Lately, I’ve been reminded of the need to “go inward” in many ways and on many levels. By “going inward”, I mean clearing the noise, being with oneself, self-reflecting.
When women are given opportunities to share deep, personal stories, I’m always struck by how emotional these storytellings are (evidence, I believe, that we are all in need of opportunities to “go inward” and authentically connect with others). In a recent WILL meeting, student leaders expressed these stories and identified their core, personal values. It was so moving! So powerful. And yet, for many a very uncomfortable act. Talking about ourselves is seen as “selfish”, “self-centered”. So, on one hand there is a deep need to be present with ourselves and share this “self” in relationship with others; on the other hand, we have learned that doing so is somehow unacceptable. Here, feminism’s central claim that the “personal is political” begs the question: why?
Nearly a year ago, I was coming off of a very difficult year at work and feeling completely drained. I felt resentful and bitter at those I loved for needing me, sucking my energy, not appreciating me. I hated that feeling–it wasn’t me. And that was the problem–I had disappeared. So, I decided to make a change. I was familiar with all the wise sayings and clichés: “Be the change you want to see in the world”, “It starts with yourself”, “You have to love yourself to love another”. Shoot, my research even focuses on the theoretical and real connections between individual, organizational, and community wellness. This was not a new idea for me. But never before had I experienced this urgency to self-care. Something had to change. I wasn’t happy. I needed to “go inward”. I vowed to fight for myself. And I honestly have, everyday. Sometimes that means going for a run, sometimes that means having a glass of wine in front of the television. The point is, I make an effort to know what I need.
Indeed, this is precisely what research tells us. Change really does begin with the individual. How can a tortured soul engage an other in a mutually loving, respectful way? If a person is not whole, it’s impossible to hold and exercise power in a way that will disrupt dominant, oppressive power structures. We see this play out all the time, in interpersonal relationships, in various leadership roles. This holds true despite all good intentions. If we’re hurting, then we hurt. Honest and disciplined self-reflection are necessary to avoid repeating patterns of subordination and oppression. This self-reflection requires a dedication to self, knowledge of self, forgiveness of self, and ultimately, love of self. There’s no getting around it. We gotta be self-centered.
The same holds true for any entity–self, family, organization, community. We must ‘go inward”, find time to silence the noise and reflect on our practice, together. Be honest with one another about how true we are staying to our values. Be with ourselves. Organizational development, social psychology, community mental health counseling have been theorizing this for years. “Go inward”, organizations–create communities of practice; conduct participatory and reflective processes. And yet, this is so counter-cultural, it goes against the grain of both external demands and internalized norms of “business”. Based on the values that ground feminisms–shared power, participatory processes, critical analyses, to name a few–one would think that feminist entities might be better at practicing this “going inward”. Of course, feminists practice self-care, right?
There’s nothing more heartbreaking than to make assumptions of shared values, shared vision and then to learn that actually, there was very little “sharing” of anything. Even (and often) feminist organizing can repeat and reinforce oppressive power structures. As a feminist, I work very hard to “walk the talk” and I screw up–all the time. The other day, I realized that I hadn’t been including one of my colleagues in conversations I was having directly involving her work. Recently, as campus activism was crescendoing around a particular issue that I thought might get “messy”, I failed to empower one of my colleagues with information in the name of “protecting her”. That was bullshit. I was scared. In both those instances, fear drove me to hold tight to my power. In doing so, I disempowered others. I screwed up.
The “whys” are complicated and many: external demands and deeply entrenched existing systems of operations. However, much of this is internal, a result of self-neglect–individually, organizationally, communally. After all, we are all shaped by our context. We ingest and spit out this context, in turn shaping it. Why the resistance to “go inward”, to self-care? Because doing so disrupts the status quo, it challenges existing power structures. The noise is silenced and we can, for a moment, be real and authentic. If we can find the courage to do so, this act can be transformational because then, as shapers of context, we can truly transform our world.
Self-care is uncomfortable because it’s revolutionary.