Editors’ note: This article is from the Winter 2021 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly, “We Thrive: Health for Justice, Justice for Health.”
In recent years, a growing uneasiness and an undercurrent of anxiety have emerged in the United States. Psychologists, therapists, social workers, and doctors across the medical spectrum agree that we are in the middle of a genuine national mental health crisis. A time like this can serve as an impetus for reclaiming self-care as a movement, which could have a profound and lasting impact on this country and the world. As the late beloved activist and writer Audre Lorde said, self-care is not “self-indulgent” but rather an act of “self-preservation.”1
Self-care reaches beyond the individual. In Sanskrit, the term for self-actualization and individuation is samadhi, which means enlightenment or union with the divine. This word recognizes that we are more than just our individual selves: we are a sum of all the parts that surround us. Every life is of value, and we are all connected; when we recognize this, we can embark on the healing work that addresses the traumas of our culture.
Today, we are seeing calls for change and transformation of our world. We are seeing people rise up in their power to assert that their lives are important, valuable, and worth fighting for. We are also showing solidarity by giving our friends and loved ones messages of strength and support as they dismantle systems that are oppressive and archaic. By starting with the inner work, we address many of our root issues and work our way through them. If we all simultaneously commit to healing ourselves and healing our trauma, our own healing becomes a contribution to the health and wellness of our communities, our descendants, and the world.
Take a moment to imagine the power of a self-care movement—a wave of kind care connecting communities, healing our bodies and minds, sustaining our energy and momentum, and helping us all live healthier, happier, and more balanced lives.
Self-Care as a Movement
As a movement, self-care has a rich and radical history.2 It was born at the intersection of the women’s liberation movement and the civil rights era—a time when courageous individuals and communities fighting relentless prejudice and discrimination created the first formalized communities of care, which allowed them to stand strong together in the face of seemingly impossible challenges and unspeakable treatment. In fact, a core piece of what civil rights activists were and continue to be fighting for can be seen as the basic human right to self-care—for when the government turns its back on its people, self-care literally becomes a matter of life and death. Often denied medical treatment at hospitals and healthcare centers in the past, and facing any number of dangers stemming from unequal and unjust treatment in the present, part of what people of color are fighting for is the freedom, time, money, and resources to care for themselves. In this exhausting battle, often the only support they find is with one another and within themselves. Thus, civil rights leaders made healthcare a priority. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman.”3
What has been true for the civil rights movement has also been true for the women’s liberation movement. Women across the board have viewed controlling their own health as a corrective to the failures of a white, patriarchal medical system to properly tend to their needs. Self-care, as described by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School, in New York City, became “a claiming [of] autonomy over the body as a political act against institutional, technocratic, very racist, and sexist medicine.”4
In this age of the industrial wellness complex—an era of bath bombs, drop-in meditation studios, and self-help quick-tips lists—capitalism ignores that for populations most in need, self-care is neither frivolous nor easy. As a movement, self-care and communal care make the declaration that we don’t just deserve to be alive, we have the right to live our best lives. Genuine self-care and communal care are long and hard paths. They require diving beneath the surface problems, which are just the symptoms of the deeper, more enduring traumas that all of us carry. What we need, and what this movement seeks, is—to use a concept coined by Ghanaian playwright and journalist Esther Armah—emotional justice.5 Emotional justice can provide us with a steady undercurrent, like a river flowing beneath the exterior crust of the Earth, as we embark on dismantling and rebuilding social systems that don’t work for us. Emotional justice depends upon our commitment to doing the inner work; it cannot exist without it.
This type of work can show up in different forms, like healing from an offense that was never recognized by the offender or by society, or having the courage to speak up for ourselves and write our own stories. Individual inner work is not enough to support a movement. In social and political movements, commitment to community care, which means our own and others’ emotional justice, is a fundamental building block. What defines any movement— including the self-care movement—is people coming together with a shared purpose to create change that benefits everyone. Movements need people with skin in the game and the energy and desire to move the needle and drive change.
Standards of Self-Care
I define self-care as the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being, pursuing joy, and having the ability, tools, and/or resources to respond to periods of stress so that they don’t result in imbalance and lead to a health crisis. Ultimately, every person should have access to the caregivers, transportation, treatment, and funds needed to properly address their health. Building a self-care movement—one that can support every other movement in turn—requires incorporating it into our communities and workplaces so that communities of care become part of our culture.
