“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation,
and that is an act of political warfare.”
– Audre Lorde
The morning after the Pulse shooting, I sat in silence, eyes closed, with my phone pressed against my chest. The news of the night before had come to me slowly. I was on location for a filmmaking internship and disconnected from most media, meaning messages from friends was my main source of information. I was dizzy and sick with grief. I wanted, more than anything, to be with the ones I love.
In the days and weeks following I was increasingly aware of the ways the waves of injury from that night would continue to travel. How trauma would be rekindled through every involuntary outing or misgendering of the victims and in each homophobic, transphobic, and racist microaggression experienced by queer people across the country. As the news that it had been Latin night at Pulse was publicized, my heart sank further, conscious of the multiplied fear, trauma, and pain queer people of color and Latinx individuals would experience.
There is work to be done to combat the violent structures that harm our community, perhaps more so than ever after the recent US election; and there is concern for the safety and support of many people in the queer community. I believe much of that work starts and evolves through continually practicing self-care, and that self-care as we understand it can be expanded to encompass much more than the traditional views of what it means to care for oneself. My goal is to contribute to a conversation, among the people I love, as well as the queer communities at large, about how and why we practice self-care.
To do that, I needed to ask people who knew more than me, people who study queer healing in their everyday life. I interviewed four queer experts, individuals that work in communities and in various facets of mental and social health care, to ask them their thoughts on self-care. What follows is a conversation that I hope will continue, evolve, and learn from itself as it goes.
Why Does Queer Self-Care Matter?
In all my conversations with the experts I spoke with, two main themes emerged. The first is one any LGBTQ person knows well: it can be extremely difficult being queer in a world that seeks to deny and discredit our lived experiences. The second? That’s exactly why our self-care matters so much.
What exactly is self-care?
Self-care is technically defined as “care without medical or other professional consultation,” however, in practice, self-care has become the idea of valuing one’s needs and health in order to continue to be able to contribute to society and the needs of others. In other words, we have to put on our own oxygen masks before we can help others.
While the idea itself is not controversial – we all know that it is important to eat, sleep, bathe, and look out for our own needs – the reality of it can become more complicated. Popularly celebrated images of self-care often include trips to the spa, enjoying a manicure, eating out, ordering in; essentially, treating oneself to pleasure. This version of self-care, however, assumes a lot. Perhaps most obviously, it ignores the many who can’t afford to take a day off to spend at indulging; moreover, the long-term issues that queer communities face as a result of structural oppression are generally more intense and deep-seated than the stress that can be addressed with recreational consumption. For some, effective self-care means medication or treatment plans; for people with disabilities, mental illnesses or specific safety needs, self-care can look like setting up a safety plan in case of crisis, ensuring that necessary medications are readily available, or saying no to something in order to preserve needed energy.
When the world feels in crisis, it can feel selfish to choose to focus on our needs when they may feel smaller or insignificant in comparison to the world at large. The reality is, our needs matter. Caring for ourselves, especially as queer individuals, can create change. Our bodies and brains are more powerful when they’re healthy. Our choice to give ourselves what we deserve, whether that is an extra hour of sleep or a hot shower, reinforces the idea both to ourselves and others that not only do we exist, we matter. We are worth celebrating and prioritizing.
Dr. Himes, a clinical psychologist and gender specialist based in New York City, referred to the importance of queer self-care when discussing the experiences of many of his clients, “You know, everybody needs to find ways to take care of themselves on a daily basis, just across the board. But it’s especially true for people who face any kind of systemic oppression or widespread social prejudice. Because there’s a basic lifelong experience of a varying level, but at least a low level, of distress that individuals from any minority group face.”
Dr. Himes went on to discuss the minority stress perspective, which references the fact that individuals from minority groups often test as having higher levels of physical and emotional stress, built up over time due to discrimination, prejudice, and harmful interpersonal interactions. Add to that the fact that many queer individuals do not receive support or acceptance from relatives or family members due to their identity, as well as general stressors and traumas that any individual might face, and queer people automatically are at a disadvantage in terms of feeling safe and supported in their bodies and daily lives. We are members of a culture and society that tells us — in sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious ways, that our identities and experiences should not be believed or celebrated.
Self-care, then, is not only a crucial way of keeping ourselves healthy and able to function within the world, it is also a way of standing up and reclaiming our identities as worthy.
CarmenLeah Ascencio, a LICSW in Boston, MA who specializes in working with QTPoC and survivors of violence, stated this clearly. “It does become something that is subversive. When society says you are not of value because of your identity, just the act of saying ‘No, I am of value’ is turning that oppression on its head. It’s counteractive to oppression.”
Self-care then, is in itself counteractive for people within any minority group. It matters, not only for our health, but also for the tiny powerful revolution that occurs each time we approach ourselves with care and compassion.
The Power of Living in Our Bodies
Our bodies are sites of power, agency, and change. They are also often the place in which difficult processing and experiences occur. When we experience trauma or microaggressions, our response is often to check out of the bodies we live in. They become unsafe places for us in those moments, and it can be extremely difficult to return to them and trust them again.
