You may have noticed that I’ve been posting less frequently in recent weeks. There are a number of reasons for this, from work picking up to getting engaged to having some family health problems. I intend to continue blogging, but at this slower pace of one to two posts per week going forward. This coming week, there will not be a post, as I’ll be participating in GISHWHES. Thank you all for being my readers. You really do make my life better. See you in a couple weeks!
Self care is really important to me, so when someone passed along an article entitled “Why I Don’t Believe in ‘Self Care’ (and how to make it obsolete)“, I was intrigued. I like a good critique of something that I care about, especially if it makes me consider things in a different way. The intriguing thing about this critique is that it appears to be based in Marxism, which i’m mostly going to ignore because I don’t want to argue against all of Marxism, but suffice it to say that buying things ever is not inherently evil. That said, there are some interesting things to consider about the critique.
According to the article, self care means “any necessary human regulatory function which is under individual control, deliberate and self-initiated….In modern medicine, preventive medicine aligns most closely with self care.” The author pulls this definition from Wikipedia, and goes on to talk about the fact that we call many things self care that don’t fall under this definition. In the author’s mind that’s a problem, because we confuse things that are necessary and under our own control with things that we do to cope temporarily with bad situations.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but the first thing I want to point out is that hinging your entire argument on a Wikipedia definition of a word is not a strong case. Words are defined by how we use them, so if everyone around you is using the phrase self care to mean “taking care of yourself, doing things that feel fulfilling, checking in with yourself to engage in practices that keep you going”, then that’s probably what the phrase means, rather than something very strictly defined as “under your own control.” In fact, if I were to ask 100 of my closest friends what they think self care means, I doubt a single one of them would include the self initiated and under individual control elements, but those appear to be huge parts of the author’s argument.
I have a huge problem with folks who profess to be intersectional, but take strong prescriptivist positions on language. That shit is racist and classist, and if you don’t understand that we have to look at how language actually functions in real life, then I really don’t have time for you. So let’s just take a moment to find irony in the fact that an author who is arguing against the problems of capitalism and the abuses of the oppressed classes relying on prescriptivist arguments for their article.
But to move on to the main argument of the post, the author wants to distinguish between coping, which is a temporary strategy to get through a hard time, and self care, which is the ongoing actions you take to ensure your well being. I think there’s an important nugget of truth to be found in this article: there are some things that we do that feel nice in the moment but are not sound long term strategies. I think it’s important to recognize the fact that often self-care will put us at odds with other people, and that we need to be aware of how our self care affects others. I’ve seen people say that self care is eating a whole pizza and binge watching Netflix. That might be self care in this moment, but it is not going to be self care if you do it every day. That’s the challenging balance: sometimes you have to do temporary things to get through the day, sometimes you have to go exercise and eat a salad in order to stay healthy and make a sustainable life.
What I find bizarre is the shamey tone that the author brings to this argument.
She says that “The result of this [self care] is that we end up spending a lot of resources on unnecessary things, even as we are trying to work for a less wasteful and anti-consumerist world. We’ve bought into the consumerism that we claim to oppose.”
I find myself confused. It’s easy to say that if something isn’t totally ethical then it isn’t sustainable, and therefore isn’t self care. We should be able to get by without it. But that’s not always true. There are times that a person requires something that isn’t great in order to survive. An example: in order for me to eat in a healthy manner, I have to live in opposition to my values; I cannot be a vegan, which is what I logically believe is the most ethical position to take. If I were to eat vegan, I almost certainly would fall back into my eating disorder and seriously hurt myself or potentially die.
That would not change if society were different or if I had a better communal support system. It is a simple fact about my combination of sensory sensitivities, difficulties with restriction, and rule following nature. Sometimes there is no circumstance in which we can both take care of ourselves and do the best thing. That’s ok. My biggest beef with this piece is that it doesn’t recognize how hard someone can try to be a good person and still need to “fall short” in some ways in order to take care of themselves. I don’t think we need any more shame around the concept of self care. We have so much already.
