Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mailbag: Activism and Self Care

One of my followers on Tumblr sent me a multi-part message that began like this:
I know you have a lot of asks, but i really don’t know anyone I trust on the internet as much as you. I have a problem. I’ve gotten into SJ a year and a half ago, because I’m really interested in equality. After a while I started to feel like I owe it somehow to keep being invested and constantly expose myself to really heavy topics - that I was horrible if I didn’t prioritize those topics in my mind and life.
The person went on to describe feeling that they do not "deserve" self care in the face of social justice responsibilities, saying they sometimes feel they're not a good person if they don't put others' needs ahead of their own. 

I answered the comment on my Tumblr blog but thought the response might be helpful to some of the folks who read this blog too. So here is a modified version of my advice to this person.

I relate to what you’re saying and why you might be feeling like the SJ content you dedicate yourself to supporting is more important than your own life or health. I’ve been up against that wall, and I’ve even had other people tell me I have responsibility to take certain things onto my shoulders because of some weird perception that others deserve my time more than I do. For example, one time on YouTube someone posted a long, vicious, HOW DARE YOU style comment on one of my non-asexuality-related videos asking me how I believe I’m justified making a video about THIS and yet I had failed to address a bullying issue where some jerks said some bad things about asexuality in a video I’d never heard of by YouTubers I’d never heard of.

Guess I’m supposed to be the eyes, ears, and hammer of my community, and if I ever fail to take a stand on something or don’t do so enough times where enough people see it, I deserve condescension and shaming.

Except I’m one person. So are you.

When ants work together to carry a food item, it’s not primarily being carried on any single ant’s shoulders, and even the most ambitious ant knows it is not possible for an ant to carry an entire morsel of this size. Furthermore, nothing is gained if an ant, in solidarity and suffering, injures themselves to the point that they can no longer carry and gets trampled by the crowd (instead of just taking a break and keeping up until they can carry again).

In practical terms, part of being useful to your community requires taking at least the bare minimum of care of yourself. Even if you’ve been through some things that make you think you don’t deserve it, or you’re struggling with self-hate or anxiety or feeling that others are worse off to the point that you ought to suffer too, you do need to know that you are not ultimately going to be able to help your community/communities to the best of your abilities if you are simultaneously fighting to keep your head above water. You aren’t scoring victories or making progress through the act of suffering from it. If you’re going to keep running for a long time, you need to breathe.

Try to make a vow not to judge breathing as selfish.

Even if you feel that your cause(s) can outrank your comfort sometimes—I know I do—try to figure out where the line is between comfort and survival. Because you do sound like you have been to the brink of drowning, and even setting aside any personal feelings people in your life have about your health and life, your causes don’t want to lose you either. We don’t want you to go under, as a person or as a voice of progress.

For practical advice, if I may offer some, you might try to experiment with various techniques to find your limit and pull away from the types/levels of interaction that are most harmful to you. Some ideas:

  • Focus on fewer issues when you’re not in a good place; narrow or broaden your engagement as you feel healthy enough to handle it.

  • Spend less time on your SJ activities when you’re not in a good place; limit your time spent and add more back in when you feel steadier.

  • Take breaks if that helps. Some people can jump back in refreshed if they are able to take a vacation from their engagement.

  • Change the type of activism to easier-to-process-for-you types when you’re not feeling strong. For instance, I find it especially draining when I’m in a comment war with someone—engaging directly is costly for me. But sometimes instead of engaging with those people, I find it more satisfying and more helpful to write an article, essay, or blog post about the issue and get it all out. I’m still helping but not hurting myself. You can still help your causes by creating resources or supporting other activists even when you aren’t feeling well enough to engage with detractors yourself.

  • Give a different kind of support if one of your resources is dry. This won’t be appropriate for everyone, but sometimes when I feel my voice won’t translate into progress for a cause, I give money to it (if I’m not poor right then). Or I find an organization I wish I could support monetarily and I tweet about it or promote it on Facebook. Or I support an individual with a gift or contribution to their money-raising campaign. Sometimes when I don’t have time, I have money, and vice versa. Sometimes when I don’t have mental resources, I still have the ability to magnify others’ voices.

  • Ask for help. You’ve done that here. It was a big step for you and I hope it’s resulted in something you can use. You can keep doing it in other areas of your life. For me, writing and sharing always helps me deal with things; that’s why I share my hopeless conversations on my blog and YouTube channel, because that way I can move past them and show others what I’m going through (sometimes finding out that they’ve been there too). When I can’t spare the energy to engage with someone, sometimes I tell others about it and they engage, or they at least express support and solidarity. When you start to feel the floor slipping, show us where you are. We may be able to help you stabilize.

  • Learn your warning signs and good counters for them. Do you start to know you’re breaking down because of a certain feeling, or a physical symptom, or a behavior you find yourself exhibiting? Try to figure that out and maybe, if you’re comfortable, tell others who interact with you what they are so they can help you recognize them early and build you back up. If it’s a break, or a distraction, or a treat, or a shift of focus that helps you get through it, have these things ready to use and access if you start to feel the cracks. (Some people I know take a breather by reading their favorite webcomic for an afternoon, or taking a bath, or binge-watching a TV series, or buying/baking cookies, or watching baby animal videos, or reading the inspiring works of their favorite activists to remind them of why they do what they do.)

And just so you know, anti-SJ people are the ones who are trying to bite your head off because they don’t want their unfought-for privileges to disappear. They must know on some level that marginalized people have harder lives, because they flip out at the concept of being like us. (For instance, I once had an acquaintance suddenly become steaming mad after reading an article claiming white people might be a minority in my state in only a few years. When I asked why that made him mad he could not answer, and only snottishly said maybe once it happened he’d be able to get a scholarship. But people react with NOOOOO! to such things because they DO know inequality exists, and they want it that way if they’re benefiting. Hey, if marginalized people don’t have it bad, why are you so furious at the concept of becoming a minority?) They attack you because they’re already losing. They’ll keep losing. Some of them are already the bad guys in the history books.

Even if you have trouble allowing yourself access to self-care and mental rest because you care so much about these issues and find them more important than your individual life, please be kind to yourself—if only so you can march longer and stronger. You really are ultimately doing more for your causes and communities if you can learn to recognize when the burdens you’re carrying are breaking your shoulders.

I know how thankless it can be and how we sometimes feel like we should always be able to power through if others are being victimized and don’t have the option of taking a breather, but there’s a very good reason they tell you to put your own mask on first before assisting your family if there’s a loss of cabin pressure. It’s not for the “save yourself” mentality. It’s because if you ignore your own needs until or unless everyone else has a mask on first, you will pass out long before you help everyone on the plane, and there’s no guarantee that anyone will realize you need help once your agency is compromised. As a person who is actively looking for people who don’t have masks, you are an asset. Making sure yours is on is not just survival and not just selfish. It really does help the other people on the plane with you.

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