A pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong sleeps following an overnight rally. Credit: Press Association/Wally Santana.
I’m an activist. Up until recently, it’s what I spent all my time doing, both for work and outside of it. I love working so much that getting sick from it used to feel like a victory. A ‘look at me, look how hard I work’ kind of attitude. A badge of honour. I even came close to listing ‘12 hour days in the office’ as a skill on my LinkedIn profile.
Not too long ago a fellow woman of colour campaigner challenged me on this, asking why I liked working long hours so much. My response, which I genuinely believed to be true at the time, was that I really enjoyed doing work which contributed something of value to the world. So I liked doing it all the time, I guessed.
But my pal wasn’t convinced. She teased more out of me. We finally came to the conclusion that like a lot of people who work ludicrous hours, I did so because it was a great way to forget about all the things ‘wrong’ in my life.
Most of us deal with problems in our lives. We believe we’re not slim enough, not pretty enough, not clever enough, not earning enough, not travelling enough, and so on. We face prejudice, micro-aggressions, and discrimination. Relationships break down, we get sick, we lose our support systems. Sometimes, to forget about or avoid dealing with our problems, we work – at our paid jobs and outside them.
Some of the issues we deal with are nonsense hammered into us by oppressive systems such as capitalist patriarchy and white supremacy. The idea that working is inherently good, or that work makes a person worthwhile, is particularly insidious. When politicians are constantly going on about ‘hard working families’, and implementing policies stigmatise unemployed people, it’s hard to challenge the idea that work = good.
At the same time, it can be tough to recognise behaviour that is bad for self-care and mental health. I’ve struggled with mental illness all my adult life; working long hours isn’t very conducive to good mental wellbeing. Looking after yourself as best as you can, can be a way of contributing to activism. Ultimately, it’s a way of giving the middle finger to all those things that benefit from you doing otherwise (I’m looking at you in particular, capitalism).
But learning to do this isn’t always easy. It took me seven years before I got to a place where looking after myself came anywhere near my list of priorities, now it’s central to how I plan my week and prioritise my time. Here are a few things I have learned that are helping me to take time out, work less and care for myself in a world that teaches me not to:
Be kinder to yourself
That originally read ‘be kind to yourself’, but that implies you can do it all the time. Let’s be honest, we all need to start small. Ironically, it’s too easy to use the imperative to be kind to yourself to be unkind to yourself. Blaming yourself when you think you’re not doing good enough self-care only creates a vicious cycle.
Next time you think you’re in a pickle think gently, consciously of how you could be kinder to yourself in that situation. Challenge yourself to go home at the official end of the working day, rather than staying late to finish that project. Slept longer than you wanted to? Tell yourself it doesn’t matter, you’ll do better next time. Can’t make it to a close friend’s party? Allow yourself not to go, to distract yourself with TV, or anything else that you find undemanding. Go easy on yourself - you really are doing the best you can.
Tell someone you appreciate them and mean it
Or several someones. I’ve found that working in fast paced environments where everything is urgent can lead to transactional relationships, the ‘you do something for me and I’ll probably do something for you someday soon’. I’ve learnt that acknowledging someone’s brilliance can help them deal with feelings of not being good enough. Got a colleague who facilitated a workshop brilliantly? Send them a short email telling them! Have a teammate who regularly makes fantastic contributions to your work? Write them a short card telling them how much you appreciate it. Know an amazing woman who struggles with imposter syndrome? Remind her just how awesome she is in whatever way you can. Showing appreciation to others can help us build strong, caring communities that fight back against capitalist patriarchy.
At one point I had six work notebooks in the hope that having different books for different things would help me stay on top of things on my bad mental health days. It didn't always work and I've since whittled that number down to the grand total of five (getting rid of an A4 book filled with nothing but to-do lists).
Mustering the energy to keep on top of everything when I had none and just needed to step back and take some time out wasn't doing anybody any favours. My five books help, but there's only one I really care about: my feelings book. This book is for scribbling in when I'm in the midst of feeling like I can't continue with anything. Just putting down my thoughts and feelings has helped me manage anxiety, and also doubles as a record of things that triggered those feelings which later allowed me to revaluate where I put my energy. It might seem like a long slog when you’re in the middle of what may seem like a crisis, but even writing a few lines can help.
Take a break from social media
I didn’t see social media as a problem in my life until I met up with a school friend over Christmas and she commented on how it ‘seemed that I was having a really great time’. I never thought I shared much on social media to give that impression. Besides, didn’t she see all my posts about my mental illness? I clearly wasn’t having that great a time.
I went away and thought about how, for example, sometimes my mood can drop after going on a social media platform to see friends having a ball at parties I didn’t even want to go to! I brought this incident up with a few friends and they all shared similar stories – of going on social media and feeling negative for not having similar lives to their friends, while also only posting the most polished stories. I’m sure a few years from now there will be studies showing the correlation between social media and (bad) mental health.
A rather mean therapist once asked me who was I was fighting to create a better world for, if I wasn’t living now how I wanted to live then. Her comments slowly helped me to learn that working towards being happy with ourselves gives a big fuck you to the white supremacist, imperialist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist society we live in.
Audre Lorde’s words “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” have always stayed with me, but I didn't begin to live them until I took a step back and acknowledged that something needed to change. My work hours, for starters. I am slowly learning to treat myself with the kindness and compassion I bestow upon others every day. I think I’m getting there.