Self-care as social change

Sarah Longbottom, Executive Director, Ngä Rangatahi Toa

I believe that truly, madly, deeply caring for yourself is a mark of human evolution; it is how we shed our skin to become refined and better versions of ourselves, and effectively contribute to the lives of others. For inclusive and transformative leaders, self-care is not something you do so you can keep on working. Self-care is the work. The love, kindness and compassion manifested in caring for yourself will permeate the chinks in the armour of the status quo, resulting in the true and sustainable change we seek.

Sarah Longbottom
Photo: Dan Eriksen

The disciplined work of self-care is more than just ‘knowing what fills your tank’, although this is the place we may start. Truly caring for yourself requires you to relentlessly lift the veil on the matrix of social reality, and back yourself to go against the grain of conditioning. While we all stand on the shoulders of giants – those who have taken up arms against the oppressor and who have made great sacrifices – to sustain societal change at the core level of humanity we must let go of the strategies and reactions we have relied on to get us this far, for they won’t take us any further. As leaders, we must learn to unlearn, and understand that to create a conscious and awake world, we must first be conscious and awake ourselves. We must lean in to the ebb and flow of existence, not resist what is. At a transformational level, the work of self-care must become more than something we ‘do’ to armour up and go back out into the battlefield to fight for what we believe in. It must be something we intentionally become so that the battlefield itself transforms. We can elevate the micro practices of self to a macro evolution of society by embodying self-care at an intrinsic level, being vigilant in following the breadcrumbs back to where the stories we tell ourselves are first written, and holding space for all others to do the same.

Self-care is a practice and you do get better at it but it does not mean re-making yourself into an image of perfection, it simply means you accept what is and stop being at war with yourself. Self-care means being able to let go of self-loathing and love yourself, especially when you have hurt someone. Self-care means being able to sit with shame and be kind to yourself, especially when you’re jealous, angry and mean. Self-care means being able to quiet the busy mind and have compassion for yourself on those days you are so far down the rabbit hole you can’t think of one good thing you’ve ever done in your life. Self-care is about not battling against your chaos, but instead working to lessen its impact by accepting and loving all parts of yourself, even those parts you may vehemently wish were different. Self-care is the condition that will evolve us out of the mire of the human soup to where we can be of most service to others, for as we accept ourselves, we accept others. As we show ourselves love, kindness and compassion we are able to extend this wholeheartedly to all others, arriving at the place of joy and interconnectedness where suffering finds no ammunition. This viral antidote to the malaise of modern life is mos def a crackin new normal I can get with.

Herald Theatre Group
Photo: Dan Eriksen

From a perspective of social change, I am particularly into this ‘new normal’ that practising self-care can gateways us into. Like many excellent humans I know and love, I am attuned to the dangerous narcosis of that which is ‘normal’. While traditionally ‘normal’ may bore and confound those who are committed to innovation and change we now need to wake up to the fact that normal is not the humdrum anymore; hidden behind the white picket fence, normal has devolved into the outrageous and the inhuman. Normal is a growing underclass in New Zealand. Normal is a family of seven living in a car. Normal is the amazing young people we work with being statistically more likely to go to prison than to University. I recognise normality as a collective insanity that robs us of our ability to connect, empathise and be human. I also recognise that standing on the same old battlefield, passionately fighting the same old fight, does not lesson this insanity, it feeds it. Cultivating an internal equilibrium that enables you to not react from your place of chaos but instead stand witness from your place of peace breaks the cycle of perpetual resistance, making the first crucial step in evolving out of this state of madness.

The new normal we need has its genesis in self-care, which requires us to practice radical acceptance of all parts of ourselves and be our own best friend rather than our own worst enemy. It requires us to embrace the against-the-grain process of showing up and being seen, disarming our shame, fear and self-loathing with love, kindness and compassion. The pith of the power of self-care as social change lies in the fact that each of us is a microcosm of the world – everyday battles waged in an internal chaos manifest the battles of insanity that are waged in the world. As we learn to lay down the weapons we have been conditioned to wield against ourselves and others our new normal becomes one of acceptance and profound love for the world. As peculiar as it may sound, as we accept ourselves we accept that many live in poverty in New Zealand. We accept that a car may also be a coveted form of shelter, and that there are slippery pipelines to prison in the communities we serve. This acceptance is not resignation or passivity, it is a process of change and evolution and it is from here that we can take considered action.

Herald Theatre Opening Night Todd and Yvonne
Photo: Dan Eriksen

When we choose to work on and evolve ourselves we are choosing to embody the fierce grace that will evolve the world. For leaders who imagine other ways of seeing and being self-care is an incubator for change and the best example we can set. Taking a deep dive into the marrow of our own existence strips away the armour of conditioning and story. Our new normal is born from this place of self-care. It is an armistice for all of our battles that when embraced and shared will change our world on a cellular level.