Self-care in a system that doesn't care is a radical act of undoing internalized oppression
Here’s something that often gets left out when we talk about systems of violence and oppression: the emotional toll of living with them.
If cared for and channeled, our anger and hurt can be fuel to change the world. If not, it can knock us off our feet. And as Lori Lakin Hutcherson’s essay powerfully demonstrated, so many carry this burden in silence:
I realized many of my friends ― especially the white ones ― have no idea what I’ve experienced/dealt with unless they were present (and aware) when it happened.
There are two reasons for this:
1) Not only as a human being do I suppress the painful and uncomfortable in an effort to make it go away, I was also taught within my community (I was raised in the ’70s and ’80s ― it’s shifted somewhat now) and by society at large NOT to make a fuss, speak out or rock the boat. To just “deal with it,” lest more trouble follow (which sadly, it often does).
2) Fear of being questioned or dismissed with “Are you sure that’s what you heard?” or “Are you sure that’s what they meant?” and being angered and upset all over again by well-meaning-but-hurtful and essentially unsupportive responses.
And it’s a triple-whammy. Because:
1. We are constantly told that we don’t belong. If you are black, brown, gay, gender non-conforming, a woman, fat, or any combination of that, then you likely grew up with the message that you don’t quite belong here. You are you, and you don’t fit into the white, male, cisgender space that you are taking up. You are breathing borrowed air.
2. It can get scary. I can’t imagine what it’s like for black folks who are hit, unrelentingly, with news of another unarmed black person shot for no apparent reason. Because they needed help, were trying to help, were just standing there, just sitting there, or holding a wallet in their hand.
But as a woman, I do know what it’s like to not feel safe. To hear, over and over, “don’t go hiking alone,” “don’t wear revealing clothes,” “don’t drink too much,” because if I do that and get assaulted, it’ll be my fault.
3. God forbid we have any kind of emotional reaction to this. Because the world is not forgiving for people who do not have the privilege of whiteness, maleness, straightness. It’s dangerous to be too visible. To (gasp) get emotional, stand up for yourself, step out of line. Or laugh too loud (on a wine train), or dance too hard (at a dance concert), or drink too much (at a frat party). You know, to be human.
In so many ways, we have to be above reproach.
And what happens to the soul of a community that is collectively holding its breath? What happens when the hurt little places inside us are mirrored back to us in our own, real life, flesh and blood children, because they face it too? Do they inherit our pain?
Not if we can help it, they don’t.
Activism = Love
The world is too hard on people who don’t fit. We’ve got to give ourselves a soft place to land, so we can be strong and steady in creating social transformation.
I believe that the most powerful forms of activism are an expression of love for the world. And that love is a mirror image — the same thing, really — as a deep, abiding, and radical love of self.
Radical Love = Fiercely loving exactly what society has found unacceptable in us.
It’s loving the child inside who froze in time when she realized someone saw her as fundamentally wrong.
And the little beasts inside who want to fight, cry, bare their teeth, stomp their feet, rage at the machine, or eat a pint of ice cream in one sitting. We have to love all of them, fiercely, even as the decorum police writ large tell them they are selfish, ungrateful, “counterproductive,” and just generally not welcome here, for wanting to do what they of course want to do.
We’ve had to swallow those parts of ourselves. The bits of our soul that felt hurt, afraid, pissed, helpless.
And in doing that, we internalized our oppression. We learned how to dismiss, ignore, overlook, even hate ourselves, in order to survive.
But when we start to love them — by listening to them, accepting them, and letting them know there is room for them within us — we start to embody the transformation we hope to see in the world. And we can begin to speak for them, with our feet firmly planted in our own sense of value and belonging.
Three mindfulness practices to cultivate radical self-love:
- Notice the kinds of things you judge yourself for. We all have critical inner voices that keep us in check. By getting to know what triggers that voice, and offering yourself acceptance, you can begin to get more freedom from feelings of unworthiness.
- Set aside a time every day to ask yourself, “what inside me most needs acceptance, right in this moment?” Use this inquiry to build a greater sense of how you carry suffering in your body. For instance, it might be a lump in your throat, a pit in your stomach, tension in your shoulders, or an ache around your heart. It might be an emotion like anger, sadness, fear, or frustration. Whatever you find, even if it’s a sense of numbness, acknowledge it with a friendly “hello,” and sense into what it might be about. Whatever you find, even if it’s nothing, you can offer it acceptance with phrases like, “I care about you,” “I forgive you,” or “you are welcome here.”
- Reach out when you need support, especially when you notice that you are beating yourself up. We all need allies who we trust to listen with compassion, and without judgment. And these relationships make us stronger.
What have I missed? I'd love to read your comments.