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The slow adoption of self-care in our culture is in large part due to a lack of definition. Standards for self-care have never been clearly established. Creating a well-defined vision for self-care grounded in clear principles and standards is a good first step to take, because defining the standards and providing a clear road map for people to follow helps to legitimize the cause. It allows people to create plans, measure progress, and make changes based on realistic and achievable goals rooted in sustainability, which in this hyperproductive capitalist culture is rarely if ever prioritized.
In terms of movement work, exhausted leadership is poor leadership. The reward for productivity should not be the assignment of more work—whether for leaders, paid employees, or volunteers. Exhaustion leads to shorter attention spans, increased emotional volatility, and poor decision making. If movement leaders burn out, that will be replicated by others in our sphere of influence—coworkers, staff, volunteers, children, and so on.
Social transformation work begins with the self. Imagine advocacy work as a series of peaks and valleys. The peaks are where advocacy work happens, and the valleys are where we rest, celebrate, and reflect, gathering our strength to climb the mountain ahead. If we conduct our lives this way and model this workflow in our organizations, we can build resilience, make sure that we keep people engaged, and ensure that none of us falls victim to burnout.
The modern self-care movement can embody practices that avoid burnout rather than merely being a response to it. The movement must demand that individuals put their health and wellness first without feelings of guilt for doing so. If we all collectively share our plans for self-care, we declare boldly that our needs, our state of mind, our body, and our overall health matter. This gives others permission to invest in themselves and take the courageous step to acknowledge that they have needs, that their needs are important, and that those needs deserve to be met.
There are key reflective questions we can ask ourselves and those on our teams and in our communities at every turn and with every incremental step forward that can improve our actions and build momentum to climb the next peak. For example:
- How does the quality of my leadership diminish due to lack of my own self-care?
- Which habits negatively impact my self-care, and what new behaviors can I substitute for them?
- Do I have a self-care plan in place to ensure I follow up on new behaviors, and have I shared this plan with others who will hold me accountable?
- How will I track my progress along the way?
- How can I best support others in their self-care endeavors?
Such questions will help us to integrate self-care with community care and social movements, paving the path forward to achieve balance among all three and to cease having to choose one over the other.
When we work on the self, we do not need to abandon the world. When we begin the process of care with ourselves, we begin the journey of working to heal our community and the world. It is my hope that we each show up, fractured or whole but always beautiful, with our unique talents and skills to create the world we envision. No action is too small, no voice too quiet, and no person too insignificant to make a change. May we realize that our investment in the inner work awakens awareness to something else, something radical and liberating: a possibility. We matter, our voices matter, our lives are precious, and we have many gifts to offer. When our inner work is deeply embodied in the collective life of those working for social transformation, this creates resilience within the group, so that when natural bumps or boulders in the journey arise we don’t give up. Instead, we stay the course, adjust course, or shore up our reserves and capacity. We celebrate and introduce play, creativity, and lightness into our efforts. We remember the purpose, meaning, and inspiration behind what we’re doing, and it supports us in moving forward.
My eldest uncle, a very pious man, would often share with me wisdom from the Old Testament and the Talmud (also known as the Oral Torah). One of the verses that he shared when I was barely thirteen has been a guidepost for my work: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”6
Movements are not goals. There are no finish lines. Movements embody incremental gains that require consistent forward motion born out of actionable intentions. Creating sustainable movements requires widening our perspective of self-care—shifting it from a purely individual pursuit to one that embraces the entire community and uses the entire toolbox of best practices and resources. While self-care and communal care are movements in themselves, they also provide the primary infrastructure that supports every other movement, whether for equity, justice, peace, or freedom. In order to sustain forward movement—even if it’s millimeter by painful millimeter at a time—the pillar of societal care must be championed.
- Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light: Essays (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1988),
- Martin Luther King Jr., speech at the second convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, Chicago, March 25, 1966, quoted in John Dittmer, The Good Doctors: The Medical Committee for Human Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice in Health Care (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).
- Aisha Harris, “A History of Self-Care: From its radical roots to its yuppie-driven middle age to its election- inspired resurgence,” Slate, April 5, 2017, slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2017/04/the_history_of
- The Armah Institute of Emotional Justice, theaiej.com/about-aeij.
- Originally attributed in the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 2:16 to Rabbi Tarfon, and then repeated in the