Self-Care Lessons for the Resistance
Since the election, a lot of people not previously involved in activism have jumped in with both feet. The ACLU and Planned Parenthood have been inundated with donations, mostly from first-time givers. A reproductive rights non-profit I work with just hosted its third 30-person meeting of prospective volunteers — before the election we had been meeting with people occasionally, one on one. The election of Donald Trump was a wake-up call for many people, and that’s just incredible. I’m so excited and inspired by this outpouring of support and enthusiasm for action. If you’re gearing up to become an activist for the next four years, I commend you and look forward to standing beside you.
But before we head out to the barricades together, there’s something you need to know.
This is not going to be an easy four years. We’re going to be subjected to constant gaslighting by the President and his administration. We’ll be dealing with a ferocious, multi-front attack on the entire progressive agenda, without exception, and a lot of it is going to succeed. We’re going to helplessly watch institutions we care about and depend upon destroyed. The Trump years are going to be emotionally exhausting and deeply traumatic for all of us, but particularly to those dedicated to protecting the vulnerable and preserving democracy.
Most of us are not ready to take on the mantle of the resistance. There are things we can do now to get ready, but if we don’t, the ranks of would-be activists and resisters are going to thin out very quickly.
Professional organizers and veteran activists have strategies for staying sane during a long fight. If you’re serious about sticking it out in the picket lines for the duration of the Trump presidency, you’re going to have to learn these strategies or else burn out in the first six months.
The last few months have been a relentless onslaught of awful news. My homepage is the New York Times, and it’s started to feel like every time I open my browser I get the wind knocked out of me. I wake up in the morning, check my phone, and a cloud of sadness and anxiety settles over my entire day. I can’t live like this over the long term, and neither can you.
So when it gets to be too much, it’s ok to unplug for a bit. Stop refreshing Twitter and reading the news. Stop feeling guilty when someone asks you if you’ve been following the latest story and you have to say no. Go a week or a day or even an hour without talking/reading/writing about the dumpster fire smoldering along in Washington. It will still be there when you get back, I promise.
This is really important, because at some point it will become too much to handle. You can cope by shutting it out for a while — binge watching Netflix, playing with your dog, going to yoga. But if you don’t do that, if you try to maintain this fever pitch of anguish and fear and outrage, something far worse than a little down time is going to happen. Your brain, to protect you, will just turn down the volume on the outrage and adapt.
People can get used to anything, and if you don’t take steps to prevent it, you will get used to Trump.
You will stop being shocked by the latest scandal and horrified by the latest attack on civil rights. Trump will become the new normal. And that is the worst thing that could happen, because THIS IS NOT NORMAL, and democracies fall when their people stop resisting.
We have to stay outraged for the next four years and resist the powerful urge to adapt to the new normal. But that doesn’t mean you have to live the next four years in a constant state of anxiety and anger. It means, when you do think about Trump and his minions, the appropriate feeling is outrage. But you can’t live like that all the time, and that means you have to spend a significant amount of time not thinking about Trump and all the work that has to be done. Do not get used to Trump — get away from him.
I promise this will not make you a bad activist or a weak person. You will do more good if you make time for non-Trump conversations and non-political activities. It’s like taking a vacation from your job, which research has shown dramatically boosts productivity. Take a good long break, then come back refreshed and ready to work.
Not every job has to be done by you, even if you’re the best at it. If social media trolls are giving you heart palpitations, you can let a tweet go un-answered. Even if you’re the most knowledgable person at the dinner party, you don’t have to be the one to jump in when the conversation turns to politics. For that matter, you don’t have to show up to the dinner party if you know it’s going to turn into a debate.
You can’t show up to every march and donate to every cause. You can’t write treatises on every issue and argue with every Trump supporter on your Facebook page. If you want to be effective on anything, pick an issue or two that matter most to you and fight for them. Let the others go.
Important caveat: I’m not saying we collectively should pick a few issues and let everything else fall by the wayside. Please don’t confuse me with those saying we have to abandon “identity politics” if we want to make progress on economic inequality (or vice versa). This is advice to individuals, not the party or the movement as a whole.
Another important caveat is that you shouldn’t actively undermine other people’s issues. Just because you aren’t personally excited about something doesn’t mean it’s not important. The only way this works is if lots of people focus on lots of different issues, with the result that all the important stuff gets covered. So don’t be in the business of trying to convince people to switch their allegiance from one issue to another. Don’t tell people to stop talking about racism because climate change is more important, or that health care can wait because we have to focus on LGBTQ rights. It’s all important.
