Self-Care as Political Warfare

By Anabel Khoo

cw: capitalism, academia, mental health and bodily wellness

We live in a neoliberal capitalist system that often frames taking care of ourselves as either shameful or individualistic. Especially for those of us who are racialized, disabled, and/or poor, prioritizing our self-compassion, nourishment, release, and rest is delegitimized and leaves us struggling to just get through each day.

In academic institutional settings like universities, we’re often not encouraged or given permission to meet the needs and desires of our beautiful minds, spirits, and bodies. Whether it’s the lack of accessibility of learning environments, the legacy of violent exploitation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour’s (BIPOC) knowledge and bodies in the name of “research”, or the limited funding available for safer spaces and mental health resources, barriers to self-care are constantly popping up, leaving us burned out, silenced, or in a constant state of crisis.

The narratives and systems that force us to believe that self-care is unnecessary or selfish are not only dehumanizing, but also betray the fact that we are interdependent and complex beings who are capable of building loving relationships with ourselves so that we can build resilient movements for collective liberation.

These are a few tips that I found helpful in my six years navigating the waters of undergrad and grad school as a queer woman of colour. There are many more out there and I encourage you to think of what would work best for you in your situation, and I hope you know that if you’re having a hard time, you’re not alone!

1. Find outlets for your expression
Let’s start with the fact that you are a unique, brave, dynamic, and awesome person. You have things to say and feelings to share and they deserve outlets! Find activities and spaces for your creative, emotional, physical, and political expression, where you can speak your mind, be vulnerable, or manifest your creative vision. This might include starting a blog, joining a club, engaging in activism, art, music, journaling, sports, sex, and if possible, channelling your genius into your school work.

2. Get inspired and hang in there!
Root into students, activists, theorists, and professors who found a way to make waves through academia, whether through their written work and/or on-campus activism. There are projects and resources that exist to support political activism and self-care while in the academic industrial complex such as: Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Brilliance Remastered initiative, Crunk Feminist Collective, the zine “Dismantling the Ivory Tower: A How-To Guide for POC* Charting New Strategies for Social Justice”, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, or CURE Montreal community research exchange. Use these sources of inspiration as a way to locate your time
in school as part of a larger purpose, passion, or vision of a better world.

Feeling like you have to pretend to be something you aren’t in order to belong in academic settings (impostor syndrome) is common, especially among marginalized folks, so reminding yourself every day of how brilliant you already are–your lived experience, insight, survival strategies, and creative wisdom–is paramount. I literally printed out self-affirmations, quotes, and photos of my favorite sources of inspiration and taped them around my desk and in my planner to keep me going.

3. Nurture a relationship with your body
Our bodies need healing, nourishment, and rest, but for many reasons, including the trauma and violence that come with colonization, it can be difficult to regularly take in the sacredness of the land, the nutrients in food, and the ecosystems that our bodies hold. The imbalanced focus on the “rational mind” in academia comes at the cost of our bodies, so cultivating an embodied practice, resting, experiencing bodily pleasure, or nourishing ourselves and the land in whatever ways we can manage can go a long way.

4. Make a plan that works for you
Trying to get all the things done while also being gentle with ourselves can be a hard balance to achieve, but if you can, find a system for mapping and organizing your goals and tasks in a way that suits your own work and learning style. It can be through visual mapping, talking it out with a friend, creating a study buddy support team, journaling, or other ongoing ways of evaluating what conditions and structures you need to manage your tasks.

When I was in school, I was really embarrassed by what I saw as my lack of efficiency, productivity, and academic performance (capitalism strikes again). It took me a long time to kindly admit to myself that I’m just someone who can only study or write in short, concentrated 15-minute bursts, and not for a continuous set of hours. I need a lot of breaks and ironically found that having one or two other distractions going on (music, TV, loud coffee shop sounds, conversations, etc.) around me actually helped me to focus long enough to get a task done (if you haven’t already guessed, I have a Gemini moon). It took me a long time to accept that I couldn’t be productive or successful in the ways I saw others being, which was frustrating, but when I started to embrace my learning style, I was more able to identify and find the spaces and support I needed to get my work done and meet other commitments.

5. Reach out for support
There can be a lot of guilt and shame that prevents us from showing our vulnerability and asking for help when we need it. However, in a world where the majority of humans and our planet as a whole are struggling to survive various form of toxic violence, it’s no wonder that many of us feel isolated and disempowered. Reach out to supportive friends, groups, and counselling from people who can meet you where you’re at with a harm reduction approach and who won’t pathologize you for your reactions or experiences.