What the article gets really really right is the promotion of more community care instead of an individualized understanding of health. We are interdependent and it is important to recognize that. I’ve always thought that an important part of self care is recognizing when we need others, so I think we might be down to semantics in distinguishing self care from community care. You can put the focus on the individual by saying everyone is responsible for asking for help when they need it, or you can put the focus on the community by saying that it’s impossible for any of us to meet all of our own needs. I think it’s important to remember both, as the community can’t help unless we articulate our needs, and we cannot take care of ourselves without community.
It is absolutely important to recognize that the language of self care can put the onus of survival on an individual rather than on systems. Self care cannot exist in a vacuum without advocating for change to workplaces that are unsupportive or relationships that aren’t interdependent. This is the most important element of this piece in my eyes: self care cannot replace a society that is functional for the people in it. What I disagree with is the idea that self care or even coping has no place in a “good” society.
“It sounds so simple, but here’s the big secret: community care can make our unsustainable coping mechanisms obsolete. If we can build a culture of community care, where people’s needs are met through each other, coping becomes unnecessary. We can cut down on waste. We can make our communities sustainable.”
There will never be a community so sustainable that people never have to use unsustainable coping mechanisms for some things, or so sustainable that some people don’t have to use long term self care methods that are not ideal. That is not possible and saying it is is a utopian myth. There will always be times that in order to get by, we will need to do things that aren’t perfect or that might hurt other people. One of the hardest things about engaging in self care is recognizing that sometimes it is ok to prioritize yourself and your own well being over other people.
I think that this article gives us a great starting point: communal care needs to be part of our understanding of living a healthy life. But I think that a healthy life involves a balance: giving and receiving help from others, while also sometimes prioritizing your own needs.
Not everything we do can be sustainable, perfectly ethical, or communal. Sometimes we have to do things for ourselves that means someone else won’t get our time, or that we take a resource from someone else. It’s not ideal, but it is also reality, and shaming people for being realistic about taking care of themselves is pretty shitty in my opinion. So yes, let’s aim for community care. We absolutely can do better. But making all unsustainable coping mechanisms obsolete? Ha. There is no system under which I will never want to binge Netflix and eat a tub of ice cream. Unsustainable coping mechanisms are part of life, because some situations are unsustainable and that will never change.
The last couple of weeks have been rough, pretty much for anyone who lives in the U.S. There has been a great deal of violence, and a lot of people trying to understand the appropriate way to respond to extreme violence, which means there have been a lot of people stepping in it. One of my favorite examples of this is white people quoting MLK out of context, especially this quote:
“Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
I’ve seen this quote in response to people posting about Black Lives Matter. Let me tell you what I have seen from BLM supporters: hurt and anger. A demand for change. A call for justice. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the fear they feel, the sadness of seeing their brothers and sisters killed, and the hopelessness of not knowing how to change anything.
So when I saw people respond with the above quote, I found myself flabbergasted. Who was talking about hate? I saw people talking about anger, justice, sadness, and an expectation of basic human decency. How on earth were my fellow white Americans looking at black anger and seeing hatred?
It has become very clear to me that Americans do not understand anger or how to be angry in a healthy way. I get it. I’m still struggling with how to feel and express anger well, and I’ve had five years of therapy trying to work me through the process. Most of the presentations that I see of anger in the media or modeled around me show anger as primarily something that white men feel, and as something that is typically violent. But we need to do better because there are very real impacts to our awful relationship with anger: people are dying because we cannot stop conflating anger with violence.
First and foremost, anger is healthy. Being angry and expressing anger are not mean or bad things to do. Not only that, but anger is something that every person in the world is entitled to feel. Every emotion that we feel serves a purpose. Anger helps to keep us safe. When someone crosses your boundaries, treats you or your loved ones poorly, or hurts you, anger is the response that says “do not let this happen again.” That is a good thing. If you don’t have anger when someone treats you poorly, you are less likely to take care of yourself.
So when we see women or people of color feeling angry, we need to be ok with that. Everyone deserves the space to set their own boundaries. White men: just because you cannot separate your anger from violence doesn’t mean you get to assume everyone else is just as incompetent.
On that note, here’s a problem: when white men feel angry, they seem to think they are entitled to act violently. (no, not all white men).
This may seem incredibly obvious, but it’s important to reiterate (and there are also many people who have never been told): you can feel an emotion without acting on that emotion. Feel the feel but don’t do the thing. The collapsing of anger and violence means many people can’t imagine just feeling incredibly angry and not doing anything about it. That makes anger dangerous, and makes a lot of people dangerous. There are two problems with this: the first is that we can react to anger in a variety of different ways, not just violence. The second is that sometimes anger doesn’t warrant any action.
