Self-Care: Get Embodied

by Rhea St. Julien

In his work as a trauma therapist and researcher, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk makes a case for movement in the face of traumatic events. He states in his seminal work, The Body Keeps the Score, that the survivors of Hurricane Katrina who were able to go out and clean up from the flood had far fewer symptoms of PTSD than the ones who were kept immobile in the Superdome. I have thought of his work often in the months after the election, especially when I mobilize to go to protests and “vote” with my feet.

Today we are going to focus on the self-care of movement. This means taking physical action, like attending a protest or engaging in civil disobedience, but it also means taking care, through exercise. The number one thing I work on with my patients is body connection. We are a culture cut off from our embodied selves, with nothing but a profile picture to show for it. We pay a great price for being in our heads, and for the self-expression afforded us by technology. Much of the suffering I see that manifests as anxiety and depression can be lessened by incorporating movement and exercise into one’s daily routine.

The problem is, we’ve been sold a great lie by the exercise industry. It has linked exercise to weight and weight to worth. So, many of us are intimidated by exercise because it is associated with trying to change our body shape. I want to stress this as we begin discussing exercise: The kind of movement I am purporting here is NOT in the goal of losing weight, making yourself smaller, or gaining a traditional ideal of “health.” Rather, this is about connecting the body and the mind.

I ask my patients, and myself, to do one thing for body connection every day. This could be a 20-minute stretch when you’ve been working at the computer for hours. It could be a walk during which you don’t look at your phone once, and simply focus on how the earth feels beneath your feet. It could be furious dancing in your kitchen. Meditations that focus on the body but do not require movement at all also count.

Or, indeed, it could be the forms of exercise our culture puts on the front of magazines: weight lifting, running, yoga, etc. But it does not have to be. Start small, and make the goal of once a week at first. It took me years to get up to exercising every day. Now I wouldn’t give it up for anything else in my routine; it is as important as my morning coffee. I honestly believe that daily movement is the secret of life. It is a source of deep joy, trust in myself, self-love, and strength.

You will feel less hopeless if you go out and attend an action, with your body, connecting with other humans. A lot of the despair I am hearing is from folks who have not left their home yet to be out in the resistance. It reminds me of an old joke from The Simpsons, “You gotta help us, man! We haven’t tried anything yet and we’re all out of ideas!” You will also feel better if you stretch before and after taking political action.

Have you heard about people exercising to be “strong for the resistance?” It’s pretty cute. I don’t know if we will be called to compete, Hunger Games style, against the white supremacists who run Breitbart, but I know this struggle will require muscle. We must be up for the task of responding to ICE raids as witnesses and advocates, if need be. We have to have the stamina to attend protests, whatever the weather. We will need the fortitude of spirit to participate in civil disobedience and risk arrest to end unjust laws. These are things we gain from exercise and body connection, however slow and steady they are. It is how we learn, in the body, that we can do hard things. Once you build muscle memory around the choreography of resistance, the tasks seem less daunting.

Rhea St. Julien, LMFT, is an arts-based psychotherapist living and working in San Francisco. Her exercise of choice is a form of cardiovascular dancing called Rhythm & Motion, which combines hot jazz, 90’s inspirational booty-shaking, and a whole lot of face.

Self Care: Trust Issues

by Rhea St. Julien

Let’s have a chat about reciprocal relationships. Cyberpunk author William Gibson once said, “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” A huge part of self-care is resourcing yourself with a generous support system. For this column, we’re going to focus on identifying the people in your life you can lean on, and the ones you need more boundaries with.

Take a piece of paper. In the center, draw a circle. Then, leaving some space around it, draw another circle, creating a bulls-eye. Entitle the paper “My Circle of Trust.” Of course, I don’t mean this in a Meet The Fockers way, but I do want you to channel a bit of Robert DeNiro’s IDGAF attitude when you make this diagram. Be very honest with yourself about who you put where. In the center of the inner circle, write the names of people you truly trust. These are folks you trust with your secrets, people who work through conflicts with you instead of cutting you out when you make mistakes. Write down the names of people who you feel no obligation to trust, yet you do. These are the relationships you are going to draw upon to keep you going through this administration.

In the ring just outside the inner circle, write the names of people in your life who are important to you, but with whom you need an extra layer of boundary. Poet Laureate and Civil Rights activist Maya Angelou wrote, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” The folks in this middle ring most likely have given you reason to have pause with them. Listen to this and trust your judgment. It’s okay if people in this second layer are folks you are “supposed” to trust the most -- family members, spouses, mentors. They can always be moved to the inner circle when they prove themselves worthy. The Circle of Trust is a moving target, a flowing diagram.

