being”
So in the last few months of last year I started to drop out. Resigned the positions I held, stopped answering emails, stopped volunteering my time. By October my stock reply to anyone asking how I was had become “I’m doing a lot of sleeping and it’s great.” And it was. It was what I needed.
When Donald Trump won the US election, I turned off the radio – usually a constant presence for me – and stopped reading the news. Hearing about it all was just too exhausting, I told myself. I dropped further out of my political circles; I did a lot of thinking about laziness as a radical act in a society that demands endless labour, especially from women; and I did a lot of ‘self-care’ – face masks, naps, TV marathons.
Then Trump was inaugurated. He began his attack on reproductive rights, resurrected the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines, and forced the US Environment Agency to remove all references to climate change from its website. He started the process of bringing back torture, and our prime minister prepared for a visit to the US to cement the ‘special relationship.’ And I began to have a rethink.
“When Donald Trump won the US election, I turned off the radio – hearing about it all was just too exhausting”
Recently several people have written thoughtfully and eloquently on how the meaning of ‘self-care’ has shifted in ways that is often counterproductive – to mean ‘treat yourself’ rather than ‘look after yourself.’ For someone like me with mental health problems, for example, it’s easy to deploy ‘self-care’ as an excuse for staying in bed and not doing the things – like cooking a proper meal or doing a load of laundry – that will actually improve our wellbeing.
But I think that there are political, as well as personal, limits to the version of ‘self-care’ many of us have become invested in. That version of ‘self-care’ told me that as a queer woman with mental health problems, it was okay not to contribute to political activism if I didn’t feel like it. And while I still think it’s crucial that all of us as activists recognise our limits, look after our wellbeing and avoid burnout, I don’t think that should mean that our comfort always comes first. As a white woman with relatively stable finances and no physical health problems, I do realistically have time, energy and sometimes money to contribute to protest and activism, and with people of colour and other oppressed groups under serious and urgent threat on both sides of the atlantic, I have a responsibility to do so.
“It’s crucial that as activists we recognise our limits and avoid burnout, but I don’t think that should mean that our comfort always comes first.”
It may seem an obvious point but politics and activism – especially party politics – do not exist to serve the needs of those involved in it. They exist because of an urgent necessity to change things, often for those who have less access to the tools of power. Of course it is vital that our movements and parties are accessible, welcoming, and able to safeguard those involved – but it is just as vital that they are effective. Sometimes that requires us – especially those of us with more privilege – to do things we don’t necessarily feel like doing. Struggle can certainly be joyful but, by its very nature, is not comfortable.
My belated new year resolutions, therefore, are to spend less money on fancy skincare products and more supporting people and causes that need the money; to give up a bit of my downtime to get involved in activism in my local community; and make the effort to get back into writing about politics (starting here!). It is my hope that they will benefit me, others, and the revolution. Learning to be selfish was one of the most valuable and important things I have ever done – but sometimes there are others who need my energy more than I do.
Find more of Georgia’s personal and political writing here.