The movement works as a coalition of people focused on different issues, so don’t let anyone convince you that by focusing your energy on one or two issues, you have effectively sided with the bad guys on everything else. Ignore people who say things like, “you’re not a real feminist if you aren’t working to protect the environment” or “you’re betraying the cause of economic justice if you don’t show up for prison reform.” That’s all nonsense. There is a spectrum of support, and nobody can be everywhere at once.
By the same token, don’t allow yourself to be shamed for being new to the game. Ignore people who tell you that your protests of Trump are hypocritical because you didn’t protest Obama. That’s hogwash for many reasons, but most importantly, YOU ARE HERE NOW AND THAT’S WHAT MATTERS. Do not engage in activist one-upmanship, and don’t allow yourself to be shamed for not being fully briefed and up to date on everything, for not spending your days glued to CSPAN and Twitter, for not making someone else’s number one issue yours as well. That is a demand for emotional labor from you, and you do not have to give it.
Sure, retweet and share on Facebook about your peripheral issues, but focus your real energy on the things you care about most. I will do the same for my different but complementary issues, and that’s how the work gets done.
Do things that are good for the world, but do them in ways that you personally enjoy. Yes, call your representatives, but maybe make a contest of it with your friends, like you might challenge each other to achieve workout goals. Volunteer for an immigrants’ rights clinic with a group of colleagues, and then go out for drinks afterwards and feel free to be proud of yourselves. Go to the Women’s March with your mom and your sister and your best friend — and have an amazing time. Laugh, sing, chat, and flirt while you’re voting with your feet.
You don’t have to suffer to make a difference.
Don’t let anyone tell you that humor has no place in the movement, or that you aren’t allowed to be proud of your contribution, or that it’s unseemly to have fun while you’re doing serious work. That’s all bull, and it’s counterproductive to boot.
As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, protest and activism is supposed to be loads of fun for the protesters. (And I can tell you from personal experience that he’s right.) If you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re doing it wrong.
One of the best ways to make activism fun is to make it easy. Resolve to do something small every day, without fail. There are many “daily action” lists going around, each with different emphasis, but they’re all very similar. Pick one and commit to following it. It will make you feel great, and will do wonders to combat that helpless, hopeless feeling. Plus, by doing something every day (even if it’s small) you will actually accomplish a lot — probably more than if you only do bigthings once a year.
Don’t forget to play to your strengths. There’s no need to force yourself to do a kind of work that you find unpleasant or boring. If you’re a writer, write articles shedding light on important issues, convincing the other side or rallying your allies to action. If you’re an artist, make art with a conscience. Teachers can bring social justice into your curriculum. Lawyers can volunteer at free legal clinics, write amicus briefs, do pro bono work. Like to argue? Be the one who calls out the sexist comment at a dinner party when everyone else doesn’t know how to react. Love to bake? Bring cookies to activist meetings and homeless shelters. No matter what your passion is, there’s a way to use it for good and have a great time doing it.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the ordinary, everyday self-care. It’s obvious and mundane, but this stuff is even more important when you’re living under the strain of an oppressive government. You need a strong foundation from which to fight, so take care of the basics.
Go to therapy. Yes, really. Even if you don’t think you need it. Even if your mental health is generally good. We get checkups to maintain our physical health, so why not mental health? It’s not cheap and it’s not always covered by insurance, but if you can afford it, get yourself a therapist right now. You’ll thank yourself when the resistance is in full swing and you have someone to talk to.
Get enough sleep. You’d be amazed what sleep-deprivation does to your body and mind. If you do only one self-care thing (other than therapy), this should be it.
Go to the doctor. And the dentist. It’s hard to focus on social justice when a toothache is keeping you up at night or your low thyroid is making you so sluggish you can’t think. Take care of your body — you only get the one.
Exercise. You don’t have to run a marathon, but do some yoga or go for a jog or at least take a long walk.
Spend time with friends. Just be with people who love you, doing fun stuff.
Get some me-time. Read a book, watch a movie, take a walk, whatever. Just be in your own company for a while.
Eat well. Sure, healthy is good, but I also mean delicious. Cook (or order) food that makes you happy.
Get outside. If you live near woods or mountains or oceans, awesome. If not, just stroll around your neighborhood and breathe some fresh air.
Make your bed. Seriously, it takes like two minutes max and makes such a difference.
Oh, and call your mother, if you can.
Activism fatigue is real. Self-care is incredibly essential. Thank you for this poignant, necessary article.
Realizing there is personal suffering in the collective is critical if we are to be of service the next four years.
Thank you, Mirah Curzer.
I greatly appreciate your self care points, but I noticed a few important points absent that I feel are worth mentioning.
“If you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re doing it wrong.” Not necessarily. Do your comments depend upon your audience here on Medium?
I think you are conflating two very different things — suffering inflicted by external forces, and self-inflicted unpleasantness. Of course there’s nothing fun about being assaulted, either at Standing Rock or at the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement. But you’re wrong that there was nothing fun about those protests. The civil rights…
Great article — thank you for addressing the “fun” because my mind immediately went to the Standing Rock protestors being gassed, pepper sprayed and hosed down. It’s important to check our privilege as white women at a mostly white march that we have more of a chance (generally) to enjoy ourselves than those whose bodies are in sincere danger during a protest.
Really loved this. It’s such a simple yet enlightening post. Thanks Mirah!
And if anyone tells you otherwise, don’t let them pressure you into taking on more than you can handle.
I sent some links about Standing Rock to my mum. She’s 93, lives independently and finds it hard to accept that she’s not a front-line activist any more… this is what she sent back:
“It occurred to me that we, in the U.K, ought to be more concerned about the Dakota campaign. After all many of our ancestors could, and probably were, responsible for…
This is really, really great. Thank you.
A quibble: walking isn’t some second-tier consolation-prize exercise for those that aren’t committed to “real” exercise; regular daily walking (even just for your daily errands) is one of the best kinds of exercise you can do for your over all physiological and mental health.
Fair enough. And for the record, walking is the only kind of exercise I personally do on a regular basis.
As an Egyptian, it’s really sad to think all the while as I’m reading your piece that “Oh, I wish that wasn’t the domain we had knowledge in, knowledge to share with another people.” — that of seeing people you really dislike and despise rise to authority, people who pretend to do what’s best for you, or worse yet candidly say they don’t really care…
THANK YOU! I really needed to read an article like this one. Today it feels like the world is falling apart in a million different ways but I can’t do everything. But because I can’t do everything I was already starting to feel like I could not truly contribute much and feel pretty guilty. A signed petition, or an email, a donation, eating at a…
Such wisdom! Thank you so much, Mirah! I will be sharing this with my fellow activists.
I really appreciate this point. I do advocacy work for infertility and adoption and some of my favorite photo’s taken while in DC show is having a good time and laughing. Is it serious? Yes. But having a good time makes the burden of what we are doing so much easier to manage.
I was onboard until that last sentence. That last one, though… it broke my heart.
My mother passed away one month and two days ago. I will never again get to call my mother. And I’m broken. I leaned on her to help me stay sane during this ugly election season, and once Comrade Drumpf was elected. I counted on her to help me…
My condolences for the loss of your mother. I hope her memory continues to be a source of inspiration and comfort.
If you, like me, are one of the 18 million about to lose their health insurance, go to the doctor *now*. Get your annual physical, pap smear, dental cleaning, whatever you can before it gets taken away!
Way true. The 1/21 Women’s March was tons of fun. Everyone was there. The signs were great. The props were creative. I heard a cop say it was awesome.
I was thinking along these same lines on the way into work today. I appreciate your wise recommendations and am sharing on twitter and facebook. It’s going to be a marathon not a sprint.
Find short cuts to your activism too. And I don’t mean turning it into slacktivism. Like my favorite thing to do now is to have my kindle read the Washington Post or New York Times out loud to me while I do things like clean, take a bath, cook a meal, paint my nails, etc. You can even use those tasks as a time limit on how much news-listening you do…
what a FANTASTIC article. I was just asking a good friend for advice yesterday about how to manage my sadness, anger, outrage, frustration, ultimately my impotence. She is someone I admire and respect, has been an activist since the 1960’s and has a heart for the whole world, but somehow seems to stay sane through some really bad stuff. Today she…
I am so worn down and so disheartened that I can barely function. I knew from the beginning of the campaign that Trump was an evil, selfish person and it was enough to make me nearly have a coronary when he won his party’s nomination, but then to fool so many people and win the election, was unbelievable. I have given up on so many friends because of…
That’s wonderful, important work! Keep on doing it — we’re all grateful.
Thank you thank you thank you. Struggling to cope all alone, I needed this.
A much appreciated and excellent reminder.
thank you for this great piece. having worked for human rights organizations, i’d also add this: know that progress is sometimes slow. that’s frustrating because many of these issues are so urgent and we live in an age of instant gratification, but sometimes, positive change takes a long time.