Balancing caretaking and self-care

by Wellbeing Support

Balancing Self-care

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“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

― Audre Lorde

Events in the past few years have often felt overwhelming. We’ve borne witness to the displacement and suffering of millions of people due to natural disasters and political conflicts. We’ve also experienced pivotal global events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. And just when it seemed that things could not get worse, the conflict in Gaza escalated.

Many of us empathise with the people affected and wonder how we can get involved or if there’s anything we can do to help.

My work over the past 20 years has taught me how to create spaces of safety, acceptance, love and containment. In the current moment, following the war in Ukraine, and more recently the situation in Gaza, I recognise an acute need for others to be held, supported and cared for. Correspondingly, I am increasingly getting requests for ‘holding’ and support in activist spaces and my personal life.

Whilst I have always found fulfilment in being able to do this holding, I became aware that the increased pace and need left me feeling emotionally exhausted. I noticed that I was feeling the pain of others more acutely, becoming really weighed down by it all and periodically sinking into a sense of hopelessness. I also noticed how I was increasingly picking up on the suffering of others and that this was draining my internal resources significantly. My coping mechanisms proved to be ineffective as I continuously plunged into the depths of despair, while still feeling the pressure to show up for others even when I had less to give than usual.

Logically, I knew that I needed to set boundaries and do more for myself so that I could continue to offer support to others. However, I felt such guilt about wanting to keep some inner resources for myself because it felt like the world was burning. My inner processes of dialogue, of guilt and feeling overwhelmed, led me to question my political commitment, which, in turn, led to me berating myself for my ‘stinginess’ in not being prepared to offer the one resource I knew was needed at multiple levels. In this way, my need for self-care and my political values suddenly seemed out of alignment.

After an ongoing process of pausing and interrupting, I noticed that the pattern I was in was destructive (and unsustainable). In one of the moments I took to pause, I connected to the teaching of feminist ancestor Audre Lorde, who referred to caring for ourselves as an act of defiance in a society designed around systems that were never meant to care for the collective, systems that are designed to keep us so overwhelmed and exhausted. I find it incongruous that I yet again needed a reminder that when we are burnt out, we cannot create the change we wish to see in the world.

A systems lens

My political analysis enabled me to see that my efforts, on their own, are insufficient to respond to the extent of the existing collective need. In recent years, we have all had prolonged exposure to stress – some of us more than others due to, for example, our identities, geographic location, or class position (among others). This has left a great number of us with varying levels of psychological distress and symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress. However, the very real need to keep going with political resistance has also meant we had to develop strategies to remain functional despite the impact on our underlying mental wellbeing. This dynamic often results in symptoms going unnoticed or undiagnosed. It is important to note, though, that an urgency to keep going, to be productive no matter the cost to ourselves, is rooted in capitalist beliefs that place production and output above human value, psychological health and wellbeing. Because these beliefs are so deeply woven into the fabric of our societies we keep acting them out even as we profess explicit beliefs about what is good for us. Hence, it is not surprising that we continue with ‘functional’ behaviour, working even harder to cover up our underlying ‘dysfunction’. At the same time, those doing care work at the social level or in social justice settings often carry an unequal burden of care due to inadequate social care support systems that mostly allocate resources and capacities where profit can be made.

In the current context, many of the different ways that individuals interact with caretaking and support are invisible and need to be acknowledged. One of the reasons behind the invisibility of care work is that, historically and politically, most care systems (formal and informal) were created with the expectation that the majority of us would care for a few, without complaint and with little or no compensation. Most debates on care have focussed on this reality. However, what is less discussed is how the increasing need to take care of the majority impacts those providing these forms of care, especially when it is not acknowledged that those providing care are themselves feeling increasingly vulnerable, unsupported and often on the brink of collapse. These signs of crisis can only be addressed creatively when we make this form of care visible and acknowledge the important role it plays in the collective wellbeing of communities.

Given all of this, the question remains, How does one balance caretaking roles with care for oneself?

Listening to our own needs

Although the politics of care drive caregiving in activist spaces, there is an increasing awareness that it often plays out in one-sided ways. Those of us who actively respond to the need for care might honour the needs of another beyond our capacity. If we look up the basic definition of honour, it talks about regarding others with great respect. Yet, in reality, many activists stepping up in informal or formal care roles struggle to balance honouring the needs of others with our own. Thus the complexity of honouring the self has to be viewed within the contexts or the particular histories or narratives we hold. For example, self-honouring can show up differently within specific relationships because different people evoke different things in us. When something stressful or traumatic is evoked, rather than feeling grounded in listening and being present to what’s happening within ourselves as well as others, we might become overly critical of ourselves and lose awareness of our own need for care.

