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At the beginning of every year, I resolve to floss my teeth more regularly. But with two jobs, a family, and a near-constant feeling of urgency about a myriad of social and environmental issues, my goal seems forever elusive. I’ve made various styles of flossing charts, and left containers of floss all over the place as reminders. But at the beginning of the day I’m hurrying, and by the end of the day I’m too tired. The problem isn’t actually a disregard for dental hygiene, so much as an unsustainable pace of life. And in this I know I am not alone.

My flossing resolution is symbolic of a broader attempt to commit to better practices of self-care, amid a busy social-change-oriented life. With increasing climate change, deepening inequality, and a strategic erosion of democracy, this might seem like an odd time to suggest that we slow down and take better care of our own physical and emotional health. But what if this is just what we need, not only because it’s good for us as individuals, but because it actually makes all of our efforts stronger and more powerful?

The idea of self-care bubbles up every now and then in community and activist circles. It’s not an easy topic; often associated with self-indulgence, it can be seen as a luxury that can wait until after the next crisis. And yet, it continues to arise. Why?

To answer that question — one that is critical for so much of what we love, from an oil-free coast to a strong social safety net — here’s what I’ve learned (or am trying to learn) about self-care:

1. Self-care is a necessity, and an integral part of our collective work for a more just world. Our social and economic systems tell us that self-care is a luxury, reserved for those with excessive privilege. But equality doesn’t just mean equal access to tangible services, housing, health care and healthy food, but also equal and adequate opportunities to sink into the beauty of life and love. If I am fighting for that right, I must live it too.

Reclaiming a right to be worthy of care is an important challenge to the dominant system. As author and activist Audre Lorde said, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” We need to recast self-care so that it isn’t about luxury and a privilege reserved only for some. Instead self-care can be a tool for challenging dominant stories of what success and happiness look like, by building new, community-oriented models of health, happiness and a good life.

2. Our language around self-care is important, and imperfect. The term self-care invokes varied responses, everything from eye-rolling to quiet fears of selfishness, weakness and indulgence. And so talking about self-care can feel like a minefield, especially in environments where we are quick to accuse ourselves, and one another, of not being radical enough, or committed enough, or tough enough.

Over the years people have used various terms to work around that linguistic baggage: personal sustainability, community care, wellness, trauma stewardship. The labels we use are important, but more important is the work of redefining a good life, and living that definition as we engage with the systemic work of making it accessible for all. 

3. It’s a balancing act. We are facing deepening inequality and weakening democratic structures amid a major climate crisis. For increasing numbers of people this is not an abstraction, but a daily experience. It’s an urgent time, an all-hands-on-deck kind of moment.

How do we bring out all those hands? Not by burning out as heroes and martyrs for the cause, but by modeling engaged and alive leadership, and by building movements that are motivated by urgency without succumbing to the vicious cycle of “never enough.” 

4. It doesn’t happen alone. That self-centered, individualistic interpretation of self-care that we instinctually want to reject is not only politically problematic, it’s also ineffective. We are interdependent creatures. I may be the best source of what I need in a given situation, but I am almost always unable to meet that need entirely on my own. And even when I am able to meet my own needs, I won’t be able to every time. The truth is that we need one another: good and sustainable self-care means asking for help, and building networks of support that stick with us through the long haul.

5. It doesn’t all change in one miraculous moment. Better habits of self-care don’t suddenly appear after one talk or article. They don’t even take full form in one particularly transformative workshop or retreat. Saying we need to do it doesn’t make it happen. Knowing we need to do it isn’t enough. This is nitty-gritty, day-to-day stuff. It means changing habits and schedules, and shifting deeply held beliefs about self-worth and identity.

It is taking more time and practice than I want it to. And for me, it hasn’t followed a linear progression. There have been times when I have found a good balance, and then something unplanned happened, and all of my good habits evaporated. But with practice it has gotten easier, and felt more natural, and again with practice, each time I’m thrown off kilter, it takes less time to recover. Usually.

6. It doesn’t need to cost loads of money. On the subject of self-care, as on many others, it’s true that there is a lot that can be learned, and there are plenty of great teachers, many of whom are worth reading and learning from. But ultimately, keep this in mind: we already know as much as we need.

Yes, there are times when it is entirely advisable to seek trained and professional counseling support. I’ve been through some of those times. And there are teachers and courses and books worth learning from. I’ve experienced some of those too. But when my economic situation has limited these sometimes-costly options, I’ve found the best investments have been time to recognize what I already know I need, and a network of people supporting me.

7. It does need to align with your values. Which is to say, it’s not actually going to happen through retail therapy, or fancy bottles of wine, or junk food, or suppressing emotions. A good bubble bath can take you a little ways, but long-term self-care is not about luxury and consumerism. It’s not about escape.

When making decisions about self-care, I’ve found it helpful to ask, “Does this really feed and sustain me?” This question hasn’t yet led me to vigorous meditation and an ascetic lifestyle. But it has meant finding opportunities to connect to gratitude, joy, love, and a sense of purpose. It has sometimes meant more walking, napping, or dancing, a book club, or time alone, or time with family and friends. In the language of ecofeminist and philosopher Joanna Macy, it has often helped me come back to life.

8. It’s a systemic challenge. There are countless competing forces that make real self-care difficult. Economic pressures, family expectations, even the structures of our organizations and movements, can intentionally and unintentionally work against our efforts to build a sustainable and resilient life. 

If you find it difficult, you are not alone. I find it difficult too. Developing new habits of self-care requires prioritizing, honest reflecting, and collective navigating. The system may be working against you, but huge numbers of people are working with you, each with their own gifts and barriers. And if we are to get there, it will be together.

9. This is not the entirety of our work. Nor should it become a singular focus. There are important, systemic issues to tackle together. But in the multitude of interconnected issues that we seek to address, it is a thread to be woven through.

I will again resolve to floss more often, but it won’t be the focus of my year. I’m fired up about the pipelines, and inspired by #idlenomore, B.C. has an election in May, and I’m getting married in June. It’ll be another busy year. But I will make another flossing chart, and I will work on reminding myself of the following: Your life is worthy of joy and enjoyment, just as every life. Just as you would fight so much to achieve this for others, so too do you deserve this experience for yourself.

Our well-being is inextricably linked. And so, self-care is a necessity. And it is an integral part of our collective work for a more just world.

Christine Boyle is a community organizer and communications strategist in the Coast Salish Territories. She tweets @christineeboyle.

This piece is part of the The Self Care Project, which is launching pilot groups in Vancouver and Victoria. The registration deadline is January 14th, 2013. You can find out more at: www.theselfcareproject.org.