Should self-care be something we practice? And what does the idea of a “practice” of care look like?
Brooke Stepp, a Seattle based somatic therapist, spoke of the reality of dissociation and the frequency in which this occurs, “Living in very objectively unsafe conditions that we live in as queer folks and queer folks of color, I think it’s a really smart survival strategy to check out from our bodies, because to check in to them means we have to show up and be there for the pain and the pain of living in that and experiencing the oppression that we do experience. But there’s a big cost to that too.”
So what can we do, after checking out, to pull ourselves back to our bodies? How do we maintain connection while also approaching our defense mechanisms with kindness?
Brooke introduced the idea of a body scan, explaining, “One thing that I do with folks often is I’ll have folks do a body scan more or less, and just feel for the place in their body that feels like the most comfortable place to be, and really how you can gauge that is where it feels the safest, the easiest place to hang out in, and then it can just be a practice to feel that place for thirty seconds and then it starts getting into our nervous system, that our bodies are a safe place to be and it’s safe to be in present reality.”
A body scan is a meditative mindfulness practice that helps you return to your body, as well as the present moment. A body scan allows one to highlight each body part and become aware of any aches, pains, or needs a body might be experiencing at any given time. It also offers a way to relax and release within a safe space.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, describes the practice of a body scan as “tuning in” or “opening” to our bodily sensations. Practicing a body scan can be done without guidance, simply by going from head to toe and bringing awareness to each part of the body, or with guidance, by looking for any online guided body scan meditations.
Another mindfulness self-care practice is to approach a concern with both awareness and compassion. Seattle based mental health counselor Calvin Burnap spoke of the power of noticing microaggressions and then allowing ourselves to move through them without judgement.
“We could view microaggressions as walking through someone else’s cloud of bad energy and that we don’t need to become the owner of that feeling or that psychic power. Instead, we can notice that we might suddenly feel angry or sad or in tremendous grief or sorrow and we can notice it, and then do our best to process it and then release it.”
“The body is the place where agency actually starts, so it’s totally important for oppressed folks who experience marginalization to come back to our bodies, because that’s how we reclaim ourselves.”
Being able to release harmful those microaggressions, and then return to our bodies, allows us to resist and stay present within our current reality.
Stepp also stressed the importance of this, stating, “The body is the place where agency actually starts, so it’s totally important for oppressed folks who experience marginalization to come back to our bodies, because that’s how we reclaim ourselves. Especially for PoC folks. I think coming back to our bodies is one of the ways that we can directly resist histories of white supremacies, and colonization, and imperialism.”
Another option when you to help you feel safe again in your body? Talk about it. Dr. Himes explored this idea as well, stating that while talking about the microaggressions you experience is important, so is finding a place where those experiences can be processed without being judged, “Whatever reaction the person is having to a microaggression or a direct experience of discrimination or prejudice is valid. It doesn’t matter what your reaction is, your reaction is valid. Having the space for that. To be heard is really important.”
Finding the space to be heard, practicing tips like body scans and other post dissociation techniques, as well as practicing a mindful awareness of the separation between other people’s harmful energy and our own, can help us return to the bodies that we belong to and have the right to care for.
Community As Self-Care
While caring for our bodies is important, in many ways we know how to do that instinctively. We know we’re supposed to consume food, bathe, drink water, get enough rest. These practices are incredibly important, but so is the idea of pushing the practice of compassion further, and exploring what self-care might look like in a larger context.
The process of stepping back, and seeing self-care as work, and work as self-care, allows us to explore the ways in which we can help each other as a whole. Burnap referred to this idea, as well as the teachings of environmental activist and scholar Joanna Macy.
Macy speaks of the idea of “The Great Turning,” or the awareness that our needs can be met without destroying the world itself. The Great Turning refers to a giant cultural shift that we are all a part of. Essentially, the ways in which our actions are collectively beginning to move the ship of society in the opposite direction than where it was headed. Burnap explained how much of that relates to translating self-care into communal care, moving our understanding of our work — both in social justice, and in our daily lives, to the way it interacts with the larger culture.
“The work that we’re doing didn’t start at the shooting at Pulse. It was hundreds of years before that,” Burnap explained, “We are moving something really big and we are part of something really big and people for hundreds of years now have been pushing and steering that to turn it around.”
Burnap went on to state that much of the work of with self-care is recognizing that “the next level of that is really plugging in and seeing mutual support is actually self supportive.”
For Ascencio, the same is true, “I believe [self-care is] even more counteractive when we’re able to do it as a group, and engage in the common shared responsibility of caring for ourselves and others, as if we are one in the same, because I believe that we are.“
“Engage in the common shared responsibility of caring for ourselves and others, as if we are one in the same, because I believe that we are.”
Moving from our own experiences, to the experience of our collective selves, allows us to share some of the weight and see our work and lives in a larger context. We are able to see that we are part of a whole, and that while our contributions may feel small, each of our actions and energy can add up to contribute to a cultural shift.
