Updated: Jun 9, 2020
Full disclosure: I’ve been going back and forth about if I should share today’s post or not for about a week now. I recognize that as a white woman living in Canada, I inherently hold a high degree of privilege, which makes it difficult to know whether or not it’s appropriate for me to talk about anything remotely related to race or #blacklivesmatter.
That said, I couldn’t help but notice that practically every single person I work with said something along the following lines in my office last week: “I want to play my part in promoting racial equality, but feel like I'm going insane.” Many people went on to tell me that they’ve been experiencing panic attacks, failing to get any sleep, feeling disgusted with themselves, frantically spending hours researching books about racism, and more in light of what’s been happening in the world. One thing is clear: we’re (very understandably) feeling shaken to our core.
There’s no doubt in my mind that someone reading this has smoke coming out of their ears right about now thinking to themselves, “You poor white folks. How awful that we’re making you feel uncomfortable! I’m sorry, is this too hard for you? How lucky you are to enter and exit these conversations whenever you please!”
Point taken. As I wrote in a recent Instagram post, one of the most (often unacknowledged) privileges I have as a Canadian white woman is being able to step in and out of conversations about race whenever I please. People of colour don’t have the luxury of choosing to “not think about race” because their virtual survival may depend on them being hyper-aware of it at all times.
It’s also worth noting that as a mental health practitioner, I love discomfort—and most of my work revolves around helping people become comfortable with being uncomfortable or moving towards discomfort as this is usually what inspires growth. I know from personal experience as well that being uncomfortable about this topic is precisely what caused me to grow so much in this domain. While I know I still have work to do, it was only through moments of intense, depressing, overwhelming self-reflection that I learned about my privilege in the first place.
What I'm referring to in this post isn’t just discomfort; it’s intense feelings of shame, severe symptoms of anxiety, and more. Trust me when I say that many of us have left the world of “discomfort” and entered a new one that’s chipping away at our mental health, which was already on shaky freakin’ ground.
So, right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, the therapist in me can’t help but feel concerned about about the severe symptoms I’ve been hearing about and simply want to help however I can. Without further ado, here are some tips on how to take care of yourself while also staying informed.
Remember the “Airplane Rule.”
Flight attendants share the following reminder before every departure: “Should we find ourselves in an emergency situation, you must put on your own oxygen mask before assisting anyone else.” Whether you’re sitting next to your partner, your child, your grandparent, or a stranger, you have to put on your own oxygen mask first. The reason for this is that if every single person tended to someone else in these situations, none of us would be equipped to handle the emergency at all. This is an important metaphor for life in general, but in this context the point is: you can’t be a strong ally if you’re an absolute mess. You can’t have important conversations about racism and inequality if you’ve lost so much sleep that you’re unable to function. No matter the cause, we have to take care of our mind, body, and spirit first, period. Doing so doesn’t “make you a bad person,” it’s your God-given right to do this as a human being.
People can easily quip that “not everyone has the luxury to do this” and unfortunately, this is true. When you’re afraid for your life, the idea of “putting on your oxygen mask” might seem like an absolute joke. I'm reminded of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which asserts that needs lower on the hierarchy—including physiological and safety needs—must be met before we can focus on those higher up on the ladder, like belongingness, love, esteem, and self-actualization. In other words, if you’re worried about your day-to-day safety, conversations about “self-care” are irrelevant.
That said, the harsh reality is that we will never live in a world where everyone’s needs are met no matter how hard we try. And as horrific as this reality is, the solution is not to deny yourself of your needs out of shame. No. This will not do any good whatsoever. You denying yourself of your needs doesn’t mean another person’s will be met; the world isn’t as formulaic as we sometimes wish it were.
The point is, regardless of your circumstances, it is your responsibility to take care of yourself in whatever ways you can in your specific context.
2. Recognize the difference between worrying and problem-solving.
The ironic thing about worry is that it often feels productive. When we think about something from every angle we can, over-analyze a situation, or ask ourselves thousands of “what if” questions, it can feel constructive. It’s not. I describe worrying as an extremely high-cost yet low-reward habit. It costs you time and emotional energy without doing a damn thing.
I’ll use myself as an example. Here is an accurate portrayal of my thought process during a car ride last week:
Man, I feel so awful about what’s happening in the world right now… I wonder what it says about me that I feel awful… is this what they mean by ‘white guilt’? I guess I shouldn’t feel so guilty but I also want to do something about this… But is it right for me to help? Isn’t that what they call a ‘Hero Complex,’ where white people feel like racial minorities need them to ‘swoop in’ to take care of things for them? Damn, I don’t want to be that person either… I guess I can just sit back and know I’m not in a place to talk about this topic, but aren’t I being silent then and therefore part of the problem?
This is what I call self-awareness paralysis, where you are so self-aware (and aware of your self-awareness) that you become paralyzed. So when I say that worrying or over-analyzing is a high-cost, low-reward habit, this is what I'm talking about! That thought process left me feeling so confused, overwhelmed, and crappy yet nothing good came out of it.