By Esther Brownsmith


Let’s talk about care. Odds are that you’ve had to care for something before — anything from a houseplant to a house — and you’ve seen the results of putting off necessary care. Plants wilt; cars break down; bathrooms grow mildew and mold.

But despite knowing that we need to care for the things we value, it can be really difficult to apply that strategy to our own wellbeing. What’s more, the job can be especially tough when you get involved in activism, which can quickly drain your energy reserves: emotionally, mentally, and even physically. This guide is here to help.

Providing self-care can sound like a frivolous privilege. It’s not. Here’s the difference between privilege and practical care:

  • Car ownership with privilege: Drive however you want. When your car crashes or breaks down, just buy a new one.
  • Car ownership with practical care: Drive safely. Provide the tune-ups and maintenance to keep it running smoothly.
  • Activism with privilege: Jump into your new cause full-throttle. Get burnt out. Return to a life shielded from the direct effects of oppression.
  • Activism with practical care: Balance your own needs with your political goals. Sustain yourself for the long haul.

So if you find it hard to do self-care for your own sake, do it for the causes you care about. As Audre Lorde, the womanist activist and poet, famously said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

What, then, does self-care involve? You can imagine it as the instructions on a plant: “Place in partial sun. Water thoroughly. Apply fertilizer twice a year. Repot as necessary.” Practicing self-care means that we learn what we need to thrive, and then we provide ourselves with those things.

Here’s the tricky part: most of those “things” are not, in fact, physical things. A model of self-care centered around spending money on new shoes, spa days, and yoga classes can be problematic on several grounds:

  • It reinforces the capitalist paradigm of spending money as an antidote to unhappiness.
  • It excludes people without disposable income.
  • It relies on the exploitation of others for cheap labor, thereby perpetrating systems of oppression.
  • It reframes self-care as desire, turning “what do I need?” into “what do I want?”.

There are countless self-care resources out there, each with their own set of advice. But the good news is that while each of us has individual needs, many of the basics are pretty universal to being human.

Honor your body and its needs. Bodies need movement, nourishment, and upkeep. Find a form of movement that fits your abilities and interests, and do it regularly (at least 3–4 times a week). Eat food that gives you nutrients and stable energy. Drink water throughout the day. Minimize substances that cause long-term harm for short-term pleasure. Keep your body and its clothing clean. Rest as needed. Engage in practices that make your body a comfortable and well-loved home — things like stretching, dancing, beautification, and sex. If your practices aren’t giving you joy, explore until you find some that are.

Find your community. Plants flourish best in an interconnected ecosystem, and so do people. So seek to surround yourself with people who affirm your experiences and welcome your authentic self. Join communities that share your passion for justice and inclusivity. Prioritize real-time interactions (face-to-face if possible!), where your energy can build and reflect off each other. None of us can do this work alone, and none of us should have to.

Learn and limit the things that drain your energy. Your energy is a gift; be conscious of your choices about the activities, people, and causes that use it up. Which relationships nourish you more than they drain you? Which organizations give you energy and purpose? Do you need to budget a certain amount of alone time and/or people time in order to recharge? Which forms of social media leave you feeling embedded in community, and which ones just distract you from staying present in your life? (Tip: If it’s hard for you to say “no,” reframe it in your mind as saying “yes” to something else: yes to boundaries, yes to time management, yes to self-care.)

Avoid unnecessary trauma. Jasmine Banks calls this “mindful isolation”: “Disconnect from triggering interactions or other situations that might elicit the fight-or-flight response.” This is crucial for those of us with histories of individual or institutional trauma — which means that marginalized groups like women, people of color, LGBT+ folks, and immigrants are especially vulnerable. So figure out your own personal “safe spaces” of peace and recovery, and don’t hesitate to turn off the news. News outlets (even the most reputable ones!) are designed to capture attention and inflame emotions, so make a conscious decision about how to track current events without draining your energy on a roller coaster of emotional triggers.

Make the world a better place. Being an activist means striving for a better world — but change happens slowly, with setbacks and delays. Remember that social movements are like trees: they can take years before bearing fruit. Meanwhile, you can live out the ideals you believe. Support local, minority-owned businesses. Read books or watch videos about progressive causes. Pay attention to marginalized groups other than your own. Volunteer at your local food bank, animal shelter, or religious center. Post to social media about the causes that spark your passion. Help out a friend in need. Live compassionately. Do not do these things out of obligation; do them because of how it feels to know that you made the world a little brighter. Give yourself the freedom to discover what choices infuse you with that joy.

Recognize when you need help. Sometimes we hit a crisis point. A crisis can emerge from bleak world news, personal loss, physical illness, even simple overcommitment — anything that yanks you out of your healthy equilibrium. So tally the resources that you have access to, whatever they are — partners, family, friends, health care, finances, faith communities, mentors — and learn how to recognize when it’s time to get outside help. Plan your strategy before a crisis hits: where can you go for help? What commitments can you safely put on hold? Then, when a crisis does happen, you can follow that strategy despite any swarming thoughts of inadequacy or despair.

Practice. Self-care is a practice; repetition and self-reflection are both necessary to success. You try, you fail, you learn more, and you try again. The goal is not perfection but persistence.

be easy.
take your time.
you are coming
to yourself.
— the becoming | wing, by nayyirah waheed

Self-Care Resources

This is a small selection of resources, because it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the self-care tips out there. Instead of trying to read them all, start with just one, and give yourself space to sit with it and integrate it into your life.

Starting Points

Finding Steady Ground has seven basic suggestions to help activists thrive in difficult times.

Everything Is Awful and I’m Not Okay: questions to ask before giving up and You Feel Like Shit: An Interactive Self-Care Guide both offer a series of simple questions to make sure that all your basic human needs are covered. The former is available as a PDF; the latter is an interactive “game.”

10 things worth trying during times of stress, trauma, or crisis. Do you prefer your self-care advice interspersed with adorable animal GIFs? Then this is the webpage for you.

Focused Topics

5 Self Care Tips for Activists — ’Cause Being Woke Shouldn’t Mean Your Spirit’s Broke has suggestions to disconnect and heal if you’re at a point where, in Tran’s words, “Sometimes everything I know about oppression feels like too much.”

Self care list: how to take care of your self while learning about oppression (with unaware people): real talk about how to cope when you’re surrounded by people who don’t recognize their own privilege.

How to call your reps when you have social anxiety is exactly what it sounds like, in cute comic strip format.

Despair is Not a Strategy: 15 principles of hope gives wonderful insights for times when the fight for social change feels hopeless.

The Radical Politics of Self-Love and Self-Care speaks to those who find it hard to love themselves, offering concrete practices to build your experience of self-affirmation.

Advanced Training

These resources aren’t as quick to digest, but they offer training in skills that will benefit both you and the communities around you.

Madness and Oppression: Paths to Personal Transformation & Collective Liberation is an interactive workbook to guide you through your own experiences of oppression and your best practices for healing. You can download it free or buy a print copy.

Mindful Occupation, created by the Occupy movement, is a powerful book filled with advice for maintaining mental and emotional health in protest situations, and it’s free to download.

The UB School of Social Work Self-Care Starter Kit has a plethora of resources on every aspect of self-care. While it was created for social workers, its lessons are also very applicable to activists.

Emotional CPR, created by a psychiatrist active in patient self-advocacy, trains people to support others experiencing severe emotional crisis.

[Note: This article was originally published on 3/21/17.]