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Self-Care for #BlackLivesMatter Activists!

Bedford Palmer
Sep 23, 2015 · 4 min read

Recently having written a piece on mental health and mindfulness for Black men “A New Way to Manage Stress” -HealthyBlackMen.Org, I wanted to also reach out an overlapping community, that means a great deal to me.

As the ‪#BlackLivesMatter‪ movement gains momentum, it is important that everyone who is putting themselves on the line do their best to take care of themselves. The movement is about justice, however I do not see the need for the selflessness of activist to become acts of martyrdom. My hope is that everyone will be able to see the promise land, which means that activists need to pay attention, not only to their safety out in the streets, but also to our physical and mental well-being as a whole.

Specifically, lets look at a prerequisite of activism. People take action when they are motivated by emotion. And when we talk about promoting social change from the position of the oppressed, then the emotion that we are usually speaking of is anger. This anger can be experienced as guilt, shame, sadness, pain, confusion, or tension. It can push us towards anxiety or depression, reduce our ability to control our reactions, and even cause us to spin out of control.

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That said, anger also motivates movement. It can push us to act in ways that inspire individuals to put righteousness before self-interest. Anger can be a powerful tool for any activist, yet like any tool, one must be deft in one’s ability to wield anger, or risks being cut down by one’s own initiative. Therefore we must acknowledge the need for anger, but not let it degrade our mental and physical health. In order to find this balance, we must learn to be mindful.

Anger can be described as an emotional reaction to our perception of the world around us. We become angry when we believe that a transgression should not have happened, or that something proper was prevented from happening (Averill, 1983). The only real way to rid our selves of anger is to change the reality that is inspiring the anger, or to change the way that you see and understand that reality.

As an activist, the act of becoming conscious removes the option to pretend that injustice is not present. It disallows the closing of one’s eyes to oppression, which leaves us with only the choice of inaction and the likelihood that our constructive anger will turn unto itself and become a destructive bitterness. Alternately, we can work to change our reality. For social justice advocates this means that we must endeavor to change systems and institutions in order to promote a more socially just environment.

Yet as we engage in the struggle against oppression, we are likely to find ourselves in the bind of living with perpetual ‪anger based on the reality that we cannot change the world all at once. In fact the very nature of the the struggle is that it is an ongoing movement, not a finite moment. And that the people who take on the responsibility of activism must be ready to weather this emotional storm, while remaining connected to their fellow activist, communities, and allies.

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Gorski (2015) explained that he found that activists are susceptible to burnout, yet are able to remain effective through attention to self-care. With this in mind, I propose that activists must be tenacious in their dedication to self-care and supporting their folks. We must understand that just as Black Lives Matter is an inclusive affirmation of the fundamental value of Black lives, it also must be adhered to in the nurturing and protection of the health and well-being of our own Black bodies.

Here are some tips for ‪self care in activism:

  1. Maintain you relationships with family and friends. Social support is Key.
  2. Work off tension, anger, & depression with exercise. It also helps to keep your mind focused on the present.
  3. Celebrate your victories! Keep a list of the things that make you proud to be you.
  4. Practice ‪mindfulness. Take time to meditate, breath, stretch, and just be still (Gorski, 2015).
  5. Talk to an affirming Counselor or Therapist. Working through ‪trauma is hard to do alone.


Averill, J. R. (1983). Studies on anger and aggression: Implications for theories of emotion. American Psychologist, 38(11), 1145–1160. doi:10.1037/0003–066X.38.11.1145

Gorski, P. C. (2015). Relieving burnout and the ‘martyr syndrome’ among social justice education activists: The implications and effects of mindfulness. The Urban Review, doi:10.1007/s11256–015–0330–0

Copyright 2015 Bedford E. F. Palmer II, Ph. D.

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