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.