How To Balance Activism and Self-Care, According To A Wellness Coach

Yasmine Cheyenne is well-versed in the realm of what she calls “doing your work” — self-care sans the hashtags and the face masks. It’s the art of practicing sustainable methods of self-help and self-exploration in pursuit of personal wellbeing. Through the use of workbooks, online seminars, Skillshare courses, and an all new podcast, Yasmine teaches her broad, devoted community about accessing wellness in the long term. And right now, for folks all over the country, that version of balance can feel more difficult to maintain than ever before.

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On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic (the spread of which took a disproportionately high toll on Black Americans) and the senseless killing of George Floyd, among so many others, the Black Lives Matter movement has achieved prominence in a new way. For over a month, protestors across the country have taken to the streets to push for the defunding of police departments, racial justice, and overall support of Black lives. Those who aren’t showing up in person are donating at home, using social media to amplify their voices, organizing and rallying friends, and having difficult conversations in their circles and at their workplaces. And while the glean of that activism is immensely powerful, it’s highly possible that, in the meanwhile, many of us are forgetting to take care of ourselves. In Yasmine’s parlance, doing the work doesn’t mean you need to stop doing your work. 

“We want this to be more than a trend,” says Yasmine. “This is about the preservation of Black life. And we have to think about it as a marathon and not a sprint. If we’re going to make long term change here — if we’re going to make this bigger than a fleeting moment — we need to approach it wisely. We need to rest, eat, take care of ourselves, find ways of showing up that make the most sense for us.”

So, as we commit to continuing the fight for justice, we sat down with Yasmine to learn how best to balance self-care and activism. Here’s what she had to say:

There are so many different ways to be an activist right now. How do you choose where to put your energy? 

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“We have to remember that all forms of activism are essential to the movement. There are going to be people who are needed to protest. There are going to be people, like myself, who are needed to help heal because so many people, Black people in particular, will need to find ways of countering or handling the trauma they’re facing. There are people who are needed to organize. Someone has to make the spreadsheets and send the emails. That’s an essential piece of activism. Then there are the people who are writing the books that we’re all learning from. Every single one of these pieces is necessary. Art is important right now, photography is important. 

“So I tend to advise my community to think about what they already do well, and what they’ll naturally bring to the table. If I can rally my community of online followers to donate money, that’s big. If you’re an artist and you’re making fliers, that’s big. If you’re a photographer, and you’re helping share images on social media, that’s big. We all have these personal skills, so rather than trying to find the right way to show up, we should all be looking at the best ways we, personally, can show up.

“Also, specifically for non-Black people, one of the most important forms of activism right now is just being in your community, talking about this —  advocating for Black people and people of color at your job, and with your friends and family. I’m not saying anyone should stop showing up at marches, or donating, or organizing online, but having those tough conversations within your own family and friends and places of employment is a major way to begin to really change the conversation about Black lives from the ground up.”

Even while we’re each contributing in our own unique ways, social media can often make us feel like we’re not doing enough. Is there a healthy way to cope with or combat that narrative?

“If you’re putting in work but you don’t feel like you’re doing enough, it’s often because you’re spending too much time comparing yourself to others. Of course, it’s hard to feel like you're doing as much as you can when you’re seeing protestors everywhere and thinking about how much they’re putting on the line – not only their lives with regard to the cops, but also their health relative to COVID-19. But I often remind myself that, while a 21 year old can go out and protest, it’s less safe for me and some of the people in my community. So I’ll organize in my business and in my own individual community. 

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“Become curious about whether you’re actually not doing enough, or if you're just comparing yourself to other people. Like with anything else, you’ll always find people who are doing things that you'll talk yourself into believing are more impactful than what you're doing. But rather than ask yourself if you’re doing more than everyone else, ask yourself if what you’re doing is impactful in its own right. A lot of people feel like activism has to look like marching. But we need every piece of talent or gift that every person has to help get this movement forward.”

What does “taking care of ourselves” look like right now?

“Making time for rest. I like being on social media and it’s where I reach a lot of my audience, but sometimes, it’s important to just log off. The things that we’re ingesting are traumatic. There is no other way around it. We’re watching people be attacked, abused, killed. These are traumatic things that we’re witnessing, whether we’re white or Black. 

“We all need to be keeping up with the news, but every now and then, we should be taking a moment to do something to bring us joy. Especially for Black people, finding time for joy is important. We don’t always have to be in the fight. We can take time to rest and to take care of ourselves, too.”

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How do you make space for yourself when you feel like you do need to take a step back?

“Because I’m a Black woman, I feel like I’m almost always having conversations about race. This has always been important to me, as is the case for many Black people, but right now it's become a new conversation for many non-Black people. One of the foundations of my work is setting boundaries. I have learned to put rules in place that govern how I allow people to interact with me and how I allow people to have access to me and my energy, and my time, and my space. When we’re talking about anti-racism work, of course Black people want to talk to non-Black friends and family and colleagues about what they’re experiencing, but it’s important to give yourself a break. 

“Every time we have to explain traumatic experiences, or every time we’re asked “what’s it been like for you?” we open the door for experiencing re-traumatization, even when the questions are well-intentioned. The asking of the question in itself is a dissociative experience because it highlights the fact that this person hasn’t been aware of something you’ve been experiencing every day for your whole life. It can be really hard to deal with.

