By SooJin Pate
When most people think about love, it is usually a feeling that flows outward towards some person or some thing: “I love my mom,” “I love chocolate,” or “I love my partner.”
This is not the kind of love I think of when I think about the radical possibilities of love. In a society that socializes women (especially Third World women and women of color) to put the needs and desires of everyone else ahead of their own, this kind of love that flows outward can leave those most in need of loving consideration in the dust. Literally. Women of color feminists like Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, and June Jordan point out how the various racist, heterosexist, capitalist, and patriarchal forces that organize our society wreak havoc on the minds, bodies, and souls of women of color and Third World women. Indeed, racism and heterosexism kills. It not only kills dreams, but it also kills bodies.
But there is a salve, an elixir to the poison of the –isms that target our bodies and souls. That healing medicine is self-love. Love, redefined as self-love, has the power to manifest dreams, to heal broken spirits, to rejuvenate fatigued bodies. And when self-love is expressed through self-care, miracles can happen.
Living in a society that constantly marginalizes you, invalidates your experiences and emotions, and fosters insecurity, it becomes an uphill battle to love yourself. Based on the messages that we receive from all corners of society (from politics to economics, from media to schools), we are taught to hate ourselves. To affirm, value, and validate yourself—to love yourself—amidst this daily onslaught of disparaging messages is not only political but also radical. It is radical because you’re not supposed to survive. It is radical because you’re not supposed to exceed the boundaries and limitations that society has set for you. It is radical because you’re not supposed to see self-love and self-care as worthwhile practices.
But when you prioritize your needs, your feelings, and your desires ahead of others, that is precisely what happens: you find yourself worthy and deserving of care. The goodness that you pour to others becomes rerouted inward to your own self. Love turned inward heals the scrapes and wounds you’ve accumulated through daily living. Love turned inward weaves a cocoon of protection, where you can recharge, rejuvenate, and restore. Love turned inward conjures a reservoir where you can tap into your own power and manifest the highest expression of yourself.
So what does this look like? How can you tap into your own power every day? Here are some ideas to keep you grounded in self-love on a daily basis.
How to Take Care of Yourself
At every turn, there are external forces vying for your attention. Living in a media-ridden, technology-driven society, messages from the outside world seek to occupy our minds. In addition, we have voices that are not our own (e.g., family members, friends, intimate partners, strangers, supervisors, etc.), trying to control what we think, how we think, and how to respond to what we think. Oftentimes, their “advice” and “feedback” act as barriers that limit us from achieving our full capacity. Their words of caution or flat out rejection of our ideas form a dam inside us, blocking our ability to dream and imagine otherwise. It is precisely because of these outside forces that usurp our thoughts and feelings that we must affirm and validate ourselves on a daily basis.
Daily affirmations counter the messages that disparage us and cause us to doubt ourselves. These affirmations can be any phrase that empowers you. Sometimes, the simpler the sentiment, the more powerful it is. For example, a friend of mine created this affirmation, “I am loveable.” Another simple yet powerful affirmation: “I am beautiful just the way I am.”
As a women of color professor, I have been “presumed incompetent” by administration, staff, faculty, and students over the years simply because of the body I inhabit. To resist internalizing this message, I created an affirmation to stop the process of internalized oppression in its tracks: “I am worthy of speaking my truth.” Here’s another one I created that helps me endure the daily cuts and bruises from institutional racism and sexism: “I don’t need the system to validate me anymore. I can validate my own self.”
The purpose of daily affirmations is to create a “No Trespassing Zone” in your mind and energy field that blocks out negative messages that harm and sap your spirit. Customize a phrase or saying that speaks to your own particular history, experience, or situation. You know what combination of words will best empower you. So begin writing today.
