Those of us committed to social justice are old friends with exhaustion.
Akwugo Emejulu and Leah Bassel’s essay on ‘The politics of exhaustion’ explores how women of color activists prioritize collective needs above their own and engage in unsustainable care work that inevitably leads to their burnout.
You can’t pour from an empty cup.
The self-proclaimed “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde understood this through her years battling social injustice and cancer.
When she learned that she has liver cancer seventeen days before she turns fifty, she began to assemble the collection of writings that would eventually feature in her book, A Burst of Light. One immortal line in the epilogue states (p. 130):
Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
Why Take a Self-Care Day?
If you feel the weight of the world heavy on your shoulders and stress crowding your mind, it may be time to slow down and refill your cup.
Taking a self-care day (also known as a mental health day) is a relatively easy way to stop yourself before reaching burnout. When you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, allowing yourself to have one intentional day to recover and restore can make an enormous difference to your psychoemotional health.
Self-care is not selfish.
Contrary to the memes, it’s not about pampering yourself with spa days and shopping sprees (i.e., consumerism).
Self-care has long been a vital tool in the activist’s toolkit to nourish and empower ourselves so that we may better serve our communities. In this imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchal world, it’s more important than ever that we find ways to heal from its violences.
I’d like to acknowledge that self-care is easier to access if you’re wealthy and have the economic privilege to take time off and pay for help. If you’re disadvantaged, it’s considerably harder to find the resources to take adequate care of yourself, but it’s even more vital that you’re cared for.
Knowing when to take a self-care day requires you to be tuned in to yourself. Many of us learn about our own boundaries and limits by burning out.
Rather than waiting for ourselves to collapse from exhaustion, we can hone our self-awareness and practice knowing when to pull the brakes and do some much-needed personal maintenance.
We’re all different and it follows then that our self-care needs will differ. There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription to care for yourself. Please use this guide as inspiration to design your own best self-care day and keep experimenting with what your body, heart, mind, and spirit need.
Which Day Should I Take Off?
If you work a traditional 9–5 job, the simplest option is to choose one day on the weekend. Pick the day you have the least obligations or can get some help with your responsibilities.
Also, consider your own temperament. For example, I like to take Sundays as my self-care day. I find I’m buzzing from the productive flow of my work week on Saturdays and I like applying that energy to housework. My partner prefers to take Saturday to decompress and have a more active Sunday instead.
You may have cultural and religious practices that make one day a better option than the other.
If your job has paid leave, you may also want to consider applying for a workday off. I like Fridays for this method because I tend to receive the fewest emails on Friday and it doesn’t leave me with an extra large workload when I get back to work.
If taking a whole day seems impossible and overwhelming right now, try to use some of the ideas in this post on a lunch break. Even if you can only carve out one hour, prioritize your health and healing.
The official International Self-Care Day is 24th July. The date reminds us that self-care is a life-long endeavor and its benefits ought to be experienced 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So even if taking regular self-care days feels impossible in your circumstances, take 24th July off each year at a minimum.
Prepare for Your Day Off
1. Let People Know
Tell people you’re taking the day to recover and recharge. Ask for understanding and help where you can, for example, if your partner can take over with childcare and housework.
2. Put on an Autoresponder
Before you begin your self-care day, make sure you lay down the necessary preparations to make the most of the time.
Put an out-of-office email reply from the time you leave work the day before. So if you’re taking Friday off, set an autoresponder to let people know you’ll be away from your computer from Thursday 5pm until Monday 9am.
Depending on the nature of your work, an autoresponder may be useful on your personal email if you receive any communications there. If your organization has expectations that you remain in touch through the weekend, you may need to be clear in your out-of-office reply that you won’t be checking your email and will get back to them when you’re back at the office.
Provide as much information as you need (e.g., alternate contacts, date and time of your return, what they should do in an emergency, etc.) for you to rest easy that the world won’t fall down while you’re gone.
3. Clean and Tidy Your Space
Don’t start your self-care day with the crushing realization your house is a mess.
