Self-Care Is a Radical Act, But Not in the Way We’re Practising It Right Now

Nearly 20 years ago, Audre Lorde talked about self-care as radical self-preservation, *not* indulgence. What happened?

self-care: A pair of knitting needles knits a scarf with a heart in the middle

(Photo: Getty)

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” —Audre Lorde

Practising self-care has never felt more urgent than in these socially, politically and spiritually troubling times. Self-care is now part of everyone’s vocabulary—you’ll find more than 3.3 million instances of it on Instagram, although most involve skincare regimes.

But if we look closely at the #selfcare hashtag, we’ll see that the idea of self-care now seems miles away from what civil rights activist, writer and feminist Audre Lorde detailed nearly 20 years ago in her book of essays, A Burst of Light. Increasingly, it feels like we are responsible for how good we feel, regardless of the position we’re in. If we are to believe the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world, self-care should be indulgent. If life throws us lemons, we should juice our troubles away. Mentally drained? Dust off your crystals to help restore energy.

Then there is the question of “self-care for whom”? What happens when the very stresses of life make self-care solutions inaccessible?  What if we can’t afford pedicures or ultimately are too busy to #mealprep or #eatclean?

Our current culture of self-care can put the pressure on women to “get it together” by treating yourself well. Caring for the self may not come easy for many of us who have experienced trauma, anxiety, depression and the like. For many self-identifying women, taking on a resistant attitude simply doesn’t fit the paradigm of pampering yourself every day. In times of stress, our default mode may be to eat junk, binge on Netflix and take naps. We may not know how to put a fresh face forward because we haven’t been taught to love ourselves deeply. And it seems impossible to care for yourself if you don’t love all that you are, in good times and in bad. The time and space to heal ourselves, or reconsider what’s important, means looking at ourselves with compassion.

For many of us, this is incredibly difficult.

Part of the ethics of self-care maintains that only once you care for yourself can you care about the other stuff. This is why I think we should shift from discussing self-care to talking about self-love. And it’s in this shift that I think we can come to embrace what Lorde was saying again.

Self-love is not something you can measure or “add” to your routine, per se. It is an energy you foster, a sanctuary on the inside, where you learn to work with, rather than hide away, your innermost feelings. When you are in the mode of self-love, you carry with you the strength that comes from difficult experiences, and the compassionate nature that begets all healing. And there is no fancy cream or smoothie recipe that can give you that.

Then there are those of us for whom conflict simply can’t be transcended, and the idea that changing how you feel about yourself will give you the radically loving life you desire seems out of reach. Some of us don’t feel like we have a true “self” that is respected in the world; so how can we learn to love that self if it goes unacknowledged?

Self love: A profile of Adebe DeRango-Adem

(Photo: Courtesy of Adebe DeRango-Adem)

self-care: A sanctuary built by Adebe DeRango-Adem, with candles, rocks and a statue with a necklace

A personal sanctuary Adebe has built in her home as part of her self-love ritual, in praise of all things oceanic, and with a nod to Anais Nin’s quote: “I must be a mermaid. I have no depths and a great fear of shallow living” (Photo: Courtesy of Adebe DeRango-Adem)

As a Black-identified, mixed-race woman, I have had my share of existential questions around who and what I am. Brought up in a loving household, I still experienced feelings of “different” and therefore “lesser than” in my social circles where race was concerned. I learned to become comfortable in my own skin over time (no dry-brushing required). It took some painful turning inward to nurture love for myself, and the struggle continues as I am still learning how to navigate my world.

The shift from self-care to self-love will look different for each of us. For me, the shift meant learning to throw away the idea that I am flawed. Flaws are mythical ideas we apply to ourselves premised on the notion that we aren’t good enough. Thinking about our flaws is ultimately a waste of time, when we could be devoting time to something that makes us happy. Self-love means asking yourself how you want to feel, and using your answers as ways to direct your energy in more beneficial ways. Self-love also means learning to recognize where your life isn’t in alignment, and, without blaming yourself, see conflict as an opportunity to make a change.

I believe in gratitude lists, but I am also a believer in looking at pain. Life is painful sometimes, and where there’s pain, there’s a lack of love (and not just care) somewhere in the equation. Yet we are taught that pain is something to transcend, rather than incorporate into the self-love equation. But I’ve found that it’s through my painful experiences that I have learned how strong I really am. This is especially important in my work as a writer and poet. As I embark on writing my third book of poetry to date, I have continued to listen, truly listen, to my pain. What is it telling me, or teaching me, about my deepest needs?

At the end of the day, many of us might agree that our pain comes from the fact that we care too much. It is exhausting trying to be nurturing all the time. To add another practice–the practice of self-love–to our routine might seem daunting. Yet, self-love does not add, nor take away from all that we are. It isn’t something we can tack on to a daily routine, though it can definitely amplify the routines we engage in every day.

Unlike self-care, self-love isn’t about taking care of business, or dusting off those dumbbells (though a healthy body is also an expression of self-love). Rather, self-love is accepting that healing is possible even in a society that fosters insecurity. Loving who you are means giving yourself permission to cherish your authenticity, and forgive the times you forgot your own power. Rather than worry about exhibiting the best version of yourself, loving yourself means accepting the complexity of who you are, which includes the fact that “who you are” can change, that your past need not define your future.

I think that’s the act of political warfare that Lorde wanted us to practise all along—that recognition that loving yourself means choosing a more empowered narrative about where you are and where you want to be.

Let’s not lose sight of that, and make a pact now to live at the frontlines of this life, and love it while we can.

Adebe DeRango-Adem is the author of two full-length poetry collections: Ex Nihilo, nominated for the Dylan Thomas Prize and Terra Incognita, a finalist for the 2015 Pat Lowther Award. Her newest poetry collection is forthcoming from Mansfield Press (Spring 2018). 


“Activism is Heart Work”: Janaya Khan Speaks to Activists on How to Resist Without Burnout
NASA: Earth to Goop! Stickers Are Not a Health Product
Horror Movies as Self Care? Anne T. Donahue Makes the Case