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.
Enter problem solving. In this context, the worry was telling me that I needed to do something in this situation, so I looked at some options of practical things I could do, quietly chose some to engage in, and that was that. And sure, it might not be the “right” thing depending on who you ask, but it also isn’t nothing.
3. Realize that you can’t put 100% of your energy into something 100% of the time.
Even the best athletes in the world need rest days, which actually help their performance more than anything. Singers need to rest their vocal cords. Chefs order take-out sometimes. The point is, if we gave 100% of our energy to the things we cared about 100% of the time, we’d go mad.
Not only that, but there’s a line between passionate and being unhealthy. Orthorexia is a good example of this: you can be someone who cares about what you eat, loves all things related to health and wellness and learning about nutrition, but go too far with this and you’ve developed an eating disorder characterized by limiting food groups, avoiding social gatherings, feeling shame and guilt regularly, and more.
If you're passionate about being an ally or advocate, that’s a beautiful thing. But become obsessive and you’ll likely find yourself in the realm of self-awareness paralysis again, which as we’ve learned is a high-cost, low-reward habit. Stop. Breathe. Go back to problem-solving. Remind yourself that you also might need a rest day–and that’s okay.
4. Progress, not perfection.
We humans have a tendency to engage in all-or-nothing thinking—we have to give 100% of our effort or none at all. However, research tells us that this is highly ineffective. Take dieting: countless articles have shown that severe calorie restriction doesn’t work in the long run and that you’re actually more likely to end up heavier than when you started.
All-or-nothing thinking usually involves setting some kind of unrealistically high standard for yourself, inevitably failing to meet said standard, feeling like a failure, becoming discouraged and unmotivated, and ultimately concluding, “Screw it, I shouldn't have even bothered.” It will be the case with this, too, if you aren’t careful.
So, notice if you’re taking an all-or-nothing approach and instead, opt for making doable, sustainable changes that fit your lifestyle. Forget about if they’re the “right” changes or if you’re “doing” enough. Just do it.
5. Remember that big changes take time.
One of my patients put summarized this perfectly in our session the other day. They said, “You know, I was walking through the drugstore recently and saw that they carried a line of cruelty-free makeup products, which never would have been available a few years ago.” It was in this moment that they remembered: change takes time.
You can spend 24 hours writing letters to local politicians but you won’t wake up tomorrow in a world that isn’t racist. Sad, appalling, enraging, horrific, disheartening, overwhelming, awful… but true. I’m not saying to stop doing practical things to help, but remember that these things simply take time.
A helpful question to get in the habit of asking yourself is, “What is one small thing I can do today to help this cause?” And maybe make that ‘small thing’ something that you haven’t tried before. Don’t just post a black square with a hashtag; do something different and more hands-on. Donate. Volunteer. Read if that’s what that ‘small thing’ looks like that day. Just do one small, different thing.
The Bottom Line
If there’s one thing I hope you’ll take from today, it’s that being an ally or advocate is an incredibly important thing, but we mustn’t forget the importance of boundaries, even emotional ones. While we can all play our part, we can’t ignore or fight the unfortunate obstacles in our path, including time. I don’t say this to be pessimistic or defeatist, I say it to give you permission to take care of yourself even amidst the most troubling times. "Cutting yourself slack" is not synonymous with avoiding the topic, doing nothing, and or staying silent, it’s about reminding you of the old cliché: control what you can and forget the rest. You are one person. You can still live your life AND be a strong ally; you don't have to pick one. Really don't know where to start? Here's a great graphic about how to be anti-racist, shared by one of my fellow peers from my master's program:
I’m fully aware that this post may rub many people the wrong way. I’m also aware that as I’ve stated throughout, it is from a place of privilege that I’m even able to take the time to reflect on this issue and talk about how to have boundaries around it. But I felt like in not posting this, I was engaging in the very habits I’ve been telling my patients to avoid. Not posting this felt like doing nothing and staying silent to me. Not posting this felt like staying in self-awareness paralysis, over-analyzing how appropriate or inappropriate this post was to the point of not writing anything at all.
As always, I welcome your comments and thoughts below. Whether this resonated with you, offended you, or left you feeling completely neutral, I’m all ears.
If you or someone you know could benefit from individual, couples, or family therapy or nutritional counselling, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to book an appointment online, in Markham, or in Vaughan.