Let’s start with number one. There are lots of ways to use anger to propel action. Some of them involve violence or yelling or cursing. That’s what most people think of when they think of “acting angry”. But healthy responses to anger can actually present in a wide variety of ways. It could be telling someone that you’re angry with them and why. It could be telling someone not to do whatever pissed you off anymore. It could be protesting. It could be voting. It could be calling legislators. Basically any time that something violates your boundaries and you work to reestablish those boundaries, you are acting out your anger. Violence is probably one of the least effective ways to do that in our current world. If I could change one thing about our relationship to anger, it would be that people could learn different ways of acting on their anger.
But perhaps even deeper than the ways we act on our anger is the fact that there is so very much action when white men are angry. Here are some facts: sometimes we feel angry when no one has actually done anything and there’s no reason to feel anger, or when there’s nothing we can do to change the situation, or our anger is out of proportion with what happened. Those are great times to feel anger and not do anything. It feels uncomfortable at first, but there’s lots of ways to get through the discomfort, whether it’s venting, doing something else to distract yourself, trying some mindfulness, or even just exercising off the steam. But this might be the most important place of confusion when it comes to anger in America.
If someone tells you they’re angry with you, they are not attacking you, doing violence to you, or expressing any kind of hatred or even necessarily judgment on you. In reality, when someone tells you that they are angry, they are doing you a favor. They’re giving you an opportunity to stop hurting them. Love is not at odds with anger: in fact real love requires that sometimes you feel angry, because love involves having some boundaries.
So when I see people responding to the recent police shootings with “why are you inciting violence or hatred against the police? Let’s use love!” I have to laugh. The myth that if we love someone or something we can’t criticize it or expect better from it has destroyed so many lives. You can’t love your abuser into not abusing you. That’s a recipe for feeling guilty and getting hurt. It’s how people get taken advantage of. It’s the lie that society tells women about abusive men. If you’re just good enough then you won’t get hit again. It’s a lie individually and it’s a lie societally.
Anger is a necessary ingredient in change. It fuels us. It helps us to stand strong instead of running away or falling apart. It gives us conviction. Love is not love if it does not expect decent human behavior out of the beloved. Then it’s just co dependence.
This thread of confused anger runs through so many of the problems around me. Rape culture, where men feel they have to exercise violence on others to make up for rejection or negative feelings. Mass shootings, where (primarily) white men take out their frustrations and angers and hopelessness on the world around them with a gun. Cops shooting black men because they confuse anger for violence, and respond in kind.
If you live in a world where every emotion demands an action, and you have been told for your whole live that the only emotion you are allowed to feel is anger, this violence makes sense. I would not be surprised if the same people who lash out when they’re angry are feeling fear in response to black anger, interpreting it as “hate” or “attacks.” If your only understanding of anger is violent, you would not want others to be angry. You might feel afraid of your anger, or trapped. You might not feel you have any other choices beyond violence in response. This is the vicious circle that is spiraling out of control right now.
Unfortunately, our society’s confused relationship with anger is actually, literally killing people. When you put guns in the hands of people who cannot process emotions except through violence, you create killers. When you give some of those people an institutional backing, as in the case of cops, you create an epidemic of violence. If we cannot teach people that anger is not only acceptable, but it is healthy, and that there are other ways to process anger than violence, we will not be able to move forward. If anger is exclusively the domain of white men, we will not be able to move forward. We all deserve to have a healthy relationship with anger.
Right now the world is doing a number of pretty shitty things for people who are minorities or oppressed. Brexit is a clusterfuck. Donald Trump may actually get elected. The Orlando shooting. The murder of Youtuber Christina Grimmie. The assassination of British MP Jo Cox. Continued police shootings of black men. Conversations about mental illness and gun control and race and cops and xenophobia and fear fear fear. It’s everywhere. The world right now keeps reminding us that it’s a scary place, and many people are feeling overwhelmed and depressed and hopeless.
