For Black Women, Self-Care Is a Political Act
My grandmother’s model as a strong Black woman has had tremendous influence over my life. She passed down to me her ambition, perseverance, faith in God, and pure hustle. From her I learned well how to take care of myself and not need anyone for anything. Her legacy has given me a sense of pride, purpose, and responsibility. When I am out in the world, I hold my head up high in the dignified, self-assured way that she taught me.
However, I also understand how the strength that was ingrained in me early on can get in the way of my showing up and living fully. In the past, my strength has been a cover for my insecurities. It has protected me from the negative judgments I feared from other people if they knew the truth about my family, my relationships, and the intense emotions that I felt. The suspicious and distrusting eye of my strength has held me back in conversations. It’s kept me from sharing my ideas, boldly speaking my truth, and taking action. My strength has lied to me and told me that I had to put up with situations that didn’t serve me because I’m not a quitter and It’s fine. My strength has exhausted me and burned me out by convincing me that I had to do everything on my own. It made me believe that I don’t need other people, when really I do. But, no more. Not today. Now I know that my strength is in my vulnerability.
What would it be like to rip the Band-Aid off and breathe air into your wounds?
In order to move away from being the kind of strong Black women who are merely surviving rather than thriving, we must embrace both our strengths and vulnerabilities and give ourselves permission to be human rather than expect to be superhuman. That means pulling back the mask of strength and showing the world the beauty in the core essence of our being.
What would it be like to rip the Band-Aid off and breathe air into your wounds? What parts of yourself have you been denying or holding back? When you are all alone, in stillness, not executing your role of partner, mother, or employee, without the things that you may use to cover yourself—house, car, clothes—who are you really? Imagine how it would feel to receive a hand of love and understanding and feel the warmth of that hand’s support.
Starting today, let’s give ourselves permission to be free to exist in a way that is not defined by the expectations of others. I invite you to stop trying to force yourself into being something that doesn’t fit and allow yourself to just be. When we pretend to be someone other than who we really are, by denying or avoiding the impact that our experiences have had on us, we not only discount our individual humanity, but we disconnect ourselves from others.
The first step in the journey from suffering toward healing is to identify the sources of your suffering and how that pain shows up in your life. Then you must accept (rather than deny) your complex experiences as they are, without shame or judgment, but with compassion. Let go of the self-deprecating stories that you have told yourself about who you are and why your life is what it is. Free yourself of the agony rooted in the past that you have been holding on to and know that it does not serve you. Bring awareness to your triggers in the moment, name the trigger and the feeling, and respond mindfully rather than react impulsively. This is how we honor the full range of our feelings and also manage our emotions in a healthy way.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” -Audre Lorde
For example, you can bring awareness to the fact that when you feel down, you start to think about all of the things that aren’t going right in life, and you stop answering the phone and instead snuggle down on the couch with Netflix and ice cream, which makes you feel worse. But instead, when you’re headed down that familiar dark road, you can embody a sense of gratitude for the goodness that is present in your life and do something that might bring you joy—like call a friend, color in a mindfulness coloring book, or step outside for some air. If you take the steps to change the behavior, the feelings will follow.
Although there may be aspects of your circumstances that you aren’t able to change right away, you can take steps to change how you think, feel, and behave. Even as the chaos of the world continues to cyclone around you, you alone are responsible for your own emotions. Take a moment to identify what is in your control, and what isn’t, and work with that which is within your control to create incremental positive behavioral changes. This kind of intentional caring for ourselves can feel like a luxury, even exorbitant. But in the words of author Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Ladies, it’s time for us to armor up so we can be our best selves.
Excerpt from Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen by Inger Burnett-Zeigler. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2021 by Inger Burnett-Zeigler.
Inger Burnett-Zeigler is a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. She has two decades of clinical experience helping people with stress, trauma, mood and anxiety conditions, and interpersonal strain. In her clinical practice, she promotes holistic wellness through mindfulness and compassionate self-care. She is an advocate for normalizing participation in mental health treatment and access to high-quality, evidence-based mental health care.