Do you ever come across terms like “self-care” or “holding space”, and wonder what that’s supposed to mean? I first encountered it among a group of young women who were rather passionately (if not at times aggressively) defying harmful behaviours of local men’s rights “activists”. We had all come together to organise around pro-lifers whose presence across the street from an abortion clinic had gone on far too long in our minds—especially when more than one of them started spouting shit to women in the community, like “well if you’re dressed like that, you deserve to be raped.” We found out early on that taking the time to make our presence felt on that corner took a lot out of us, and naturally, probably due to our general age at the time, some of our default coping mechanisms were boozey drinks after the fact. Then came the men’s rights “activists”, whose presence was felt more immediately harmful and possibly dangerous. A community meeting was called, and some plans were set in place to address them. Nothing was offered in terms of what we all need to do to continue caring for ourselves, or how important this is to continue to do.
And yet somehow, at least some of us knew that there was something we needed to do for ourselves and for each other in the case of community members who were unable (or unwilling) to do these things for themselves. At first, I personally thought that what we needed to do as a community was foster that sense of community by having social gatherings that weren’t centered around protest or activism. We could just go together to a cafe or someone’s backyard and enjoy some down time together with some food involved. I didn’t know what to call this at the time. I just knew people need to eat to survive, and it seemed like a good idea at the time to do it together rather than alone. I found a couple people I could go do this with, and it was great, or at least it was great until alcohol became involved and then the inevitable importing of consent problems, boundary issues rooted in codependent behaviours, and critical violations of personal safety and space soon followed. That was the summer I decided never to pick up alcohol again.
And then as the perceived threat morphed once again from one pro-life group to men’s rights “activists” to what was apparently another pro-life group (as if they aren’t all given the same training by the same organisation in this country), the term “self-care” started getting bandied about. “As a part of my self-care, I can’t look at this website,” for instance, or “I need to do some self-care and thought maybe you, too, would appreciate this page called ‘calming manatee’.”
“Self-care,” I thought to myself, “is the name of the Thing I’ve been trying to identify in words.” Up until I had the name of this Thing in mind, it felt like fumbling around in the dark in a strange room, the dimensions of which I do not know, with my eyes closed, just trying to feel my way around for a light switch. Now I had the name of what I’m doing and encouraging other people to do. But why is it that I’m trying to get together to have a meal, and other people are just satisfied sitting in some room by themselves and clicking on an endless stream of cute pictures on tumblr blogs? Was I being too pushy, trying to gather members of the community to have a more enriched sense of each other outside of a crisis situation (which at times escalated into very imminent violence)? While everyone scattered back to their various private spaces to scroll through whatever put their mind at ease, I took the long walk alone to return to mine and shower all the sunblock and strangers’ spit (yes, that’s a Thing) off of my body and my clothes, and then put some food in me. I had no idea how important this was until someone threatened to stop me from doing it.
It’s now been a couple of years, a fountain of personal crises in my corner of the world, and I’ve transformed a lot within the spectrum of my own experiences over a relatively short span of time. And self-care is one of the things I have learned a lot about. To me, self-care is the intentional act of looking after yourself. It’s about grounding yourself in your own body, especially following events that have taken you outside of your body, or required you to disconnect from yourself to be of service to other people or to function at all through a system of social barriers while you work towards something for yourself — such as when I had to deal with victims’ services on several occasions relating to the man who attempted to murder me in my own home at the time, or when RCMP sat me down and interviewed me again about one of their own whom I had the misfortune of knowing a little too well).
Self-care is a return to addressing your primary needs, such as your hygiene and your metabolic needs. It’s drinking a glass of cold water or a cup of hot tea, eating a meal that genuinely nourishes your body (whether or not you made it yourself is not as important as whether or not it actually feeds you), taking the time to have a shower or a bath, and cleaning up your laundry.
