Dear Kerry Ann,
This year has been hard on me as a scholar of color who cares deeply about black lives and wants an end to police brutality. At this point, I feel like I’m experiencing some racial battle fatigue and I am so emotionally drained, I can't even bear the thought of having another campus conversation about the Baltimore uprising. I’m managing to stay productive in my writing but I’m absolutely bone weary. I don’t even know what my question is but I need some help.
I’ve heard from lots of faculty members expressing this exact sentiment (so much so, this is a composite letter so as to not identify any individual). While I wrote last year after the Ferguson protests about how and why it’s important to stay productive (No Justice, No Peace, No Writing?), I feel like there’s a deeper concern I hear in your letter: What is the role of self-care for engaged scholars during difficult times?
When you combine end of the academic year stressors with societal unrest, unrelenting images of violence on social media and the cumulative impact of daily microaggressions that tend to increase during difficult times, I’m seeing many faculty members (particularly underrepresented scholars) in a state of chronic stress. This is highly problematic because chronic stress negatively impacts your physical health and well-being and limits your ability to function effectively in both your personal and professional life.
But it’s not just the chronic stress I’m concerned about -- it’s also the pervasive negative strategies that people use to cope with these stressors. I’m seeing a lot of excessive drinking and eating, compulsive shopping, isolating and avoiding, self-medicating, procrastinating, and zoning out for hours in front of the TV. So I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it’s time for some radical self-care.
In difficult times, people often neglect their self-care, thinking that other things are far more important. But what would happen if you took the opposite approach? What if you decided that difficult times call for radical self-care? In other words, start with a basic assumption that your health is your top priority. Without it, nothing else is possible. If that seems too abstract, let’s get concrete by asking three specific questions:
What Does Your Body Need?
Just pause for a moment, take a deep breath and ask yourself: What do I need right now? Then listen to your body. When you’re physically exhausted, your body often just wants you to go back to basics: sleep eight hours, eat simple foods, hydrate, move around and/or receive a hug. Your body may be crying out for something else entirely, so just listen gently and provide yourself with what you need.
What Does Your Mind Need?
Radical self-care includes reflecting on what you are feeding your mind as well as your body. I want to suggest setting some healthy boundaries around your electronic media consumption, because being constantly plugged in to social media, arguing with people who will not change their minds, dealing with Twitter trolls and engaging in name calling doesn’t change anything. It does however, exacerbate your stress level and drain your (already limited) energy. Instead, why not try unplugging from electronics every evening this week for a few hours to be present to the reality in your midst. For the times when you choose to be engaged, why not pick some trusted sources for analysis instead of letting the full unmitigated onslaught of media clutter your thinking?
What Does Your Spirit Need?
This is the most important question, and it’s really about what you need to be in a state of inner peace during difficult, tense and stressful times. For many of my clients, there seems to be a combination of factors that restore inner peace. For example: 1) contributing in a meaningful way to social justice, 2) expressing the genuine rage they feel and 3) tapping into powerful positive emotions daily. Because this is such a common and powerful combination of factors, I’ll discuss each briefly in turn.
1. Make a strategically meaningful contribution.
If you want to be strategic in your political engagement: do what matters. You can identify that by asking yourself: What can I do that other people cannot do? What can I do that will have the most impact? How can I use my unique skills/talents/training in the time I have available? Answering these three questions often leads to a clear, efficient and effective direction for your action.
2. Consider developing a regular rage practice.
I know lots of people have meditation practices and that’s great. It increases mindfulness, decreases stress and sharpens your focus. But what do you do with all the negative emotions that come up in the face of inequality, injustice and microaggressions? Even if you’re expert at healthy conflict, there’s still residual anger afterward, because there’s a limit to expressing emotion in professional contexts.
As much as I love meditation, I recommend that you also develop a rage practice. In other words, hit something on a regular basis! The negative emotions don’t just evaporate. In fact, rage has a way of taking root in your body, deepening and expanding over time, and it will erupt in unlikely places. Instead of making yourself vulnerable to disproportionate explosions in your professional life, why not just give negative energy a regular physical outlet (hit the punching bag at the gym, take up a racket sport or just beat up the pillows on your bed).
3. Intentionally experience joy, love and gratitude every day.
While discharging rage is critical, it needs to be balanced by consciously tapping into the most powerful human emotions: joy, love and gratitude. What I mean by that is simple: when we allow ourselves to feel joy, to be loved and to express gratitude, those emotions shift our entire state of being. If we can simultaneously engage in meaningful action, release residual rage and intentionally access positive emotional states, we are likely to feel our inner peace restored during dark times.
I hope that it’s clear: I’m not saying that you should ignore the complex reality unfolding in our world. Instead I’m suggesting that the path to peace and productivity in times like these begins with radical self-care. What flows out of your health will be some of your best work.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore
President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity