Reimagining Self-Care for Black Folks

By: Kelechi Ubozoh

There are thousands of thought-provoking pieces on the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter Movement, unemployment, civil unrest, police brutality, and the economy. Meanwhile, we are still here. Some of us barely holding on and feeling so much grief.

I am a black woman in deep pain. I’m watching the ongoing violence against my community and knowing that we are also dying at higher rates from this virus. What can we do about promoting our own healing? Holding space for all this discourse and our own mental health may feel unbearable.

Let me tell you something, your mental health is vital.

What is happening right now is collective trauma underscored by generational trauma. Every time I see photos, videos, and images of black folks being murdered that is a micro-trauma. I have to utilize healing-centered practices and coping skills to survive.

We all process and cope in different ways. For me, when I say I’m actively engaging in self-care, that doesn’t mean a bubble bath. I’m a black woman living in America trying to navigate “the system” with my own historical trauma and survivorship (suicide, sexual violence). Self-care for me is a full-time job.

For me, it usually starts with a set of questions, “Is this going to be helpful or harmful to my mental health?”

I am someone “programmed” to value what other people think and need above my own health. That success means compartmentalizing and pushing through. (And the Oscar goes to …) I’ve been told that taking care of myself is “selfish” and that my productivity is tied to my worth. These are lies at best, and a way to keep me out of my own power and down the imposter syndrome rabbit hole.

Some of my ongoing work includes building better healing centered practices of connecting with myself. This includes therapy and meditation (though that has been difficult lately).

Here are my list of self-care considerations. They may sound simple, but they required a lot of “de-programming”. Know that you should do what works for you and listen to your own intuition. Please take what is helpful and leave what is not.

Reach out to trustworthy people who can hold space for you.

Not everyone can be supportive, even if they care deeply for you. Consider the people who show up and make it easy to be yourself. No performances or faking it, but to just be. This is not as easy when you are cast, “the strong black woman,” and asking for help is seen as weak. Those are lies. Silence and isolation can breed more pain. Connecting with ourselves and folks that are supportive of us is critical.

Connect with things that bring you joy or energy

It may be difficult to do right now or even feel impossible, but if you have capacity…I would recommend it. When one of my friends asked how she could support me, I said send me pictures of your baby laughing. I’m writing affirmations about my identity, capability, and worth defined by ME. I’m listening to music that feeds my soul, and watching media that energizes me rather than drains me. I’m watching Insecure and The Photograph (okay all Issa Rae), but things that promote positive and nuanced identities of black folks. I need our black love stories, supernatural stories, science-fiction stories, and other images of our existence not drenched in pain. It reminds me of the whole picture.

Ask yourself what you want and need right now, and then advocate for it

  • Do you need a break from work? Can you ask for time-off or an adjustable schedule? If not, can you use your Paid Time Off (PTO)?
  • Is it time to explore therapy? Do you need peer support?
  • Are you wanting to have deep facilitated conversations about racism and pain? Can you join a healing circle?
  • Do you need to stop talking about racism and pain and have permission to check out?
  • Do you want check-in text messages and phone calls from your friends and colleagues?
  • Do you need to not respond to text messages and phone calls and go silent for awhile?

Understand what you need from folks around you and make sure you communicate it.

Revisit your coping mechanisms and remove those that no longer serve you

I’m not here to judge your coping mechanisms, you needed them to survive and they served you at some point in your life. However, it may be time to evaluate if they are still helpful.

My previous coping mechanisms included:

  • Staying so busy with work projects or advocacy that I could avoid looking at my own feelings and emotions.
  • People pleasing
  • Avoiding all “conflict” or saying what I actually felt, because I felt I already knew the outcome would be unproductive. Sometimes people can surprise you and sometimes they don’t, but I won’t know this if I don’t use my voice. (*Note, for me it is still important to say what I think and feel to be authentic to me. I know not everyone has that luxury or safety.)
  • Pouring all my concern and energy to “helping others” which left me emotionally starved (but feeling good because I could avoid paying attention to my own life)
  • Numbing out emotion through food or binge watching Netflix
  • Insert ________(so many more)

Allow yourself to feel your emotions and attend your physical needs

Whether I’m experiencing anguish or rage, I’m allowing myself to sit in those very uncomfortable spaces and release those feelings instead of stuffing them down. This also means paying attention to your body. Do you need to go for a walk? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you dehydrated? Are you holding pain somewhere physically that needs to be released? I’m a work in progress, but I’ve noticed if I don’t dedicate time and space to releasing, it spills out in ways that are not helpful.

Transform feelings of hopelessness to advocacy

Turning my despair into action helps my mental health and allows me to move that heavy energy toward something productive. Feeling your feelings is productive and checking out may be necessary. Both have a time and place. For those of you looking for ways to contribute through donations or education, I highly recommend this list .

I do also take breaks and enjoy unplugging with a good show or a book, but try not to use it to detach from myself.

Create boundaries for yourself of what works specifically for YOU

No. = A complete sentence.

Telling someone no used to bring about panic, fear, and judgement. (Since I used to tie my worth to productivity and people-pleasing- it was super hard.) Boundaries are what helps me have honest, balanced, and healthy relationships. Here are some of the questions I ask myself to understand my boundaries.

  • Am I doing this because I feel obligated, guilty, or pressured?
  • Do I need to have this conversation right now?
  • Does this drain me or give me energy?
  • Do I need a break from social media, the news cycle, and certain conversations?
  • Do I need to ___________(insert things), right now? Ever?
  • Is it mine to do?

Don’t forget to rest and breathe, drink water, and explore with your needs. Consider connecting with powerful black art, media, and music that showcase a different narrative of our stories and our strength. Add to this list and share what helps you. We need you.

5 Comments

  • Janet Bivens

    Okay good. I like the part about checking out and not having conversations about this. That is where I am some portion of the day. Other times I have to read the paper nonstop. Breathing helps tremendously. Feeling hopeful that this feels different this time v(Be careful — burned in that space before). International protests seem to reassure me. And bubble baths are okay too.

  • Natisha T.

    Thank you for this, it’s hard to know it’s ok to feel they way I do. I couldn’t sleep, forgot to eat and just cried while watching what was happening. It’s so frightening and unexplainable. My 10 year old son asked me why do they keep killing black people? I had no words, I’ve always told him there are good people and there are bad peoples. No way to tell who’s good or bad by their skin color but it doesn’t seem others are raising their children the same. Why can’t we all just be human?

  • Jeannine Farrelly

    Great article, Kelechi! These are all great tips and such important reminders for how we can best support ourselves and each other at a time like this. I too have struggled with the tendency to tie my self-worth to productivity and people pleasing, so I couldn’t agree more with your suggestions about setting healthy boundaries and putting your mental health and self-care needs first. This is definitely a difficult time for many of us, but articles like this remind me that we’re all in this together and there’s hope for some good to come out of all this.

  • Thank you for this, Kelechi. I appreciate your illustrating the DEPTH of pain people are feeling right now, the connection between personal, collective and intergenerational pain, and the importance of caring for mental heath. It’s so important check in with yourself, to step out when you need to, and countering hopelessness. with advocacy.

  • Kelechi, thank you for your words and modeling a strong, positive presence in our chaotic world. I share your actions of practicing more self-care during this year of 2020. I have begun a practice of meditation, true reflection of what serves me to keep and what does not to leave behind. I would only add one additional thought and that is to practice gratitude. Be well, we need you too!

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