On bell hooks, Therapy, and Self-Care: Choosing Yourself by Choosing Community

By Raiyah Butt

Artwork by @marinaestercastaldo


“Whether we learn how to love ourselves and others will depend on the presence of a loving environment. Self love cannot flourish in isolation.”

Those are words from the late, great bell hooks in All About Love: New Visions, one of my favourite books. When I first read it, I was amazed at how eloquently she talks about love. She views love as a radical praxis both to yourself and to others, the “willingness to nurture one’s own or another’s spiritual growth through acts of care, respect, knowing and assuming responsibility.” When I heard of her recent passing, I remembered these words and how transformative it was for me to read about how society fails to provide us a proper model for loving, but that I have the power to rectify that within myself and my external relationships.


Back in the spring when I was having therapy, I came up with this fun analogy to help my therapist understand my state of being. I told her that my depression feels like quicksand, the more you struggle to try and get out, the more violent it gets, the more it pulls you in. So I just stopped trying to get out and let myself sink. Dark, I know, but I was weirdly proud of my own awareness. Months later after processing, learning, and redirecting my focus onto solutions that do create a loving environment, I’ve found myself coping better than I have all year. And that’s despite the fact that winter always announces itself with a big fat dose of Seasonal Affective Disorder on top of my existing problems, because now the sun sets at 4 pm and I get such little sunlight I could be cast in a Twilight reboot (Team Edward, of course).


Now I’ve always been aware of my poor self-love and low self-esteem, it’s pretty common for people with depression. It’s evident in the way I view myself, my relationships, my achievements or (in my head), my lack of. But the pandemic had immeasurable impacts on it, taking it to a new low that I didn’t even know existed. I know I’m not the only one. If you google “pandemic’s impact on mental health” there are already numerous scholarly articles and reports by academics, mental health charities and health organisations reporting how the two years have led to increased levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Not just in the UK where I live, but across the world. Unfortunately, depression has never come with a “How To” guide with a section on “what to do during a global pandemic”. And the worst part is we’re still living through it, it hasn’t ended and it doesn’t look like it will any time soon.


So I started reading other books to aid my mental health. In the past I’ve rejected self-help books, thinking that they’re all airy-fairy b*llshit that tells you to “just do better!”. But since changing my mindset, I’ve found them to be a tool to work on my ability and willingness to love and to heal. This, for me, is a lifelong commitment to myself, or as a therapist once said to me, “the best act of self-care”.


There it is, the thing you can’t avoid in mental health conversations.

Self-care has a very wide definition and nowadays, it can mean anything from reading a book, to putting on a facemask, to quitting your job. Its once meaningful lessons grounded in radical theory have snowballed into the Self Care Industrial Complex, championed by the carefully-curated aesthetics of Instagram influencers and the beauty brand that wants you to buy the aforementioned face mask.


In an article for Refinery29, Kathleen Newman-Bremang traces the roots of self-care back to radical Black feminist scholar Audre Lorde, who wrote about self-care in her 1988 essay collection A Burst of Light. Lorde states that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Newman-Bremang stipulates (and rightly so) that this sentiment about self-care encompasses the aspect of class and race, both of which Lorde routinely analysed. Newman-Bremang shares how frustrating it is for Black people especially to be told to “take care of yourself” under the constant threat of state violence. For her, self-care is inextricably tied to community care; to nurture your community, politically, socially and within your relationships, because they will nurture you back when government institutions fail said communities.


I love that article for a number of reasons, but mainly because how well it navigates this conundrum that many of us find ourselves in. Whilst both Lorde and Newman-Bremang speak in the context of the experiences faced by Black people, I found their arguments resonate with the adversities faced by myself and the wider communities I consider myself a part of. Like how in the UK, South Asians were two to three times more likely to die from COVID-19. Feeling that added risk to myself and my neighbours living in a heavily South Asian area of East London, but not knowing how to mitigate it when many South Asians work in occupations that have greater exposure and higher chances of COVID-19 fatalities. Or the toll on those in India and the sub-continent (and the Diaspora around the world) during the deadly second-wave in May this year, when the government failed at implementing measures to reduce the spread and deal with the completely overwhelmed healthcare systems. Or students who were under immense pressure but had zero support from any institution and were left fending for themselves whilst universities and landlords took them for every last penny. How do you tell people going through that to take care of themselves? Or when so many people have been plunged into depression after losing their job, but so many others have been overexploited and overworked? Or if you’re like me, your existing mental health condition got dramatically worse, and each day of uncertainty pulled you further into the quicksand. How can you even begin to think about self-care or managing mental health problems?


