At a recent workshop for public scholars interested in writing for feminist outlets, I pitched an idea for a piece on self-care for women of color activists. A conversation that's desperately needed as (s)hero after (s)hero suffers injury for her/their advocacy efforts, the repeated wounding setting the stage for debilitation or early death.
The White woman moderator who represented a wide-reaching feminist magazine didn’t agree. “This is a time to step up not step back,” was her response.
I had two reactions to her statement in quick succession.
My first was agreement about the importance of activism to push against the rising tide of White patriarchal xenophobic imperialism. This initial reaction acknowledged the healing potential of collective advocacy.
My second reaction, more resonant then and now, was frustration about her dismissiveness (or ignorance) of the damage activism inflicts on the health, relationships, and spirit of women of color. Her critique, the lens through which she evaluated my pitch, appeared uncritically shaped by her positionality as a White woman of means.
The women of color in my communities step up and have done so for generations. We step up every time we enter the classroom to challenge the status quo in institutions happy to exploit our labor but not our calls for structural change. We step up every time we focus our scholarship on uplifting the voices of women of color that discipline gatekeepers often prefer to erase. We step up every time we send our earnings to family in our home countries, family trapped in poverty right here in the U.S., family caught in the prison industrial complex. We step up every time we are forced to face the world with protective armor whose weight bends us over making it difficult to breathe. We step up every time we choose to mother our children – biological and otherwise, our students, our elders, our communities with hopes that our love, our teaching, our bodies will protect against the state’s weapons of mass destruction.
No, we step up. Over and over and over and over and over and over.
And it’s killing us.
We don’t need to be told to step up. What we need is to give ourselves and each other permission to periodically step back before our bodies forcefully come to a violent stop.
Stepping back is not giving up. As Audre Lorde reminds us, our self-care is self-preservation, and that is the ultimate act of resistance.
Taking time to heal, reset, revivify enables us to reenter the fight renewed. We owe it to ourselves, to the revolution, to those who rely on us. Plus, it’s time for others to step up consistently so we can rest a bit.
In peace and solidarity,
I write this post after a restless night playing over the Kavanaugh hearings and the numerous conversations I’ve had with women triggered by this painful spectacle. I’m sure others spent their night similarly.
Every woman I know—every single one—has been affected by sexual violence, either personally or through those they know well. This is because sexual violence is all too common in the US, with 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men reporting experiences of contact-related sexual violence in their lifetimes. The rate goes up when looking exclusively at the sexual violence experiences of women of color, LGB and gender non-conforming people, and those who live at the intersection of these identities.
This all means there is a large collective who is suffering deeply at this moment, many in silence. If you are one, I see you. Your response—whether sadness, disconnection, stoicism, denial, rage, anxiety, avoidance—is okay. You don’t need to be any other way than you are right now.
Healing is not a linear process. Strong winds have the power to push us off course, sometimes propelling us back to places we’d hoped never to revisit. And we’re in the middle of a particularly destructive storm.
The path (back?) to safer shores can sometimes seem impossible to find. This is understandable, particularly in a society that does much to increase survivors’ suffering through victim-shaming and blaming.
There are strategies, though, that can illuminate a way forward. This Lifehacker post* offers several that I wholeheartedly endorse, including setting boundaries around media consumption, grounding yourself, and practicing deep breathing. I invite you to read the article and experiment with some of the strategies as one way to gift yourself healing during this triggering time.
Whatever you decide, please know you are not alone. You are not to blame. Your trauma does not define you.
For those lucky enough to be chosen as a survivor’s confidante, you too have an important role to play in the healing process. Maximize this role by choosing to listen carefully to the survivor’s story. Avoid the pull to judgment or, worse, neutrality. Strive, instead, to be actively supportive, letting the survivor know you hear them, believe them, and will be there for them. Then, follow-up by checking in to reinforce your care.
If you have regrets about your previous responding to a survivor’s story, try to avoid a shame spiral. In the wise words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
In peace and solidarity,
*Thanks to Liz Roemer for sharing the Lifehacker post.
Earlier this year I gave myself the gift of a silent mindfulness retreat. I spent a weekend in the beautiful foothills of the Georgia Mountains deepening my metta meditation practice.
Metta is Pali for loving-kindness. And this meditation does just that - focuses attention on the cultivation of loving-kindness toward oneself and others (benefactor, dear friend, neutral person, difficult person, all sentient beings). This is done partly through the internal repetition of phrases for each category.
The meditation always begins with extending metta to yourself. The idea being you need to first have unbounded love for self before you can have unbounded love for others. We spent almost an entire day of a three-day retreat meditating on the self, an indication of the difficulty we have seeing ourselves as worthy and unconditionally lovable.