Our evolving narratives of what it means to operate in social justice spaces might similarly challenge our internal processes of listening and sensing. Ironically, white supremacy culture promotes the idea that there’s only one right way to do things. For example, school grading systems are often organised around producing the right answer, and in many work environments, we could lose status, support, or income when we make the ‘wrong’ choices. As a result, we learn to work hard to get things ‘right’, and, soon, we bring this lens to everything we do. But when we constantly look through a lens of right and wrong it becomes difficult to trust ourselves and meet our own needs. This is especially true when we live in countries that have been colonised, or if we come from generations of people who were constantly forced to doubt themselves and wonder if they were doing the right thing.

The truth, however, is there is no right or wrong way of being. There are simply ways of being that produce unwanted results when they don’t resonate with the dominant culture of a particular environment. We could instead ask ourselves, How would our relationship with ourselves change if we could reframe ‘right and wrong’ in another way? What if we asked if there are things that might work for us and things that might not work for us within a certain context, or if there are things that will either produce the result we want or the result we don’t want without causing harm to another?

If we are also able to navigate this quagmire in our endeavours to take care of our own needs, we become able to increase our inner resources – and thus be able to share more of ourselves with the world and others.

The dance between the self and the collective

For many activists, prioritising the collective means putting the goals, bonds and support of the group before their own. In this instance, we emphasise harmony, interdependence and shared responsibilities. The approach is relational and always oriented towards the group context. However, when we only focus on the importance of belonging in our collectives, we risk shirking our responsibility to look after ourselves and prioritise our own lives and actions. But rather than focusing on binaries – care of others or care of self – our challenge is to develop the muscle to integrate our wellbeing within the roles we play in our collectives. This work is ongoing.

It is unsustainable in social and collective care to keep asking ourselves if we are doing enough, particularly in a context of unabating needs. What is needed is increased self-compassion and an appreciation for our very real efforts to respond to care crises. If we do all we can and then let go it ultimately means that we take care of ourselves and use our available resources to care for others.

How to get better at managing caretaking and care for ourselves

#1: Show yourself compassion and kindness.

Being kind to yourself builds the foundation of self-care. Self-compassion means giving yourself credit for the tough, complex work of caregiving, stepping away from a self-critical, harsh inner voice, and allowing yourself time – even if it’s just a few minutes a day – to take care of yourself. This includes taking care of your body through what you eat and exercise.

Your intentions to support others are good and can be rewarding. Yet take time to regularly check in with yourself to ensure that your needs are also met. Writing down a list of your needs is a good way to organise your thoughts and check off what’s important to you.

Remind yourself that practising self-care allows the caregiver to remain more balanced, focused and effective, which is better for everyone involved.

#2: Build a support network.

While it is difficult to stay connected to others, particularly when you feel overwhelmed, it is important to tap into your community for support. Realising that you’re not alone and talking about what you and others are going through allows everyone to experience nurturing and support and to feel less isolated, thus preventing burnout. When using this strategy it is helpful to establish practices of first checking in with each other’s capacities to connect, to allow for rotational sharing of the caregiving role and to explore alternative ways of support through collective information sharing.

#3: Seek help where needed.

If needed, you can also seek professional help to assist with offloading. This could take the form of emotional care or even just working with someone to clear your energy. Alternatively, you could work with someone to separate individual challenges from systemic ones or to come up with new strategies of self and collective care.

#4: Address systemic issues.

Document and make visible to others the types of care you need and why, and what the cost will be for all if the systemic ‘why’ is not addressed. This reminds us that change is not up to us as individuals and allows us to strategically address systemic issues that make it hard for us to care for ourselves and others. In addressing the systemic, we must remember to keep alive conversations that illuminate the inequalities existing within systems of care. Through these conversations, we should explore ways to start challenging or advocating for change. The work at the systemic level is collective. It requires all of us to come together and figure out ways in which we can change the status quo. If we do not do the systemic work, we will continue to suffer the impacts of our current system, leaving individuals to bear the brunt.

Balancing Caretaking and Self-care Infographic
Author: Shamillah Wilson

Author: Shamillah Wilson

This post was first published 13 February 2024.

Shamillah Wilson is a writer, speaker, thought leader and feminist life coach. She supports activists and leaders to navigate systemic challenges and to achieve greater fulfilment, freedom and success as they work to transform our world into a just place for all.

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