Radical Self-Care Doesn’t End Here

Over the last three years in grad school, I’ve been aware of the necessity for and committed to radical self-care. I couldn’t have gotten through grad school without that commitment.

Now that I’m graduated, the importance of self-care has not diminished, but the urgency is no longer as pressing. I have plenty of time to make sure I’m eating healthy, getting enough sleep, exercising, having fun, hanging out with friends, stimulating my mind, caring for my emotions, etc. etc. etc.

I don’t have to choose what to sacrifice and what to give attention to anymore.

Ironically, now is when I’m realizing that I’m easily lulled into not caring for myself in the way that I need to.

Some things that I’ve sorely missed have been more readily done. I’ve been putting a lot more emphasis on getting outside and exercising a solid 30-60 minutes most days of the week—which is great! I’ve missed running and haven’t felt great in my body for a while. I really enjoy being able to take an hour to move my body without the pressure of deadlines looming.

Other aspects of my wellness are harder though. I have to remind myself to make plans with friends—to not let that piece of me that is introverted and passive about social activities to drown out the part of me that needs to see people and be assertive.

I also have to remind myself not to become too obsessed with one project or activity. My time limitations are no longer set by syllabi; I have to determine, on my own, how much time is appropriate to spend on something like a political discussion or novel. And I’ve discovered that while I might feel incredibly energized and engaged for a LONG time on one thing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for me to remain buried in that one thing for so long.

It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that self-care was easier when I was in grad school…but in some ways I think it was. I knew how important it was to carve out time for my various needs because I could feel the energy depletions happening on me at every moment.

The five, ten, or thirty minutes that I would scavenge to practice my spirituality or write in my journal were precious. I could feel them keeping me going.

Now, I don’t feel my energy depleting as quickly. It’s easy to say, “Oh I can do that tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. I don’t need to bother with that today.”

But I do.

I need to bother with making sure I stay balanced.

In the process of realizing that I need to renew my commitment to radical self-care, I’ve been having conversations with people about the definition of “radical.”

Colloquially, it has come to represent a word that means zealous—almost to extremism.

My understanding of and commitment to radical self-care certainly sometimes felt that way—when it seemed like I was making extreme choices to prioritize my well-being over the never-ending obligations and demands around me.

However, as I’ve been talking with people about how radical also means “to the root,” it’s been shifting what radical self-care means to me.

What does it mean to be committed to the root of self-care—to the necessity for balance of the multi-faceted aspects of wellness, to the rejection of habits or cultural norms that delegitimize my well-being or erase certain aspects of my self which are important to my well-being?

I know that radical self-care has always partially been about more than my individual choices. There is a huge component related to work practices in the U.S., gender role expectations, familial obligations, etc. The environment and outside factors cannot be ignored.

Yet how often do we actually talk about those factors as more than obstacles? I don’t know about others, but I have never been to a meeting with an organization to determine how the organization can improve the atmosphere of wellness for those working for it. If an organization is going to get involved in a conversation about self-care, it’s generally going to be because an individual hit burnout territory—the meeting will be about what the individual needs to do differently or what they’re not doing enough of.

I’ve been itching to be able to delve into an exploration of the external factors involved in wellness and how radical self-care relates to those, and now I have time!

Which means that along with reminding myself to take breaks and diversify what gets my attention, I can also finally begin looking more seriously at the systemic issues.

I am zealous about self-care, as a form of self-love and preservation but also as a form of resistance; that means getting to the roots, not just of my own well-being but of the self-within-society because, as Donne once wrote, “no man is an island.”


Radical Self-Care is Totally Zen

“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” – Zen Proverb

In my quest for radical self-care, this has become my proverb, though admittedly I’m not following it literally.

The proverb was confusing to me before this semester. I was focused on the time aspect and the ordering tone. Both made me curl my lip.

But I think now I’m starting to understand the wisdom underneath the less than perfect language. If I could rephrase it to the way that I live it out, the proverb would say:

“Do something self-nurturing for yourself every day—unless you’re too busy; then do two things self-nurturing for yourself every day.”