Queer Communities, Plural
With the idea of communal self-care becoming self-supportive, we also have to understand and contemplate the fact that while we are one in the same in many ways, the idea of there being only one queer community with one universal experience can be deeply harmful to some individuals.
Ascencio stated, “I talk about queer communities, I constantly make this plural because I feel like there is so much adversity and division within queer communities, based on race, based on class, based on gender identities, that it’s really hard to even contextualize that.”
Our sharing of queer identity does not mean any one of us can automatically understand what it is to be another person.
“Speaking to white or cis individuals supporting their friends, you really have to make room for the fact that just because you share one piece of identity with another person does not mean that your experiences are the same,” Dr. Himes explained, “If you are not a person of color, to add that layer, it’s just there is no comparison. And to attempt to make one is completely devaluing the experience of a friend.”
In looking for unity, and care practices that sustain all of us, we can’t gloss over the differences in experiences that different individuals have. To do so is to enact the opposite of care, to create harm in places where healing was intended.
“Make room for the fact that just because you share one piece of identity with another person does not mean that your experiences are the same.”
With that in mind, we need to be aware of how harmful inflexible ideas of self-care can be; we cannot truly understand what it is to be any other person, or what they might need. Suggesting a manicure or day at the spa to an individual who has experienced something traumatic can be undermining or minimizing the reality of their lived experience. It’s also important to understand the difference between harm caused by a one-time experience, like a car accident, and the trauma of experiences that happen day in and day out, like racist microaggressions — the same self-care strategies aren’t applicable in each situation. In deciding what care looks like, we must operate from a place of first assuming that the individual is the expert on their own body and needs, and second, that not all practices work for all situations.
Where Do We Go From Here?
To be queer is to be resilient. In many ways this is undeniably true. To be queer is to know that we are often unaccepted, denied, and not believed. To choose to love as we do, to love our identities anyways, is to be resilient and powerful, just by existing. What’s important, I believe, is to take that one step further. To be deliberate in our act of caring for ourselves, careful in our desires, kind in our self-judgements, compassionate with our mistakes, and aware of both the identities we share, and those we don’t.
To move forward, brainstorm the things you need. What areas do you feel most harmed by, in what ways do you feel that you need support and care? What does that self-care look like for you, and how can you ensure that you create time for that every day or week? Get a notecard, and write down five things you know that help you. Post it somewhere you can see. Or, if you don’t know those five things yet, explore. Try different options. Check out the resources posted below, and talk to others about what helps them.
Identify what matters most to you. Do you need community? Connection? More time spent with yourself? Do you need to reconnect to your body, or do you need time out of your head? Make a mind map, or download a mood tracker app. List ways that you watch yourself struggling, and ways you watch yourself succeeding. Be specific. Be brave.
Recognize your resilience. And beyond that, recognize what it means to be resisting with your existence alone. How slowly, we are moving closer towards the work that needs to be done, how our ship is turning. How there is hope in the way we love.
Take a bath. Eat your favorite kind of pasta three nights in a row if you need. Go out dancing. Call your mother. Or don’t pick up when she calls, if that creates more safety.
“With all that is real and difficult in this life. With the news, the death, the sighs that fill our conversations, I want to urge the value in taking care of ourselves. In taking care of each other. So please, post that selfie if it means we can find something beautiful in the ruin. Go out for a drink with the homies. Be a grand libation. Download Pokemon Go and meet someone new. Allow yourself to be angry. Go to McDonalds and yes, devour those fries without shame. Dab until your arm is exhausted. Sit by the ocean. If you’re anything like me, learn how to ride a bike. Weep in the bathroom. Weep on the train. Weep in the arms of someone who gets it. Go to a store and try on something that you cannot afford right now, but treat yourself to the idea of embracing what seems impossible. Be in love. Be in love. Be in love. Be in love. Be in love. Be in love. With yourself, always first. Support your friends. Read a romance novel. Write 16 bars. Watch a nonsensical amount of cat videos. Buy a stranger a meal. You’ve got hugs, give them out for free. Stay in bed. Damnit, dance like everyone is watching. Dance like everything is lit. Holy dust, you are here. The world may be slipping from your grasp, but you’ve got a storm of goodness behind you. I would be lying if I said it is easy. If I said our trauma isn’t something that needs to be checked on regularly. If I said finding joy isn’t a full-time occupation. Yeah, I hear you. This is not a means of ignoring what is reality. Nah, this is living despite it all. This is a gospel of sorts. You, something more than miracle. Us, turning water into rebirth.”
– Tonya Ingram
FURTHER READING & RESOURCES FOR SELF-CARE
- Colorlines: 4 Self-Care Resources for Days When the World is Terrible
- 12 Resources for Your Self-Care Starter Kit
- 10 Powerful Books on Self-Care That Will Enrich Your Life
- You Feel Like Shit, An Interactive Guide
- Self-Care Apps Recommended by Therapists
- 5 Self-Care Tips for Activists — ‘Cause Being Woke Shouldn’t Mean Your Spirit’s Broke