If you’re a trans person and using hormones, maintaining your injection schedule might be part of your self-care, too, as it is mine. If you have medications to manage a metabolic disorder or a psychiatric condition or even chronic pain, making sure you are taking your medication on time each day (especially while you are leaving your home to engage in work that pushes you to disconnect with your own body) is part of caring for yourself. If you have other medical conditions that require you to do certain kinds of exercise or treat a part of your body with a salve or lotion, then making sure you are still doing that is self-care too. Even making sure you’re getting enough sleep is self-care.
And if, like me, you are a trans person who has faced a great deal of social barriers in recent years, not limited to but including trauma and homelessness, then picking a day to file your back taxes to qualify for much-needed tax rebate back payments that you have been going without is an act of self-care. Committing to finally getting your name legally changed (and dividing up the steps required into several consecutive business days that are sacrificed entirely to the completion of those steps, one at a time, and nothing else) is an act of self-care. If your fridge and cupboards are looking a little sparse, then taking yourself to the grocery store and bringing home a few daily necessities is an act of self-care. If you’re still walking around every day in the same clothes a year later, having spent all your savings to accomplish the incredible feat of changing your legal name this year, then taking those tax rebate back payments and buying a few new pieces of clothing while it’s on clearance is an act of self-care. Or knitting, crocheting, or sewing them yourself.
It seems, by my individual observations, a lot of people are conflating the idea of self-care with the idea of holding space, or even with real talk. Holding space for oneself, or for someone else, or sitting down for some real talk with someone who (often by virtue of shared experience) won’t automatically attempt to derail your lived experiences, are all just as important as self-care, but these aren’t all the same things. When you’re holding space for yourself (as we all need to do) or someone else (as we can’t all necessarily do), you’re giving yourself or someone else a judgement-free space to just exist. Maybe you will use that space to look at videos of baby turtles having the belly of their shells scrubbed with a toothbrush—I don’t know, and it’s not my place to judge how you use that time. Maybe I will use that time, when I give it to myself, to weave something I’ve dreamed of, and then burst into tears while I’m all alone for a complex variety of reasons that I may or may not choose to share with someone else at a later time (if and when they are able to hold space for me to do so). Maybe when I hold space for someone else, they’ll ask me to do things for them like wash their laundry or their dishes. Or maybe we’ll watch a movie. Or maybe none of these things, because maybe what they need from me at the time is to just be left alone and me not take it personally.
Ultimately, that’s all about holding space. And sometimes you’re holding space for yourself to do much needed self-care, or you’re holding space for someone else to allow them to do the same. And sometimes, holding space has literally nothing to do with self-care. Sometimes, it even has to do with real talk—where two or more people who experience the same social barriers just speak their minds without the filters they usually stifle themselves with just to navigate their relationships with those people who don’t experience the same barriers. Real talk is what makes trans and queer spaces different from spaces where trans people and queers are merely included or welcomed. It’s what makes spaces for people of colour feel palpably different from spaces where people of colour are welcome, but so are white people. It’s what makes women’s spaces different from all other spaces. In all these places created and maintained for the safety of the people who need them, occasions may arise where someone who the space was not created for will enter it — and this is when they will learn, if they haven’t already, the importance of holding space for people other than themselves. Because if they don’t, they won’t stick around very long.
All of these skills are important for all people to develop, for it is the absence of these skills that is felt first between people on opposite ends of an unequal relationship. Do your self-care so that you can be the best person you have to offer your loved ones and your friends. Learn to hold space for yourself so that you know when and how to ask for someone to do it for you when you need that from them—or even how to judge whether or not they can give that to you in your moment of need. Learn to hold space for people other than yourself so that you are prepared to do that when you sense that someone around you is in need of that, or so that you can better define your boundaries when you aren’t able or willing to do that for someone else. And perhaps most of all, learn not to take it personally when you see how someone you love very much is just able to connect very quickly and very deeply to someone other than you in a different way. There is no threat to your relationship with them simply because they have that time for real talk with someone else. And finally, learn how important it is to separate these ideas in our heads and our conversations, and maintain these distinctions between them. It’s important to be able to talk about these concepts using the right language, because our language informs our perceptions of it, and even our ability to perceive it at all.