Do the laundry before your day off. If you know it’ll make you happy, change your bedsheets the day before and put out some clean fluffy towels.
Wash up the dishes in the sink the night before.
Stock your kitchen with fresh fruit and vegetables. Get a nice loaf of bread.
Set a bottle of water on the bedside table. Maybe even your favorite book of poetry so it can be the first thing you read in the morning.
If it feels right, lay out everything you need for breakfast. This might mean you prepare some overnight oats or lay out all the ingredients you need for blueberry pancakes.
4. Wind Down
Your self-care should really start the evening before. To ensure you can start the day feeling well-rested, don’t work late and allow yourself to do something relaxing and soothing.
Put on a good movie or read a book, then go to bed on time to get as much rest as you can so you can start your self-care day refreshed.
Take Care of Your Body
1. Get Good Sleep
Turn off your alarm clock and allow yourself to get a good night’s rest. This is a day you don’t need to force yourself into any ‘productive’ schedule. If you’re not a morning person, sleep in. If you are a morning person, get to bed early enough the night before so that you can wake up naturally and have time to enjoy the tranquility of the morning.
2. Eat and Drink Well
The groceries you stocked up on earlier in the week will help you make good choices today about how you nourish your body.
Eat and drink what feels good to you, not just in the moment but later too. Avoid anything that will make you feel sick or guilty later.
Do some exercise. If your work is sedentary, it’s especially important you stretch and move on your day off.
Don’t push yourself too hard. A self-care day is not supposed to feel like a boot camp. If you’re not normally used to exercise, aim for a 20-minute walk around the park or roll out a towel or yoga mat and follow along to a gentle stretch routine.
If you’re normally very active, then keep up your training and good habits.
My favorite yoga YouTube channel is Yoga With Adriene. She provides inclusive videos for an at-home yoga practice. Unlike some yoga classes that promote toxic ideals of “getting the beach-ready body”, Adriene suggests we can get strong so that “we can help our neighbors carry their groceries”.
On my self-care days, I usually go for a stress-relieving routine like this one below.
4. Go Outside
In Japan, shinrin-yoku (森林浴) is the practice of ‘forest bathing’. It’s a form of ecotherapy originating in the 1980s intended to reduce stress from overwork.
Being in nature — really experiencing the natural world through our senses of sight, hearing, smell, and touch — is greatly beneficial to our health.
For those of us living in cities, we can become divorced from nature. Taking the time to connect with nature on our self-care day can be a way to slow down, put our worries into perspective, and remind ourselves of our profound connectedness with the living world.
Take Care of Your Heart and Mind
The psycho-emotional benefits of meditation are now very well-known. Meditation helps us to lower our stress levels and improve our emotional intelligence. If you’re new to meditation, there’s a wealth of resources available.
One of the most popular meditation apps is Headspace. My favorite app is Smiling Mind, which is Australian and has the best guided nighttime meditation called ‘Starry Night’. I’ve also recently started using the Calm app and have enjoyed starting my day with ‘Before the Day — Pure Possibility’.
2. Connect with People You Love
Schedule a catch up with someone you love, someone who always lifts you higher. Give and receive affection and support.
If you’ve been feeling drained by people, then take this time to retreat. You may also want to take stock of people who are continually draining your emotional energies and begin setting healthier boundaries with them.
Another way to make sense of the chaos of life is to spend some time journaling. Writing down our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings encourages reflection and emotional release.
Journaling has been found to minimize emotional fatigue and burnout. Writing about both our thoughts and feelings helps us heal from trauma, even more so than journaling only about feelings. I try to set aside once a month to practice this method of ‘philosophical meditation’ outlined in the video below.
If you’ve been hard on yourself lately, you may find it constructive to simply write down a list of your accomplishments. Use concrete examples and evidence to counterbalance the inner critic, for example, “I ran a comprehensive and impactful workshop last week. One participant emailed me afterward to say how much they appreciated my facilitation, specifically, that they’ll be applying my practice going forward”.