Every day, we wake up with things to do. Sometimes our to-do list is in our head or written down. Sometimes our to-do list is so engrained in us that we go on autopilot the moment the alarm goes off. We take the time to help other people achieve their goals on a daily basis—whether we are meeting the goals of the company we work for, helping our children meet their educational goals, or fulfilling the expectations that go unspoken within our relationships. We put energy into fulfilling the goals of others all the time. When do you make time for your own goals? Setting daily goals for yourself that center your needs and desires is another act of self-love and self-care.
I have struggled for years with the concept of self-care. When I first heard the phrase, my colonized mind immediately thought, “That’s so selfish!” After realizing that my response was a reflection of my socialization in patriarchy, I began to let the idea of self-care penetrate my mind and body. In so doing, other questions emerged: What is self-care? How do you do it? What makes feel rejuvenated? What helps me get out of my funk? In answering these questions, I began to identify activities that made me feel like I was being cared for. From this list, I created daily goals that have also doubled as my daily affirmations. Here they are:
I take good care of myself by journaling every night.
I take good care of myself by doing daily affirmations—in the morning and at night.
I take good care of myself by identifying ten things I’m proud of and grateful for every day.
I take good care of myself by sticking to these goals.
Since January 1, 2014, I have been doing all four of these things. I haven’t missed a day. Even when I was sick. And I have never felt more grounded or peaceful in my life—despite the fact that I’m about to lose my job in two months with no future prospects in sight. Some days are harder than others. To be sure, after a twelve-hour workday dealing with institutional racism, the last thing I want to do at 11:30 p.m. is journal and make a list of ten things I’m proud of and grateful for. But I do. And here’s why. On the days when I feel especially tired and down, I pull out my magic trick. Here it is:
I envision driving home on a raining night. I see a child standing in the middle of the road, all alone and shivering from the wet cold. Do I stop and help the child? Or do I swerve around the child and drive by? If I don’t journal and make that gratitude/pride list and go through my nightly affirmations, I am leaving that child alone in the rain. If I do those things, then I am scooping up that child and taking care of her. I haven’t abandoned her yet. And in so doing, I haven’t abandoned myself.
This mental trick works like a charm because I created a scenario in which I could never drive by that child and, thus, not take care of myself.
So make a specific goal for yourself. The keyword here is specific. It’s not effective to say, “I’m going to take care of myself,” or “I’m going to exercise.” Be specific about when, how, and how often. Also, it’s more empowering to frame the goal in a positive way; begin with “I am…” rather than “I am not…” For example, “I am not going to eat sugar today” could be rephrased into “I am going to eat whole foods at every meal.” Then after you write down your goal(s), create a mental trick that will keep you on track in times of fatigue, depression, guilt, or sadness. You need to plan for a “bad” day because you will have one. So be proactive and create a mind game that you can access on those days you feel down. Conjure up a situation in which the only choice you can make is to take care of yourself. Only you know what that scenario is, so customize the scene to maximize its effectiveness in pulling at your heartstrings.
Practice Empowering Interpretations
Because the various –isms in our society have led to oppressive conditions for historically marginalized communities, it is easy to let painful circumstances and events determine our attitudes and beliefs about each other, ourselves, and our lives. While there are many things that we cannot control, what we can control is our interpretations of and responses to the daily assaults of life.
But first, we need to distinguish fact from fiction. According to personal transformation expert Debbie Ford, facts are events observed from the perspective of an outsider; it is observation without judgment. Fiction is the story we create about the fact. And oftentimes, the story we create reflects unresolved emotions from our past (e.g., pain, fear, hurt, guilt, etc.). Here’s an example from my own life.
Fact: I have been unable to secure a permanent academic position as a professor.
Fiction: Rejection. The story of my life. Why am I constantly rejected? I guess I’m not as smart as I think I am. I am such a failure.
This is the fiction that I’ve been carrying with me for nearly six years. Given this story, you can imagine the shame I have suffered, year after year, applying to academic jobs to no avail. Unfortunately, this fiction is also the story that many unemployed or underemployed Ph.D.s tell themselves. I know that I’m not the only one suffering in this job market, but this fact doesn’t make me feel any better.
