“How do I deal with all the horrible things going on?”
This is a question I am asked a lot.
What exactly does that mean? Well, stop for a minute and consider what comes through your Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds. New engagements, new baby pictures, someone has a new job, someone is relocating, in addition to tons of articles and videos about #blacklivesmatter, #oscarssowhite, lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, Syrian refugee crisis, tampon taxes, no indictment in murder of Tamar Rice, more #islamaphobia, another death cause by excessive police force, and outrage over Making A Murderer.
The list could go on and on but the point is: This country and our world is a very troubling place and it has become more apparent than ever before.
Social Media is BOOMING!
Did you know that approximately 70 out of 100 people who live in North America access the internet? There are more than three billion internet users worldwide, which is almost three times more than there was in 2005. The internet has undoubtedly become the pinnacle of communication for millions of people. Let’s be honest: the internet is amazing! Because of the internet, we are able to communicate with friends and family from all over the world. We can learn about new trends in places we’ve never even seen. We are able to access more information than our brains could ever handle. The world is literally in the palms of our hands every single day.
However, with the increased access to information, and more visibility of the world around us, we are also realizing that maybe the world is not as comfortable as we once assumed. More so than ever before, it is easy to access videos of violent deaths, and horrible traumas. Because of the wealth of knowledge that surrounds us, there are thousands of articles, blogs, and podcasts that thoroughly articulate concepts such as cultural appropriation, White privilege, institutional oppression, economic disparity, gentrification, colorism, and microaggressions. These pieces of information are stimulating and fascinating, especially for those of us who identify as allies, and social activists who hope to make a change in the world. At the same time, this information is intrusive, overwhelming, anxiety-provoking, agitating, and downright depressing.
Remember how I mentioned that the internet is literally everywhere? Well, because of that, everyone is vulnerable to some of the negative impacts of continuous internet access. I imagine that this is something that no one anticipated before the internet existed, or even prior to the internet reaching its peak. Now, fatigue and distress surrounding the visibility of social injustices in the media is becoming more common. If you are suffering, you are not alone.
When I say that you are not alone, trust me, you are not alone. I have to be honest and say, part of me enjoys (don’t judge me) when I have people ask me about this very topic, because it also reminds me that I am not alone. The distress of social injustices began to have a significant impact on me at the time Trayvon Martin was murdered. For whatever reason, his death took a huge toll on me and I started to become angry. By the time that George Zimmerman was acquitted of charges associated with Trayvon’s death in 2013, I was living in Oakland, California and worked on the same block of the BART station that Oscar Grant had been killed just four years prior. In my eyes, racial injustice was everywhere and I had become hypervigilant of my surroundings, the people around me, and how people treated me. I was reading and Facebook sharing every article I could get my hands on about racism, oppression, police brutality, etc. I felt it was my responsibility to be aware of every single event, killing, and act of injustice that occurred.
I began to learn so much, and even had become known as the one who was the most informed of culture and social injustice amongst my friends and colleagues. I enjoyed learning new information, and really enjoyed sharing it with others. It was very important for me to know that I was informed and able to inform other people of what was happening in the world around us. However, at the same time, I was silently falling apart. Over the next year or so, it became difficult for me to focus at work, I had trouble building new relationships with other people outside of my culture, and I did not feel safe in my world. I felt incredibly isolated, overwhelmed, restless, and I constantly asked myself, “How can I make a difference?” I never felt as if I was doing enough, and started to feel guilty about even considering the idea of taking a “break” from the injustices of the world.
Steps Toward Self-Care.
While the intake of information regarding social injustice was intellectually stimulating and activated my passions for social justice, I quickly became depleted and exhausted. I had not set boundaries for myself, I had little awareness of what triggered me, I had not yet learned how to fuel my passions in more adaptive ways, I made little time for joyous moments in my life, and I neglected my spiritual well-being. It was as awful as it sounds, but luckily, I have learned a lot since 2012 and have begun to make some changes.
The most valuable lesson I have learned is that self-care is essential. You know the saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” or when flight attendants urge us to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others? It all sounds cliché, but it’s all very true. How much are you able to give to others when you are absolutely depleted? How can you possibly make a change in the world if you are not energized and nurtured? What impact will you have on the world if you are angry, anxious, depressed, and full of resentment?
Gradually, I understood that I was not making the impact I had hoped for, but instead may have inadvertently spread anger, fear, and resentment. A turning point in my life came when I began to internalize the ideas of Howard Thurman, as he said, “Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” With that, my focus shifted from what I felt was lacking in the world around me, to what I felt was lacking within myself. It wasn’t long before I changed my eating habits, began practicing yoga, started a meditation practice, and read tons of inspirational books, with the purpose of improving my own mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. I was beginning to replenish my cup and it felt good.
"What should I do?" Using Identity Salience.
First I want to make sure everyone knows that I am not advocating for you all to start juicing, going to yoga, and meditating every day. That is what my process involved, but your process could (and maybe should) be a lot different. Second, there is a formula to understanding the tips I am about to suggest, and I hope it is not too complicated. The formula involves identity salience, and how to use the salience of our identities to find the best approach to our self-care. Here’s an example:
I identify as many things: I am Black. I am a woman. I am a young adult. I am extremely spiritual, but I do not identify with any one religion. I am heterosexual. I am upper-middle class. I am able-bodied. I am American. However, most days, if I were asked to quickly sum up my identity in a few words, I am a Black woman. That is not all that I am, but it encompasses my most salient identities. As we know, being a Black person in American is often synonymous with experiences of oppression and of being part of a minority group. The same can be said for being a woman. Therefore, much of my identity is linked to my experiences and perception of oppression, lack of privilege, and feeling like a minority.