Recently I saw an advert on TV for We Are Feel, with British singer Cheryl as the poster girl for health, clear skin and a good life. “Self-care starts here!” she says. Cue a montage of her getting her hair blow-dried by three people, and sitting on top of a yoga ball in a meditation pose. “Namaste”, she says as she winks at the camera, and I’ve never cringed so hard. We wrote previously about the Cult of Positivity, and how it’s white-washed many South Asian cultural traditions and language for the monetary benefit of anyone but the people to whom these traditions belong to. A hardly relevant celebrity with far more money than I’ll probably ever have telling me that the solution is to take vitamins (that now have her branding on the packaging) is really the epitome of all this.


The ultimate point is that you can’t slap a self-care sticker onto structural issues that have direct consequences to both our physical and mental health. And that’s why investing in your community is important, because that’s who is left when the government’s policies aren’t protecting you in the pandemic, you’re burnt out but you don’t have the means to take time off work, or you have a long-term mental health condition that needs help and support. Capitalism encourages individualism precisely because communities working together are harder to break down than individuals who are taught to just “fend for themselves”. Individualistic methods of self-care promote overindulgent consumerism and isolation, feeding right into capitalism’s jaws.


I’m not perfect, of course. I still struggle with it, and I’m not saying that you can never ever indulge. Instead of putting the work in, sometimes I get guilted into “buy this thing!” or the Netflix algorithm putting my comfort show at the top of the home page. But when I think about it, when I really think about it, those aren’t long term solutions. They’re quick fixes that only help me feel better for a few hours and sustain the conditions which make me feel this way in the first place. You’ll inevitably see that tagline that always comes up when talking about self-love or self-care - to choose yourself. That can mean many things in many different contexts. But in this one, it's worth considering how to incorporate solutions that involve the people around you, because when you choose a community, you are choosing yourself.


“Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion”, hooks said, and this year has proved that more than ever.

So going into 2022, try and think about the ways in which you can involve yourself in community-oriented solutions. Something that I took away from Newman-Bremang’s article is that she believes it’s about “looking around and making sure your life is sustainable and your people are protected as much as possible”. It’s asking yourself how you can alleviate the harm done to those around you by the system that keeps us overworked, exhausted, and unable to prioritise our health and well-being (unless you have copious amounts of money to spare).


And that doesn’t have to be big, it can be looking out for your friends and family who are your closest community. Since I moved back home after finishing university, my friends and I schedule a date every few weeks for a get-together, so for someone like me who’s typically struggled in isolation, I now have something to look forward to already set. And for my friends too, who are working way more hours than they should be, or dealing with everything that comes with being a mother, or struggling with the impacts that COVID has had on our lives, that friendship and solace is provided for one another.


Each week at the local Saturday market, there is a Pakistani food vendor that I’ve befriended. I enjoy inhaling the familiar smell of spices that cuts through the cold air, and seeing him smile as he recognises me and says hello. I remember the first time I came across his stall, and he said “there aren’t many Pakistanis around here, so take the food for free”, despite my customary objections. The irreplaceable sense of kinship and hospitality of our culture has been felt ever since, and an interaction I hope he looks forward to as much as I do. Visiting his stall has become a form of comfort for me when I’ve been too depressed to make proper meals for myself, or I miss being near my grandparents whose biggest delight is to make sure I’m well fed.


Or if you’re unable to do things psychically, you can access the benefits of online communities. Despite all its flaws, social media can be a great way to share resources, connect with people, and get involved in community spaces, something that proved useful for us at The Lipstick Politico and our South Asian community during the COVID waves that affected so many.


This doesn’t mean totally abandoning everything you do for yourself, of course not, you can’t totally rely on others and you have to have a sense of responsibility for your well being. Last one, I promise, but hooks starts the chapter on communal love with a quote from Parker Palmer: “Only as we are in communion with ourselves can we find community with others.” I carry that with me on my journey of self-love and self-care. Making sure your life is sustainable is to make lifestyle choices that are as healthy and beneficial to you as you can. But to do that as well as nurturing the bonds with those around you, bettering each other’s conditions, helping each other grow and overcome the challenges we face. That gives me some hope that the next year will be a little bit easier than what we’ve already endured.

 

About the author

Raiyah is an International Relations graduate and one of TLP’s writers and editors. Follow her on Instagram @raiyah.blog


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