Self-care after experiencing harm
How to take care of yourself after incidents of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of harm.
Here in America, we live in a culture that teaches us that certain people are better than others. This dangerous idea allows the perpetuation of violence and harm against groups labeled "inferior" and offers little accountability for those causing the harm.
These belief systems of superiority based on race, sex, class, gender expression, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and body type have become institutionalized; they are the water that we swim in, the air we breathe. What do we do as fish who want to have a great time the ocean that we do not control and minimize harm to future fish like us?
1. Stay safe. Keep away from sharks. Swim together in a big school of fish. Do what you need to do as often as you need to do it to stay safe. Learn the places where and people with whom there is explicit safety and love and where you can feel safe. Maximize your time spent in these places and with these people. In any opportunity you have in your life, minimize contact with people who hurt you actively and without interest in meaningful change. People who harm you do not deserve your energy (though this is much easier said than done).
2. Get support. Research shows that the response someone has to us after we experience a harmful or traumatizing event has more impact than the event itself. Reach out to anyone who will respond by validating your experience (as opposed to questioning you or immediately offering explanations). If you don't know who to talk to, you can find people who have experienced similar things sharing stories online or on social media and this can validate you're experience. When you have experienced a type of harm that society has normalized, you will likely already be experiencing self-doubt, disbelief, and self-blame, because this is what you were taught to do in a society that believes you have little to no worth. You may tell yourself you're "blowing things out of proportion" or "you're too sensitive." This is toxic messaging that keeps you falsely believing that it's your fault someone assaulted or harmed you. It's not your fault.
3. Assess the situation. Being a fish is not so easy, and while some may suggest that taking action after being harmed is straightforward, many of us know this is not always the case. In each case, you are allowed to assess what it is you want to do, if anything. You do not owe anyone anything: a conversation, an awareness check, or a continued relationship. If the situation happened socially, you can decide whether to ever see that person again, if you want to bring it up with them, or have someone speak with them who may be able to get through to them. If it comes up at work, you get to decide whether it serves you best to stay quiet, bring it up, seek justice in the work setting, or leave your job. A great resource for more information is https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008235628/slay-in-your-lane/ - which describes the complexity of these choices and how to support and love yourself through the experience.
4. Continue to validate your experience. Taught to believe that experiences of oppression are "all in our head," it can take a lifetime of validation to internalize a different belief system. Find friends, therapists, groups, books, and social media accounts that continue to remind you that your experience is real, valid, was harmful, and is not your fault. It is not your job to stay and convince anyone that what you went through is real, but you need validation or you will lose your mind. It is your responsibility to create a life that honors you wherever and whenever possible. You must stand up for yourself in your own mind, even if you decide not to stand up to someone externally in a specific situation.
5. Let go of changing the other person. People who suffer from high levels of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and other false beliefs based on internalized superiority and great fear must seek their own healing. Just because they hurt you does not mean they will change. Just because you told them or showed them it hurt you does not mean they will change. You get to find a beautiful, fulfilling life whether or not people decide to change and heal. This does not mean you don't get to stand up for yourself, speak your truth, or do what is right for you. It does mean that you deserve to build a community of loving and supportive people who have your back, believe you, hold you in esteem, and give you a soft place to land.
6. It's okay to take a break. We get to take care of ourselves. Taking care of yourself in a society that diminishes you is a revolutionary act. So is speaking up and fighting for justice. So is deconstructing your own internalized attitudes of superiority. These, and many more, are all ways to disrupt a broken, harmful system. For those of us who are sensitive to seeing violence and harm, who experience it frequently personally or communally, it can be difficult to feel the right to pause, breathe, and practice self-care. It can be easy to feel that there is a war raging and every moment must be a battle for our self-worth. However, depending on our personal wounds, what we are healing, and our current capacity, we may need a different constellation of revolutionary acts. One day it might be reading about racism or transphobia to increase awareness and lessen the harm we perpetuate. Another day, it may be telling your boss about an incident of workplace harassment (or if you're the boss, believing and taking the side of the person who was harmed). And another day, it may be taking your body to soak in warm water, stretching it, receiving hugs and food from those who love you, and going to bed early. We get to be joyful even in a dark world. We get to take care of ourselves even as we fight the good fight.
7. Allow for your own evolution. It is okay to change. How can you prioritize yourself in a world that devalues you? Who can you surround yourself with who will give you encouragement, light, self-confidence, and love. What can you learn or practice that will help you release toxicity that is not yours? Where can you be kinder to yourself? Where can you shed light on your blind spots? How will you honor your experience?
You are so loved. You are so valued. You are so worthy. There are infinite ways to heal - find what works for you. I hope this post has inspired more self-love and allows you to shine your light even brighter.