Writing down all the good things in your life can foster appreciation, gratitude, and overall wellbeing. While thankfulness is linked to numerous psychological benefits, it’s problematic to assume gratitude in and of itself is inherently moral and condemn anger as an unhealthy lack of gratitude. Some of the psychological applications of gratitude go overboard with sentimentality. Don’t allow the naive moralizing around gratitude to delegitimize your anger at injustice.
4. Create a To-Do List and Work Plan
If you’ve been experiencing stress with your work and other commitments, your self-care day can also include taking some time to consolidate your to-do’s.
Write down a list of everything you need to do. Just do a brain dump of everything you know you need to do.
Sort the tasks, marking items as “important”, “urgent” or both. Look at the tasks marked as both important and urgent. Could any of these things take less than 15 minutes? Move these to the very top of your to-do list.
Review the tasks that are important but not urgent. Could you block out time in the coming weeks to begin tackling those?
What about the tasks that are urgent but not important. A huge source of stress at work can be these trivial tasks that pile on us but don’t really seem to add much value. Could any of these tasks be delegated? Also, consider longer-term renegotiations that can change the accumulation of these kinds of responsibilities. Could processes be changed so that you get more time to work on non-important tasks?
If anything on your list were neither marked as important nor urgent — forget about them.
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Be Kind to Yourself
You’re not selfish, indulgent, or weak to need time off to recuperate.
As Audre Lorde reminded us in her reflections fighting cancer and the white supremacist heteropatriarchy, caring for yourself is political warfare. It’s refusing to accept the narrative that you’re inferior, that you’re less human, that you’re less deserving of love and care.
Be careful not to put too much pressure on yourself to make your self-care day ‘perfect’. Notice if you’re setting yourself unreasonable standards or getting critical with yourself for not preparing well, forgetting to meditate, or even slipping into doing some work.
To keep a daily reminder of ways you can heal and restore, you’ll receive a self-care checklist when you sign up for my newsletter Moon Rites. You’ll receive an email from me every new and full moon (that’s twice a month). If you enjoy reading my blog, I think you’ll really like my emails too, but in case you don’t, you’ll be able to unsubscribe anytime.
Sign up for Moon Rites, my newsletter sent on the new moon, and receive a self-care checklist as a gift.
With self-compassion in mind, it’s valuable to remember that self-care is a practice. When we’ve internalized neoliberal ideals of being ‘productive’, it’s normal if you find yourself feeling guilty on your day off. Maybe you end up worrying about work or letting your personal boundaries slip.
Self-care days aren’t miracle cures. You have to take them regularly and that requires tuning into yourself and knowing how to read your own signs of exhaustion of burnout. Prioritizing your own care gets easier with practice.
Through ongoing experimentation, you’ll also figure out what you need to properly rest and restore. If you’re not sure if any of the suggestions above would work for you, try different activities. Set your alarm for sunrise one day, meditate and prepare a special home-cooked meal. Then let yourself sleep in the next, go for a run with your dog, and watch a movie. Be open to discovering what nourishes you the most.
If taking a self-care day alone makes you nervous and you think you might succumb to guilt, try taking a self-care day with your partner, family, or friend. Like how we might pick a gym buddy to keep us accountable to a new fitness regime, we can enlist a self-care buddy to maintain your collective psychoemotional health. You can plan out a day together and practice caring for yourself alongside caring for each other.
Insist on the recognition of your dignity. Self-care is a refusal to accept the burden of being worthless or worth less. Do not aid violence through silencing yourself or your kind.Sadiah Qureshi, A Manifesto for Survival
Mental Health Advice Disclaimer
Disorient, and the information provided in this blog, is solely intended for informational and entertainment purposes and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis, or treatment regarding medical or mental health conditions. The views expressed on this site or any related content should not be taken for medical or psychiatric advice.
If you struggle with establishing and maintaining personal boundaries, be sure to read my previous post on how we can set better boundaries as activists. It goes in-depth about the five types of boundaries and how we can define and communicate our needs in each boundary type.
Robin M. Boylorn (2013). How to not die: Some survival tips for Black women who are asked to do too much. Crunk Feminist Collective.
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Featured image by Tim Goedhart