On the other hand, I cannot deny that I am a part of many privileged groups. I identify as being heterosexual, able-bodied, upper-middle class, and I am American. Therefore, those parts of my identity are mostly linked to experiences of privilege, dominance, and lack of awareness of individuals who do not belong in my group.
What I have learned is that different parts of me are triggered by different stimuli within my social and digital world. This also means that different parts of me need different approaches to self-care. However, no matter the salience of your identity, there are steps you can take to reduce or alleviate your social media fatigue.
Self-care for Oppressed Groups.
1. Take a break from social media!
What it took me awhile to realize was that my force feeding news and articles about the injustices of our society did not really enhance my knowledge of what was happening. It just reinforced my own experiences of oppression that I had felt and been well aware of for most of my life. So no wonder it causes immense anxiety, anger, and agitation. It’s somewhat like continually opening a wound that wants to heal. It slows the healing process and can be painful.
But beware, guilt well follow and come in the form of thoughts such as “…but I need to know what is going on,” or “I need to help others know what is happening.” Trust me. You know what is going on, and so do we. Allow yourself to take a break.
2. Take care of yourself.
Allow the healing process to begin. Oppression and its negative effects can gradually take its tool. It’s normal to want to fight these experiences but it’s also very necessary to make sure that your mind and body are healing from these various assaults and daily microaggressions.
So take the time to figure out what makes you feel good! Is it a good book? Maybe spending time with friends. Maybe it could be enjoying really good food or finding time for more naps. Whatever it is, do it and commit to doing it every single day.
3. Internalize one important belief.
As I mentioned previously, shifting one’s perspective from what one can give to the world to what one can give to oneself, is life altering. While there is no problem with wanting to give of yourself to make a better world for others, there is something insanely reassuring about knowing that I can also do that simply from taking the best care of myself and doing what makes me happy. It is rare to know individuals who are truly living, rather than existing. It is a gift and one of the utmost pleasures to be able to come alive in a world full of troubles.
So remember, “Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman.
4. Live your best life!
Once you make self-care a priority, and begin to live a life that makes you feel whole and complete, life will begin to feel pretty good. The goal is to stay in this moment, and to continue to live the best life you possibly can, despite the circumstances of your environment. This may not feel possible every day, but it should always be the ultimate goal. You may be surprised at how much simply taking care of yourself and living your life fully will encourage and inspire others to do the exact same thing, which is exactly what the world needs most.
Self-care for Privileged Groups.
1. Take a break from social media!
Ironically, this is also the first step toward self-care for members of oppressed groups, but this is important for you as well. You may believe that you need to take in this information to understand what is going on in this world, but it actually may just be causing more anxiety, hopelessness, guilt, and shame. It’s likely time for you to step back, to ensure you are truly ready to take in such demanding information.
2. Cope with feelings of guilt and shame.
Something that is not so often talked about but that is extremely common is the experience guilt and shame when you are a member of a privileged group. The guilt and shame that comes from knowing that you are benefiting from having certain things or characteristics is unsettling. It’s even more unsettling to understand that people who do not have these things and characteristics seem to be suffering because of it, while you are able to live and not even think about them.
Yes, it is tempting to avoid talking about these benefits (also known as privileges), and to ignore these horrible feelings, but it is not a healthy way to cope. Pushing this away will only exaggerate your feelings and could cause reactionary actions that you do not anticipate, such as finding reasons for why you “deserve” such privileges, or reasons for why “those people” don’t have them. These reasons (mainly excuses) make us feel more comfortable, but are false and will continue to perpetuate negative beliefs and stereotypes about both privileged and oppressed groups.
Coping with guilt, shame, and other uncomfortable feelings associated with being a part of a privileged group is one of the very first steps to becoming a whole person. It is absolutely possible to make a positive change toward reducing social injustice while being part of a privileged group, but it is not possible without completing this step first.
3. Set limits and boundaries around your education.
For some people, learning about social injustice from social media is a great way to expand their knowledge about what is happening in their world. For others, it can feel aggressive, overbearing, intrusive, and anxiety-provoking. This can also lead to resentment and horrible denial. If this is the case for you, it is a good idea to set limits and boundaries around the education you choose. Yes, it is very important to provide yourself with education about the realities of the world and lives of other people, but there are very many ways to do this. Make your education process fit your own curiosities and lifestyle. Choose a topic you want to learn more about, then determine the speed at which you will consume this information. Once you feel comfortable, begin to challenge yourself with other topics that may be slightly out of your comfort zone, but remember to pace yourself.
4. Ask questions.
With learning new things, there will always be a time when we do not completely understand the material. When that time comes, do not be afraid to ask questions. If you have friends, family, or loved ones who are members of oppressed groups, I encourage you to share your process with them and ask if they are comfortable with your questions. Be open, honest, and transparent about your process and you will be surprised at the positive response may will receive.
5. Share your process with family and friends.
Similar to the previous step, I encourage you to continue to share you process with the people you care about, especially those who are members of privileged groups. This will help you continue to grow and because a more whole individual. You will begin to build stronger connections and relationships with people you may have felt isolated and disconnected from previously. You will also be able to lead by example, encouraging and inspiring others to challenge themselves as you have done through your process. You will soon begin to notice your growth and see that continued growth is possible and worthwhile.
Good luck on your journey! More questions? Let me know!
Dr. Amber Thornton
Clinical psychologist with a passion for family, community, culture, and diversity.