What did make me feel better was transforming my fiction into an empowering interpretation. Rather than allowing my fiction to determine my reality, I created an empowering reinterpretation of the fact. Ford recommends that you create three new interpretations of whatever seemingly negative event you are experiencing. Then choose the one that best lifts away the heaviness. Going through this exercise, I chose this new interpretation:
Empowering Interpretation: You thought the Ph.D. was about getting a tenure-track job and being a professor for the rest of your life. You thought wrong. The skills you acquired are actually for something that is more significant and rewarding than an academic life can offer.
This new empowering interpretation has become a daily affirmation I tell myself twice a day. And this interpretation is why I feel at peace about my impending unemployment. It gives me the strength I need to get through each day, hopeful about what the future will hold. I have no idea what will come after May, but if I continue to do my work (to take care of myself, to love myself despite my circumstances), I know that I will be OK. And it is this knowledge that makes me feel secure rather than fearful of the unknown.
Reinterpreting seemingly negative events and experiences into something positive and empowering is an act of self-love we can access every day. We can choose to have either disempowering or empowering interpretations of life events. If we choose the empowering interpretation, we give ourselves the gift of validation, acceptance, generosity, and hope. If we choose the disempowering interpretation, we feed ourselves shame, insecurity, fear, and despair—which can lead to abusing our selves and others.
When we choose to reinterpret painful or difficult events into something that is empowering, we are able to access peace in moments of discord and stability in times of instability. Empowering interpretations have the power to make you feel grounded when you feel the ground shifting beneath your feet. Empowering interpretations have the power to make you feel like everything will be OK when your present circumstances suggest otherwise.
So take a moment to identify a situation that is sucking the life out of you. Then answer these two questions: What is the fact of that situation? What is the story (fiction) that you have created around that fact? Now create three statements that reinterpret that situation into something empowering. Reflect on the three statements and choose the one that makes you feel most empowered. Write this statement on a post-it and mediate on it at least twice a day until it becomes intuitive in your body and soul.
It is powerful to know that your circumstances don’t have to define you. We can determine how we perceive the various things that happen to us in a day. You don’t have to be controlled by the various forces that try to diminish or destroy your quality of life. Rather, you can define your own self and the circumstances you experience by taking control of how you interpret the daily events of life. You might find that in doing so, what appeared like the worst thing could very well be the thing that will lead you to the highest expression of yourself. After all, in creating our own interpretations, we are able to construct our own reality.
Let me be blunt. Our world does not love you or me: our world does not love women of color, immigrants of color, indigenous peoples, queer folks, trans* folks, the disabled and old. Our world doesn’t love those who exceed the normative categories of race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, age, or ability. Given this reality, it’s imperative that you practice self-love on a daily basis.
And so, I invite you to reconsider love as self-love. Think about all the ways in which you support, value, and give of your time to others. How would your life be different if you turned that energy onto yourself? Make yourself the target of loving care today and every day. And witness the transformative, healing, and magical power of self-love and self-care.
SooJin Pate is a writer and educator who is dedicated to praxis that centers the lives and experiences of historically marginalized peoples. Since receiving her Ph.D. in American Studies, she has taught courses on critical race theory, multi-ethnic American literature, and U.S. history and culture at various colleges and universities in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. She is the author of From Orphan to Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption (University of Minnesota Press, 2014). Her writings on African American literature and Korean adoptee film and literature have appeared in academic journals and edited volumes. Her most recent article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, where she discussed her decision to leave academe. She is currently working on a book that explores issues of mothering and raising a nonwhite daughter in a white supremacist society.
A portion of this article was originally published as part of a larger story in The Mac Weekly, Macalester College’s independent student newspaper. http://themacweekly.com/2014/02/bringing-sexy-mac-the-radical-politics-of-self-love/