In my journey to become aware of and engage in issues of social and environmental justice (becoming ‘woke’- as opposed to staying ‘asleep’) and to try to be a good ally to those most affected by these issues, I have struggled with the concept of self care and what that means in this context. As an individual who is a white, non-indigenous settler Canadian, who is also cis gender, middle class, university educated, English speaking, heterosexual and raised Protestant, I have the privilege of opting out of a wide variety of struggles without feeling the impact directly. I have been most tempted to ‘opt out’ at times when I’ve experienced the pain of discovering that I have hurt those I was trying to help and when I have offended and alienated people I love.
I now know that putting my head back in the sand will never be possible and that decisions about opting in or out of various struggles will always be complicated. I have, however, come to the conclusion that caring for one’s own mental health is essential in order to be a good, woke ally. I believe that it is possible to care for one’s own mental health without going into self absorbed denial and defensiveness or avoiding the issues all together.
Here are some areas to look out for when trying to staying woke and working to be a good ally:
1. Shame/Unhealthy Guilt
Learning about issues related to environmental and social justice for the first time can be overwhelming. If you belong to a social or ethnic group that is being held responsible for a particular social justice issue (ie. a white person in a discussion on racism), depending on your personality and social location (gender, class, etc.) you might feel a sense of shame about belonging to that group, even if you were born into it. Staying in shame and unhealthy guilt can lead to depression and lack of motivation to address the issues in front of us.
Here are some ways to combat shame and unhealthy guilt.
- Know that shame and unhealthy guilt are about identity, not actions. You have done nothing wrong by being a particular ethnicity, or being born in a certain class, etc. Your task is not to try and punish yourself for being who you are but to determine how you will use your identity, class, privilege, etc. to make the world a better place.
- When someone lets you know that something you said or did was hurtful, resist the urge to slide into shame with thoughts of “I’m a bad person.” “I will always hurt others.” “I need to give up now.” Look at what you can learn, what you might do differently next time. Try not to react immediately. Thank the person for their feedback and take some time to consider what part you are responsible for and what you might do or who you might ask about what to do to do better, and/or make things right. (Check out When You’ve Been Accused for more on this).
- Know that feeling bad will not help anyone who is impacted by the issue your are looking at if there is no action to follow.
When we learn about an issue that might have a relationship to our own identity (for example, a man hearing about sexual harassment or a white person hearing about racism, etc.) it might result in feelings of defensiveness. This often comes from the idea that many of us believe that we are either good people or bad people. If we believe that we are good people, we think that anything insinuating that we might have done something ‘bad’ is an attack on our character and feel the urge to defend ourselves. If we maintain a defensive stance, we risk becoming avoidant about hard issues, and rigid in our self perception. This can cause problems in our relationships with others and ourselves.
In order to avoid a defensive stance try the following:
- Consider that people are not fundamentally good or bad. This includes you. You might just be a person who does things that are helpful in some contexts and harmful in others.
- Resist the urge to label others with ‘good or bad person/people/group’ labels. (I won’t get into the argument here about how many good or bad deeds creates a good or bad person – see “Liar, Cheat, Racist…” – 7 Ways Labelling People, not Behaviour, does more Harm than Good for more on that).
- When you have been directly confronted about something you’ve said or done which someone is identifying as harmful, resist the urge to react. Thank the person for their feedback and take some time to consider what part you are responsible for and what you might do or who you might ask about what to do to do better, and/or make things right. (Check out When You’ve Been Accused for more on this).
- Resist the urge to force someone to provide a quick solution to an issue you are feeling defensive about. It can be tempting to jump from taking responsibility for any part we’ve had to play in an issue to demanding to know what will fix things or insisting that we have no power to change an issue.
- Learn to sit in uncertainty. Good luck with this. This is one of the most difficult things I know to do. There might not be a quick solution to a problem issue. There might not be a clear villain or hero. There might be a lot of gray within an issue. We don’t have to know, or claim to know what the right course of action/stance or perspective is.
- Don’t gaslight the messenger. We sometimes avoid looking at the content of a message or of information given by reacting to the tone of voice, the language used, etc. It can be easy to to avoid facing our own responsibilities by pointing the finger at others when we feel defensive. (See 9 Myths about Emotions for more on this). (Also check out Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility- Why it is so hard for White People to Talk about Race)*
3. Trying to Be the Saviour/Hero
In our quest to be ‘good people’ we sometimes find ourself pushing forward on issues because we feel so strongly about them, and feel so sorry for those most affected by them. We might feel like we are the only one doing this work or, at least, the only one doing it right. We might receive positive feedback about our work, both from those we are seeking to be allies to and from others trying to do the same. Trying to be a Saviour or Hero can lead to burn out and even to becoming oppressive towards others, especially when we ignore feedback about ways that we act which are not helpful.