Once upon a time, I would have thought that self-care was the first thing that should go when I became swamped. I still feel the temptation to ditch it all the time right now. Sometimes I add up the hours that I’m supposed to be putting into school, work, internship, and homework (never mind anything else), and I don’t know how those hours are supposed to fit into my hamster-wheel week.

But I have taken that proverb to heart. When I start to feel that pull to neglect myself in order to fit “all the things” into my life, I look for ways to increase my self-care instead. It’s a sign to me that I’ve become overwhelmed enough to forget my priorities.

The proverb used to feel a little shaming and blaming to me, like the speaker was assuming that busy people obviously aren’t “efficient” enough or must be “lazy.”

That was my cult mind though. That was the memory of the way that the cult would drive you to the brink of exhaustion, then blame you for being tired.

I don’t doubt that some have used that concept in that way. Meditation has been hijacked by cults for abusive purposes. Self-care has been used as a means of oppression and victim-blaming.

What I was missing was the way that it could be used against the cult thinking. When I feel too busy for self-care, choosing to increase my self-care anyway isn’t meant to add to my workload or my sense of guilt. Rather, it’s to make me re-evaluate what I think needs to get done–to prioritize consciously.

If I’m too busy for self-care and I don’t take that conscious step, something is already being let go—my well-being.

But my proverb reminds me that the frazzled feeling is a sign to step back rather than do more. Essentially what the proverb is saying to me is: If forced to choose, let something else go.

Join the Radical Self-Care Revolution

Radical self-care is my thing right now. I’m on a mission to become a self-care superheroine.

I’m not talking about the kind of self-care that your boss tells you to do when you’re overworked and stressed out because of all the demands he/she has placed on you. Nor am I talking about the kind of self-care that health care workers advocate when they lack the time or empathy to try to understand what you’re experiencing but also don’t want to come across as a callous robot. Nor is it the typical self-care that you might hear people talking about when they grant a luxurious or pampering experience to themselves once or twice a year.

Radical self-care might sometimes involve taking a bath, sipping some tea, taking a day off, or getting a massage…but it’s not primarily about making myself “feel better” or rejuvenating my energy just before charging back into the fray of life.

It’s about a owning myself, my needs, and my responsibility for those needs. Radical self-care is about developing a deep intuition about what’s going on “inside” and a commitment to caring for myself even when it doesn’t feel good…or even look good to others.

(For all the hype that our society has around self-care, it’s often shocking to me how much others don’t really want us to take care of ourselves when it means setting aside obligations, saying no to demands, or holding a firm boundary.)

As I head into my second year of graduate school, with internship, classes, and a couple side jobs, I know there will come a day when I’m faced with the choice to finish a project or get sleep, to hole up to do an obscene amount of reading or spend time with loved ones, to call in sick or muscle through the day with a sore throat and upset stomach.

And I’m going to have to be prepared to make the judgment calls of what I need most. I’m going to have to be ready to piss people off when meeting that “most” need conflicts with something someone else wants or expects.

I am my home base—my own foundation. Everything I do stems from the core of me. I need to be radical about self-care because I recognize that if things aren’t good in my foundation, they can’t be good elsewhere in life. The only way I can do anything worthwhile long-term for anyone else is if I am providing myself the space and permission to meet my own needs.

Burnout shouldn’t be an expected part of life; it should be an indication of a lack of taking care of oneself. Unfortunately we live in a society where many professional and academic fields recognize that self-care is essential but treat burnout as inevitable. They’re set up so that it’s impossible to take care of oneself sufficiently enough to avoid burnout. Self-care becomes a tool of oppressing people rather than the tool of nurturing them. It becomes an excuse to avoid looking at the systemic ways that people are treated rather than a form of empowering people to demand to be treated with dignity and concern for their well-being.

Which makes radical self-care a revolutionary act. By committing to taking care of my needs (and by holding my boundaries), no matter what, I am refusing to participate in that paradigm. Right now, the ability to be radical about self-care is somewhat of a privileged position, but the more people commit to self-care, the more people will be able to consider committing. This is a social justice mission, but it’s one that fundamentally has to start with concern for and commitment to…yourself.