Self-Care and Collective Healing

by Jay Jayaraman, MSW, LCSWA

International Self Care Day is on July 24th. Odds are, you haven’t heard of this commemorative day – the concept was started by the International Self Care Foundation and meant to “provide a focus and opportunity to… promote self-care as a vital foundation of health” (CITE). This vague description begs the question – What is self-care, really? What are the roots of this term, and what is its relevance to our lives?

The idea of self-care as a movement, an industry, and a buzzword, has been thoroughly integrated into the American consciousness in the 2010s. Exposure to the term and uptake of its ideology has been particularly potent amongst millennial women. Self-care has been articulated as something that can be bought – face masks, weekend getaways, new technology that will somehow cure any physical or mental challenge that you are struggling with. There is nothing inherently wrong with those activities, but it is important to note that this term, originally grounded in self-love, has been commodified and distorted into a practice that revolves around consuming products. The redefinition of self-care fits into American capitalism, touting self-care practices as an aspirational goal that can be, if one only works hard enough and amasses enough wealth to cultivate this lifestyle.

When I mention self-care to a client, their reactions often reflect the individualist values associated with the term. People I work with who are queer, folks of color, and/or hold other marginalized identities have discussed finding the self-care movement inauthentic, inaccessible, and inadequate for their own needs. Worst of all, they often say that self-care has been touted as a cure-all, with the assumption that they are not already doing the work to improve themselves. Mainstream applications of self-care puts the onus on the individual to solve their own mental and physical health challenges, while failing to address the ways that systems routinely fail BIPOC, disabled, queer, and other marginalized individuals by not providing adequate institutional and community support. When someone receives the message, especially from an institution they must operate under (such as their workplace, the healthcare system, or schools), that they can “self-care” their way out of serious mental and physical health challenges, they – rightly – feel that their concerns have been dismissed. The commodification of self-care as the responsibility of the individual does not consider the social nature of mental, physical, and emotional care. In the commodified self-care movement, mental health is not considered a collective, political issue but rather a “problem” for the individual to address.

Furthermore, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has complexified the way that the word is used socially. Social media accounts have started conversations on the origins of self-care, which are rooted in the Black Power movements of the 1960s and 70s, and in underserved communities who have historically needed to practice interdependence in the collective struggle for liberation. In a Teen Vogue article, Lenora E. Houseworth provided context for wellness practices in revolutionary movements:

“Trailblazers and former Black Panther leaders Angela Davis and Ericka Huggins adopted mindfulness techniques and movement arts like yoga and meditation while incarcerated. Following their release, they both began championing the power of proper nutrition and physical movement to preserve one’s mental health while navigating an inequitable, sociopolitical system, creating wellness programs for adults and children in recreational centers across the country, in neighborhoods like Brooklyn, New York, and Oakland, California.”

Audre Lorde, self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” is often quoted on self-care from her 1988 essay collection Burst of Light:, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” It is a quote that has become so overused in various contexts that it has been stripped of its original meaning. At the point in her life when she wrote these words, Lorde was dying. Her incredible life as a leader and visionary was coming to an end, and she was reflecting, for herself and others, on the ways that self-care had been and continued to be a radical act, an act of joy when the world is oppressive to your very being. For these Black revolutionaries and for those who continue to fight for liberation, self-care had, and has, a clear purpose of strengthening the self to fight back against unjust systems and caring for one’s community and family. Their work shows that self-care includes a wide range of practices – everything from owning up to mistakes, saying “no”, practicing boundaries in a community, using our own power to support our community that has been disenfranchised, to intentional rest and creative time. Most of all, there is a deep connection to systems.

Artist and author Deanna Zandt broke down the concept of self-care into a few categories: self-soothing, self-care, community care, and structural care.

  • Self-soothing: Activities that provide distraction and/or comfort in difficult times (ie, bubble bath, loud singing, getting out into nature, cuddling)
  • Self-care: Activities that help you find meaning, and that support your growth & grounding (ie, going to therapy, napping, saying “yes” and “no” when you mean it, getting medical care)
  • Community care: Workarounds for systems that don’t inherently support care (ie, childcare & education collectives, free cycle and buy nothing groups, dignified, supportive healthcare orgs, intimate relationships outside of traditional romantic couple-hood norms, worker-owned coops, credit unions, co-housing, skill sharing and mutual aid)
  • Structural care: Systems that support community care, self-care AND self-soothing (ie, comprehensive universal healthcare, environmental defense and renewal, child- and eldercare, living wage, efficient public transportation, gender & sexuality liberation, racial equity & justice, paid family leave)

This breakdown can help clients better understand the various elements of self-care in their daily lives. It’s important to note that although self-soothing has been over emphasized as self-care practice, to the exclusion of community practices, it is just as vital as the other strategies for survival. For many of us, self-care can and does include the element of self-soothing, in the form of bubble baths, face masks, or treating yourself to something, and there’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, activities like these can be great tools to combat burnout. But let’s take a step back and look at the entire toolbox. In these turbulent times, self-care is a vital aspect of collective healing. However, truly sustainable healing as a collective cannot occur without bringing self-care back to its radical origins.