I’ve seen in particular in my circles that people who already struggle with depression or anxiety are floundering. Our brains tell us that we should panic or we should give up. Normally we would use skills to remind ourselves that the world isn’t awful and things aren’t falling apart. Most of those skills involve looking at whether things are actually as awful as they seem. And sadly, right now…things might be as awful as they seem. My friend Greta Christina inspired this post by saying “TFW your depressed jerkbrain is telling you that the world is terrible and frightening, and you feel like this time it might be right.”
In the meantime, I’ve gotten engaged, adopted two gloriously hilarious kittens, and generally had one of the best months of my life. This puts me in the weird position of having excess joy to share with others, of being the one who has the energy to help remind people that we will get through this. I never thought I would be the one bringing optimism to the party, but I suppose when you’re handed a lot of awesome while others are getting a shit sandwich the least you can do is invite them to your table.
So I’ve been asking myself: is there anything that I can offer others right now? Is there any smidgen of happiness I can pass on to the people who are seeing very real pain and suffering, and wondering how they can survive in a world that doesn’t seem to want them?
My happy things in no way make any of the bad things that have happened recently better. Not even for me. The day after I got engaged I woke up to news of the Pulse shooting, and simultaneously was giddy with excitement at my own future and sick at what I was hearing. Nothing can insulate you from the shock and pain of death and cruelty.
But similarly, I still get to feel happy. I am still capable of feeling happy. The things that make me happy cannot be touched by guns or racism or even Donald Trump’s orange face. Here are some happy things.
Yesterday I asked my fiance (FIANCE) how we should ask our friend to be the officiant at our wedding and he replied “yes”.
This morning I was awoken by two very wiggly and very soft kittens throwing themselves all over me.
I have a shiny, rainbow ring that I get to wear every day.
I’m head over heels in love and I just asked someone if they want to permanently entwine their life with mine and they said yes. Not only that, but dozens of my friends jumped at the chance to help me propose, to dress up in silly costumes and play a ridiculous card game just to make my day great.
These are all small facts. They don’t fight gun violence. They don’t save lives. But they are why we care about life. They’re why we’re sad when people’s lives are lost. Remember that the reason you’re sad is because you think there’s something worth fighting for.
Objectively, things suck, but objectively, there are things that make me smile in my life. Those two facts exist at the same time, and both of them have to have a place in your understanding of the world. If you want some reminders of what might make you smile here are some things to think about:
Are there people in your life that you love? Think about them for a minute. Not just their name or their relationship to you, but the way they smile, or their particular brand of humor, or how they get gentle around kids, or how they ask to make you dinner when you’re sick. It’s easy to say that people are awful and cruel. In my experience, people are loving, delicious, complex, confusing beings that pour out light when you ask what fuels them. It only takes a few that give off the right shade of light to make your skin tingle and your eyes crinkle. We are capable of feeling love. I don’t really know what the fuck love is, but it’s a pretty heady drug and I find it really cool that we get to feel it, and accept it.
You get to make choices about your life. I can’t put into words how important it is to pay attention to all the things you have chosen in your life. I’m not denying that there are a billion things we don’t get to choose, but we get to choose who we spend our time with. We get to choose to have pets. We get to choose to read cool things and listen to weird podcasts and explore the internet. We get to choose (to some extent) where and who we live with. We get to choose what food we eat and how we wear our hair. And yes, I realize that all of these things are constrained in different ways for different people, but all of us have some choices, and those choices are so important. Pay attention to them. I chose a life partner. I chose goofy little kittens. I chose to spend my time at a big nerd convention. Those facts are powerful.
I realize that all of this is trite. I realize that it only makes me super happy because it’s new. But why does it have to be like that? Why can’t I always think it’s amazing that I have a fiance? Why can’t I spend hours playing with my kittens every week? Because of real life? THIS IS REAL LIFE. Real life is not just the bad awful things. It’s the times when you’re walking on air too. It’s the months where every good thing happens at once. Those aren’t fake reprieves from objective reality. They have to count in your schema too. You cannot make it through life without remembering those things that are good enough that you said yes. Those people that are good enough that you wanted to give them your time.
So just do me a favor and during the nastybad times, remember that all of the good things still exist. Pay attention to your people. Pay attention to what lights you up. It is not bad to look away for a moment and remember why it hurts when life is taken: because life is worth it. Even your life.