To avoid this stance:
- Find others who are already working on an issue and ask if you can help before starting your own project/ campaign/ agency, etc. If there is no one in your geographical area doing this work, reach out online.
- Do your research about what people most affected by the issues say will be helpful and do that.
- Never work alone. Make sure that you are checking in with each others about what each of you is doing and learning and how you’re doing emotionally. If no one else seems to be doing this work in your geographical area, recruit others to do so and be accountable to each other. Find ways to connect with others elsewhere.
- Know your own group’s history. How have members of your social group tried to make change in the past and what has been the result? For myself, as a white social worker, there is a lot of history for me to learn from. For example, in the past, white social workers tried to “help Indigenous people” which resulted in perpetrating “the 60’s Scoop”. They also removed children from their families to be brought to residential schools, etc. It is too easy to re-produce past wrongs when they are unexamined.
- Find out what criticisms are currently being launched about other attempts to address the issue you are concerned about. And consider how to do better.
- Consider all who are affected by your choices, particularly those you have already made commitments to i.e. your children, partners, etc. Determine if commitments need to, or can be re-negotiated, based on new commitments that you are wanting to make. Check your priorities. Check the needs of others which you might be responsible for. For example, leaving your parter and young children to participate in a civil disobedience action which might result in a 10 year jail term might not be justifiable if your partner has not agreed to become a single parent.
- Consider your motivations behind the strategies for making change that you are attracted to. For some people, getting their picture in the paper after being hauled off of a site they are occupying is more sexy than writing grant proposals to fund an education campaign. The question needs to be about what is effective in resolving an issue, not about what is sexy.
- Be realistic about your skills, time, energy and etc. before committing so something you can’t follow through on. Know your limits.
4. Burnout and Avoidance
Burnout happens when we’ve tried to be a hero, and/or when we’ve allowed shame to take over. When we are burnt out, we withdraw from our activities physically and/or emotionally. We neglect our commitments.
Avoidance happens when we feel defensive or when we allow ourselves to feel overwhelmed by an overactive sense of responsibility, assuming we need to be a hero. When we avoid, we deny reality. We then spend our energy pushing back anything and everything that might remind us of what is really going on. This is exhausting and can lead to hopelessness and/or anger towards those who remind us of reality.
To treat this:
- See above section on not being a saviour/benefactor/hero.
- Work on identity issues related to being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person and focus on how to do your best.
- Reconnect with those you have made commitments to and renegotiate those commitments if needed and/or find support needed to follow through on commitments.
5. Always Being Angry
There is much to be angry about in society. It can be overwhelming. Anger can be a helpful response and lead us to constructive action. (See 5 Things Your Anger Can Help you pay Attention to). But anger is not an emotion that is sustainable forever. It can result in physical health issues if unchecked. It can also be very isolating and lead to depression.
Here’s how to manage anger:
- Consider action towards justice that restores some balance (learn about restorative justice principles for a holistic process).
- Use caution when labelling others. (See “Liar, Cheat, Racist…” – 7 Ways Labelling People, not Behaviour, does more Harm than Good and 9 Steps to Making Sense of Other People) to improve your understanding of various perspectives.
- Be physically active. Your adrenalin needs somewhere to go. If it stays in your body you will wear your body out without getting any stronger or healthier.
- Curate your news/information intake to add hope. Add new/information streams that talk about what others are doing to improve a situation or move an issue forward.
- Practice ‘displacement action.’ by investing time in building what you want to create in the world, not only in trying to deconstruct what you don’t want. What you build can grow to displace that which you do not want.
- Consider different strategies for making change. If you have always approached issues from an aggressive, head on protest stance, consider the use of humour, play, art, and love as a means for social change.
- Feed your soul. Look for love, fun, and goodness in the world around you, in the people around you. Make these a priority in your life. (See How to Make a First Aid Kit for Your Emotions).
- Get enough sleep. (See When You Can’t Sleep for more on this).
- Care for your mental health by talking to a counsellor and/or taking medication when needed (see 16+ Things Counselling Can Help You With and Mental Health & Medication).
For more on self care when trying to stay woke and be a good ally, check out:
And Climate Grief
*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.