I left the retreat full of love…and loss.
You see, I was the only woman of color – the only person of color, in fact - among the 30 retreaters. This has become a regular occurrence in my wellness pursuits, although I live in a diverse metro area.
My mindfulness practice encourages the acceptance of an experience for what it is versus lamenting what it isn’t. Even so, I feel loss when I’m The Only: loss of the opportunity to remove all of my protective armor, to be fully recognized, to exhale.
My sister-friends who have the means to participate in wellness activities – which I’m clear is a privilege – express reluctance about being vulnerable in what will likely be all-White or mostly White spaces. They fear experiencing some racial injury while in search of healing. The residential nature of retreats adds to this fear.
I get it.
As a psychologist who has spent 20 years researching and teaching about health, I can’t ignore the numerous benefits to body and mind of unplugging, finding time for self, just being. So I choose to continue participating in these wellness activities despite the drawbacks.
But the loss of opportunity persists.
When we broke silence, I questioned the retreat leaders about the lack of diversity among the participants and the need for more outreach to communities of color who are suffering in these painful times. Their response acknowledged the problem without much solution. One of the facilitators did emphasize that metta is centered on loving actions as much as loving feelings, which for her includes working toward a more just society.
Since this retreat, I have thought a lot about the notion of loving action. It reminds me of Wangari Maathai's telling of "I Will be a Hummingbird." In this fable, a hummingbird was trying to put out a raging forest fire by filling its little beak with water and emptying the droplets on the flames. When asked by the larger animal bystanders why it was doing something so useless, the hummingbird responded, "I am doing the best I can."
What is the best I can do? Although that answer is ever changing (thanks, Liz Roemer, for this wise tidbit), I know it’s more than lamenting the lack of wellness opportunities for women of color, especially since I have the skill to add to those opportunities. So I’ve started experimenting with creating what I wish for.
With the assistance of lots of amazing people, I facilitated a day-long faculty wellness retreat for women of color in May. This retreat was all about pausing, reflecting, renewing, and connecting through practices shown to reduce stress and amplify joy. There was yoga, dance, mindfulness, sister circles, laughter, and tears.
As I was leading the last activity of the day, not coincidentally a metta meditation, I looked around the room at the 25 women of color in attendance and felt the power of our sisterhood. It was without exception the highlight of my professional career.
The positive response to the retreat was deeply humbling and motivated me to step out of my comfort zone and plan a weekend retreat for women of color faculty. It will be held October 5-7 in those same beautiful Georgia Mountain foothills.
I am clear that these retreats won’t singularly change the wellness industry or the individual, institutional, and systemic factors that injure women of color. They are, however, acts of love for my sisters and for myself. And that’s a start.
Special thanks to Nyasha GuramatunhuCooper, Michelle DiPietro, Kami Anderson, Joycelyn Moody, Michelle Boyd, and Nicole Guillory for their support in helping me be a hummingbird, not a bystander.
In peace and solidarity,
Do you perceive time as going by faster and faster? Do have little memory of what you did last week...or even last night?
If you answered yes and yes, you might be stuck in a rut, a place where your days are horribly predictable. When we do the same things over and over, our brains stop paying a lot of attention, leading to lack of memories and the perception that time is passing quickly.
Need proof? Think of your last commute to work. I bet you can't even remember what happened.
The cure is simple. Add novel experiences to your life.
Not only do novel experiences create lasting memories, they slow down time. [The longer an activity takes the brain to process, the slower time is perceived.] This means the more fun, novel experiences you have, the more you feel like you're living a full rich life. And don't we all want that feeling?
So make this month--and all the months to come--one to remember by breaking out of your rut and trying something new. Here are 10 big and small suggestions to get you started.
1. Take a trip to a new location (even for a day).
2. Better yet, plan a Monthly Novel Experience, like white water rafting, wine tasting, zip lining, or tent camping.
3. Learn a new skill. I recently participated in an 8-week mindfulness course for therapists. Not only did I deepen my mindfulness practice, I learned new ways to teach mindfulness to students and clients.
4. Mindfulness bonus: paying attention to the present moment also slows time down.
5. Throw an old school house party. Nothing says novel and fun like grown folks singing Prince's Purple Rain at the top of their lungs.
6. Call a friend you haven't talked to in a while. Shut off all potential distractions and really catch up.
7. Go bowling on a mid-week morning. I do this at least once per semester with colleagues and always have a wonderful time (even when my final score is in the double digits).
8. Take yourself out to a nice lunch instead of eating at your desk. Eat slowly, attending to the flavors, textures, and aromas of the food.