In the outer area, on the edges of the paper, write the names of people or groups of people you simply do not want to fuck with right now. These can be internet trolls, toxic exes, chronic abusers, and/or Sean Spicer. You have a movement for liberation to participate in; you don’t need to be spending time with an aunt who comments on your waist size every time she sees you. Make a plan to see her in four years, or at least after the midterm elections.

Take a look at your diagram. Is there anyone in the middle ring who you’d really like to be closer to? Draw an arrow from their name to the inner circle. Are there steps you can take this week to spend time with them? Can you invite them to attend an action with you, and bring homemade granola bars to sweeten the deal and sustain their body? In dire times, we learn who our real friends are. Maybe a deeper friendship with someone you admire will be a takeaway of this terrible time.

Conversely, is there someone in the inner circle or the middle ring with whom you need more boundaries? If you are a person of color and there is someone in your life whose whiteness is unexamined, despite your attempts to bring it to their attention, do you need to have some space from them? If you are a member of the queer community, are you seeing enough LGBTQ folks to counter the rabid heteronormativity of this administration? Women, unapologetically seek out non-TERF-y women’s spaces. Artists, create together. Witches, link up! We’re in this together, and specificity is a vital part of diversity. Don’t spend precious free time with anyone who makes you leave behind an important part of yourself.

As for the people listed in the outer edges -- how can you take a further break from them? Are you still Facebook friends with any of them? Are you forcing yourself to engage with them out of duty? Let it go. Listen to Big Sean’s “IDFWU” and get back to the million-trillion things you’d be rather fucking do. Like fighting a fascist takeover of our country.

Let’s return to that inner circle. That’s where I want you to focus your self-care time this week. Reach out to each person on that list. Tell them what you appreciate about them. Make a plan for the next time you can see them, even if it’s weeks from now. Set up a video chat in the meantime. If they are local, ask if you can do something restorative with them this week. For you, restorative action may be political action, but don’t feel guilty about taking in some radical art in the midst of political engagement. Show up for your friends, too, especially that inner circle you must tend to give you fire. Stop seeing yourself as such an individual, and let your connections really matter to you. Self care is often communal care.

Rhea St. Julien, LMFT, is an arts-based psychotherapist living and working in San Francisco. Her restorative action this week was going to see the Films of Ana Mendieta exhibit at the BAMPFA, with one of the people in her Circle of Trust.

Self-care: More than wine and baths

by Rhea St. Julien

Self-care is a systematic way of sustaining your life with creative acts of love. So why are common self-care suggestions, especially those focused on women, more about self-indulgence than caretaking?

Influential feminist author Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” For a black, lesbian writer, this was simply true, but we can apply it to our lives no matter how we identify.

However, in order to manifest the kind of radical self-care Lorde spoke of, we have to dig deeper than baths and wine.

In this recurring column, I will use my 17 years of experience in the mental health field to deepen and structure your self-care practices, to the point where they are such an integral part of your life, you are able to approach your political activism from a place of abundance, not depletion.

Let’s start with a simple exercise borrowed from the book Reasons to Stay Alive, written by journalist Matt Haig about his struggles with anxiety and depression.

On a piece of paper, draw two columns. Title one column “Things That Make Me Better” and the other “Things That Make Me Worse.” In the first column, list all the things that help you to feel and be better, and in the second, list the things that bring you down. Look at your lists: Which practices do you need to do more often, and which can you do less?

Resist polarizing, all-or-nothing thinking. For instance, in my “Things That Make Me Worse” column, I listed “talking to cis-het white men,” because I have noticed my moods are really affected by encounters with the patriarchy. Does that mean I’m going to avoid every Jon Hamm-looking dude I come across? Hell no, because if I ever meet Joe Biden, I’m going to listen to every word that comes out of his mouth with gladness. But if I’m feeling world-weary and disempowered, I should probably skip the rock critic book club at the local record store, and go home and listen to R&B with my daughter instead.

Use your list to map out your self-care actions for the week. Maybe you can’t stay home with your companion animal today, but can you fit in a quick grounding ritual in which you connect with your ancestors before you have to meet with Dave from accounting? Can you arrange your schedule so you show up five minutes early to things you know will be difficult for you, thus giving your whole self time to arrive? Write these actions right into your calendar, and put reminders on your phone to hold yourself accountable
Radical self-care will mean cutting some things out of your life, but it will also require you to bring in external supports. Keep your eyes on this column to learn more ways to structure your life to sustain your spirit as well as your political action.

Rhea St. Julien, LMFT, is an arts-based psychotherapist living and working in San Francisco. Her “Things That Make Me Better” list includes dance-praying, texting girlfriends, and consuming her drug of choice: graphic novels.