“Yes, we’re in a movement, and yes we want to teach, we want to help, but also, we have to take time to detach ourselves and just say ‘no’. A lot of this stuff is Google-able. It’s in documentaries. The Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s as we know it has never stopped for Black people. So recognizing that if you’re new to the table, asking people to share their experiences while processing grief isn’t always the best idea. And as a Black person, knowing that you can give yourself permission to say ‘no’ is really life-giving." 

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How do you seek out joy right now? 

“This is a particularly interesting question right now because we’re in the midst of a pandemic. Normally, you’d go out with your friends or go see music to feel joy. But, while those things aren’t totally available, it’s important to remember that joy can be found in every place in life. Make time to go outside and get sunshine. 

“When you’re experiencing collective grief like this it’s really important to go back to the basics. We don't need to set these crazy new goals for ourselves. We don’t have to say joy looks like cooking an elaborate meal if we’re not naturally cooks. We don’t have to learn to play the violin. Ask yourself, what are the things that make you laugh on a regular basis? Is it comedy specials? Calling a friend? Make time to be curious with yourself. What do I need today? I think we often think that joy should look one way. Maybe joy is going to feel a little muted these days. Maybe it won’t feel especially ecstatic or hilarious. Joy can look different and feel different especially with collective grief. Making space for joy to just be what it is, is really important and healthy for our self-healing journeys.

“For me, personally, I've been spending more time reading than I normally would during the summer.  Typically, my internal narrative here might be like, I should be doing something else. But these days, instead, it’s switched to: I get to read. What a lucky thing. I feel fortunate to have time for that. That kind of gratitude is really valuable to me in my self-healing journey."

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Gratitude is so hard to feel when 2020 has been such a tough year. How do you access your own gratitude? 

“A big refrain for me during this time has been reminding myself to pay attention to the small things that I do have access to right now.  I give myself space to express how I feel, I don't mute my feelings, but I also try to remember how thankful I am for what I do every day.  This time has also made me grateful for the realization that a lot of what I was doing wasn't working and now I can try and move forward in ways that do feel good in all areas of my life."

As a writer, how have you been using your work as a means of self-care right now?

“I write professionally every day. So when I’m writing just for me, I have to reframe what writing looks like and have a bit more fun. Whether I'm typing on a computer, or writing in the notes on my phone, or even recording a voice note, I allow myself to get my thoughts out in whatever medium feels best to me. It doesn’t have to be seated at a desk with a pen and paper. If there’s a lot on my mind that I want to say, maybe I’ll use my voice notes section and I'll use that to "journal" instead of feeling frustrated with myself because I don’t want to write right now. And I’ve learned to let that be okay. 

“Also, when you write professionally, the side of your brain that wants to perfect something will come out when you’re supposed to be self-care journaling. So I often do things beforehand to set the mood. I’m not a big meditater, but I will ground myself and say, this is time for me, just for me. For lack of a better phrase, I set the atmosphere that this is not writing time for a professional matter. This is for me to connect to myself and that’s what we’re going to do. Which means I’m only going to do it for as long as I want to do it and for as long as it feels good, with no rules. And that kind of releases the pressure for there to be some kind of deliverable at the end — it just is what it is.“ 

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How do you make time to connect with or support your audience?

“They’re technically an audience but I call them a community because some of these people have been in contact with me for years. I know them and what they’re going through. I’ve met them in person. They’ve come to retreats. I’m one of those people who talk to them in my DMs. If they send me a question I’ll respond. It’s really important to me to keep that in-touchness. 

“When you’re dealing with healing work and people are being really vulnerable, you want them to feel like they can rely on you. Even in the Skillshare classes I teach, I’m very involved with the things people are sharing, because it takes a lot to share. I try to be as supportive as I can digitally. But I have boundaries around it, too. 

“With thousands of people in my online community, I have to give myself a limit. When I make a post, I know I'm going to get a certain amount of comments within a certain amount of time so I tell myself I’m going to be online for 15 minutes and any comments or questions I get in that time I’ll answer to the best of my ability. Then after that, I have to move on to the next project. And sometimes, while I’m off, I notice the community members will jump in and offer advice or anecdotes to one another, which can be really beautiful to see. They’ll be like, I’m experiencing that too. Here's what I did. 

“Sure, in some cases, social media — Instagram in particular — can feel really toxic. But it’s only as toxic as you allow it to be on your feed. Who are you following? What are they talking about? What kinds of people do you allow in your community? 

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What about overall fatigue? What’s your balm? 

“When people tell me they’re feeling fatigued, I give them my sugar jar reference. We all have a sugar jar, and the jar represents us, and we have sugar in our jars, which represents our energy and our time.  If we use our sugar for too many different things, it's harder for us to keep our jars full. If we use our energy for every single thing that comes our way, we will become depleted, then we won’t be able to focus on anything. You can support all Black lives, and donate. You can protest. You can organize. But you need to be strategic. You can’t deplete all of your energy at once. When we spread ourselves really thin by trying to help everyone, we often leave nothing for ourselves. We all need a little self-care.

“It’s important to be as intentional as possible about what you say yes to. When we try to do everything at once, it often leads to burnout (rendering our sugar jars empty). Instead, we can slow down, and ask ourselves what we actually have time and energy for. That way we can show up for ourselves and the things we really care about.”

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