9. Have a surprise weekday family game night. Buying new games to play ups the novelty quotient. Our family's favorites are Sequence, Clue (I'm the reigning champ!), Uno, Sorry, and Monopoly.
10. Take a moment to savor small unexpected positive experiences, like a compliment someone gives you.
If you have a novel experience you'd like to add, please share it in the comments below.
In peace and solidarity,
COMPLETE BLOG POST. This to-do stood out among the others. Its silent recrimination ringing loudly—Why haven’t you gotten to me yet?
The answer boiled down to one word: Fear.
Fear and I go way back. Her presence inexplicably comforts me even though she can wreak havoc on my life, reminding me of a self more imagined than real.
Fear is best at derailing my writing. Her whispers—you’re not good enough, you have nothing important to say, you’re more lucky than skilled—made writing excruciating. Every. Single. Moment.
It is excruciating still. Sometimes. And the distance between always and sometimes is a huge win.
The journey to this point has not been easy. Fear is a worthy adversary, even for a psychologist trained in ways to cope with emotions. And I’m not alone. Many writers struggle with Fear in what appears to be a losing battle. And that’s not okay. Because Fear is vulnerable, wins are possible.
It’s worth repeating: wins are possible. Here are a few ways I use science to help me (and my clients) triumph over Fear.
Pull Fear from Darkness to Light
I thought I could hide from Fear. Crouched in shadows, I held my breath and waited for her to recede. But the dark is no place to face Fear. Avoidance feeds fear, helps her seem larger than life, uncontrollable.
Pulling Fear into the light makes her more tangible. The more visible Fear is—her contours and angles—the easier to deal with her.
So I named her and her goal. This is Fear, a.k.a. Imposter Syndrome and Anxiety. She tries hard to keep me from writing.
This small step makes Fear easier to recognize. Hello, Fear. I see you’re back.
Acknowledging Fear before she does damage opens the space to bring her—and myself—out of the shadows. In the light, I’ve discovered that…
Fear has preferences
Fear loves to, prefers to, show up when I’m writing something new (like this blog post) or writing in a new(ish) voice (e.g., autobiographic) or writing with others I admire. It sucks when all these things intersect, which is happening more and more.
Fear has stamina problems
Fear is strongest early in the writing process. She knows if she keeps me from starting or stops me from finding my rhythm, she wins. Her strength, though, wanes over time. Knowing she can be beat means it’s vital I write through Fear.
Fear has selective memory
Fear is amazing at recalling harsh critiques. Gentle critiques? No worries, Fear can sharpen them until their points penetrate any armor.
Positive feedback? In those rare moments of recall, Fear is adept at distorting the message or messenger. She only said she liked it; it must be crap if she didn’t love it. He’s too nice to tell me the truth.
Recognizing that Fear’s whispers aren’t my full truth is an ongoing struggle; Fear’s voice sounds deceptively like mine. But I’ve found effective interventions. One is creating a gentle counter-narrative that challenges Fear’s penchant for the negative. My writing is good enough. I chant this mantra each time Fear starts her whispers. I initially repeat it without conviction knowing that writing as if I believe still works.
Compiling positive feedback into an easily accessible document is another way I challenge Fear’s whispers. Savoring the positive emotions that come up while reading the feedback dials down Fear’s volume, which makes hearing my counter-narrative easier.
Shame is Fear’s superpower
Fear thrives on shame, a feeling of unworthiness. The result: a pull to hide Fear, to perform (or fake!) a competence and ease in writing that I don’t truly feel. This inauthenticity only amplifies my shame which in turn amplifies my desire to perform.
Vulnerability is Fear’s kryptonite
Breaking out of the shame-performance cycle requires vulnerability. By vulnerability, I mean taking the risk to speak my writing truth to other writers, repeatedly. Why? Sharing Fear with empathic others makes her burden easier to bear. Equally important, it reminds me I’m not alone...and neither are you. Fear is a part of our lives, even those academics who make writing look easy.
Caveat: For women of color, hiding Fear can be an adaptive way to cope with daily indignities and systemic oppression. So be gentle with yourself if enacting vulnerability takes time. A trusting network of confidantes is something that must be nurtured to grow. Organizing a writing sister circle whose expressed goal is to provide compassionate accountability is one place to start.
Shout out to my sister circle: Joycelyn, Nichole, Griselda, Karen, and Jackie (my biological sister who is also an academic). I am grateful beyond measure that you welcome and encourage my authentic self, enabling me to face Fear, practice self-compassion, and get back on the writing path when I diverge. As I did with this post.
In peace and solidarity,