Because of their passion and devotion to their respective causes, activists have a common conception as tireless martyrs. Yet, even the best among them have days where they struggle, as their burden is so heavy. As they say, “no person an island.” With that in mind, it becomes paramount for even activists to take a step back from their long crusade.
Self-Care for Activists was an attempt to address these issues of burden and fatigue. A collaboration between UC Santa Barbara’s Campus Advocacy, Resource and Education office and the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, it was a conceived of as one of many complementary programs for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Yesenia Vega, Prevention Education Coordinator of CARE and Idalia Gomez, the Rape Crisis Center’s Program Director were there to lead the meeting.
The session opened with the coordinators asking the audience what self-help was. Self-help is “making sure you have a lot of time to do what you want to do … to not be overworked and still leave time for yourself,” one student ventured.
Self-care is administering to all of of one’s needs, whether they are mental, physical, and emotional. According to Vega, “we live in a society that values production and workaholicism.” The same expectations apply to activists. Self-help is knowledge of a person’s needs, especially of their limits. Go too far, and there is the risk of burnout.
Therefore, an essential part of self-care is taking the time to step down. As Gomez explained to the group, a difficult part of this process is the feeling of guilt, as if one is running away from the obligations that they have to their friends and coworkers. She was clear that there is a difference between making a calculated decision to step back and allow one’s body to heal and to run away.
Therefore, another important aspect of self-care is the necessity of strong support networks. Gomez reminded those present that “not everyone can be everywhere for you.” Nobody has perfect insight into what they see and do, so deeper understanding and sage counsel are hard to come by. Therefore, she advised the activists to not be disappointed when there is a perceived lack of support from traditional networks such as family and friends. They simply lack the knowledge and insight to adequately meet an activist’s emotional needs.
That is why, according to Vega, the best thing to do is to find “people who are ready to hear what you have to share.” The simple act of communicating one’s doubts is far more than just saying a few words. It allows one to reflect upon their troubles and to share the burden. Gomez likened this assumption of sole ownership of one’s problems to the perception of martyrdom.
“Yes, we can be there for the community, but we also have to be there for ourselves,” Gomez said.
The marks of activist work are deep with something they termed “vicarious trauma.” Vicarious traumas are the lingering effects associated with especially traumatic and difficult experiences. To call it secondhand would be to understate its importance. Because of the close relationship and the emotional investiture that activists have with their causes, they can find themselves surrounded by the very oppression which their cause seeks to remove. Therefore, they feel the effects just as sharply, as well as the added burden of having to come up with tangible solutions to fighting those traumas.
Towards the event’s closing, Vega introduced what she called “non-dominant hand” therapy as a way of exorcising one’s demons, so to speak. Pioneered by Lucia Capacchione, an art therapist and author, the exercise requires that the subject use their non-dominant hand to draw an undirected image of themselves when they were younger.
“How is the experience,” asked Vega. “Do you berate or criticize your inner child? Or enjoy the experience?” It’s a way to focus not only on a return to the past, but what is important and puts one’s mind at ease.