Self Care, Community Care: Grounding, Meaning-Making, and Moving Through
Parenting in this world is tragic.
So many of us are in a state of daily fight or flight, witnessing or experiencing constant traumatic situations and being given no moment of reprieve or reflection.
People ask me, “How are you doing, really?” and I keep finding myself saying, “If I felt like we were out of the woods, I would feel much safer to feel, break down, or grieve; but we are just in the trenches and have to keep going.”
Existing and parenting in this space of internal compartmentalization and external decohering is more than a lot.
I know I am not alone in feeling immense guilt for bringing children into this world. I know I am not alone in feeling a huge weight of responsibility. I know I am not alone in searching for a way forward.
In the vastness of questions and paucity of answers, what I do know is that connection and collective meaning-making are a way to keep going.
GRAPPLING WITH OUR COLLECTIVE INABILITY TO ANSWER “IS THE WORLD AN OKAY PLACE?” IN THE AFFIRMATIVE
It’s tricky to be a therapist while being a fellow traveler navigating the exact same mindfuckery, decoherence, and trauma as everybody else. In understanding for myself where we are, I have been reflecting on the developmental questions we were trained to ask in therapy. When someone is on a journey through trauma or grief, they are asked questions that guide an understanding of their growth: Who am I, really? Is it ok that I exist? Can I take up space?
In grad school, therapists-in-training were taught to assume pathology when people would have trouble with the developmental question, “Is the world an ok place?” For example, if someone was navigating grief after their father passed away, their initial understanding might be that the world is not an okay place without their dad here. But eventually they would answer, “Well, the sun seems to continue to rise each day, and the world is going about its business, so yes, the world is ok without my dad here; but I am not fine.”
But today, the world really is not ok. It’s not pathological or of an anxiety disorder. The world—specifically our American situation that is capitalism at all costs, system decoherence and breakdown, and unstable structures—is not something that most of us are secure within.
This doesn’t stop the status quo of the world from sustaining as though everything is all fine. Gaslighting is being mirrored to us. We’re met with the message, “Don’t look behind the curtain. You’re the one who’s not fine.” We’re told that we should still be able to answer in the affirmative and just go on, business as usual.
But it’s actually pathological in a way to be in denial about structures and systems decohering.
And it’s also true that under the gaslighting perpetrated by the status quo, we are expected to take care of ourselves and our families, strive for career goals, and plan for the future as though the guarantees we had been sold in decades past were, or are, an attainable part of reality. It is dysregulating to try to invest in a decoherent tomorrow. But we do, in fact, have to get to tomorrow. So how do we move forward within decoherence?
“CHOP WOOD, CARRY WATER” WHILE EMOTIONALLY RAW
Compartmentalization is a coping strategy, not a way of life. But compartmentalization is also often one of the few ways to continue onward while navigating stacking traumas and receiving no breaks to process or rest. While we’re experiencing decoherence, we still have piles of laundry, kids to nourish, relationships to tend to, and work to be done. We’re still chopping wood and carrying water.
So how do we allow ourselves to still feel the contours of our raw emotion, or break down and grieve in structured spaces when we need to, knowing that we’re not out of the woods? How do we go on? We can’t stay numb or panicked or despondent forever.
My answer is a question: how do you do this in a way that makes meaning for you, your community, or both? (The secret is, it’s usually both.)
For me, focusing on being fully present as I approach the day, in a way that mutes everything outside of what is right in front of me—waking up and reflecting on my work, tucking my kid into bed, engaging with a group chat with fellow travelers—is incredibly grounding. It’s not a way out (there isn’t a way out, right now), but it’s surely a way through.
Giving yourself dependable opportunities to ground and be present allows you the chance to feel emotional wholeness—even when compartmentalizing the spectrum of what you are feeling.
RELYING ON YOUR MANNER OF MEANING-MAKING
It’s easy to feel small in this world.
When we have so much access, right through our phone, to so many of the world’s happenings—so much tragedy and so much opportunity—it’s very easy to get overwhelmed and paralyzed in the face of the ratio of “me-to-world.” Then, we neglect the very important things that are right in front of us.
It can be helpful to consider: you are you. There are ways that you engage with the world that are unique and that allow you to create unique meaning.
For me, my activism—my work (as in my job) and my work (as in my understanding of where I can help create meaning)—is service. It is holding people in their process, helping them to be seen and known. It is something I am offering of—and to—myself every week.
You have your own version of this: it’s the place from which you both derive and create meaning. Maybe you think about it as your purpose or passion, a job or a volunteer position. Or maybe it’s your favorite habit of relating to friends and family (your position as the jokester or the “mom-friend” or the life of the party).
Wherever you have come to establish meaning-making in your life, you have already carved out your steps to share this in your circles. I think we are all significant, and I think we can all make a difference—even if our impact is just in our tiny realm.
Don’t get lost in the scale of this, either. So many wonderful people have a dream, a heartsong of “make the world a better place.” So many people can sustain direct activism. Maybe that’s you. That should continue. So many people analyze the world and see a complex and increasingly complicated world in which the resources, money, and vision required to make big change seem absurdly out of reach. Knowing that the creation of a different world would rely on an elusive balance between individual and sea-changing, collective action, people choose to take the immediate actions they can, or try to take care of the collective in a way that just moves the dial. So many people bring reusable bags to the store, or boycott businesses that do harm. That should continue, too. Worrying that you’re attempting too much or too little is paralyzing, and it’s a denial of the truth that, at whatever scale, you’re making meaning. The important part is trusting what is right in front of you.
Connecting with people—making meaning—is something we can do from exactly where we’re already standing. You can ask yourself and those in your immediate surroundings:
How am I feeling?
What do I understand to be happening in the world?
What am I noticing?
How can I, together with my neighbors and friends, create community and culture?
How can we be in relationship?
What does it take to encourage peace, love, sharing, and trust?
We can let go of the need to have a specific answer. We can tune in, instead, to the inherent meaning-making—the creation of pockets of coherence—that simply asking these questions and attempting to answer them creates.
TITRATING SELF CARE, COMMUNITY CARE
When I decided to become a therapist, I “thought globally, acted locally.” While I see this approach a little differently today—namely relieved of the hero’s complex and crippling responsibility that any one of us would be expected to individually save the world—it is still a compelling way to approach finding and creating moments of coherence in a decohering world.
Each of us can be an ambassador of good, kindness, connection, and meaning-making—even if we don’t know what needs to happen on a scale beyond ourselves. Do your work to be the best version of you possible, so that you can impact the world; this manner of self-care is synergistic with community care.
We take care of ourselves through taking care of community. We take care of community through taking care of ourselves.
Relying on connection and grounding, we find the moments to engage in this relational healing. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the enormity of the question, “What do I do, personally?” even when we are confident in our unique approach to community connective work.
Moments to engage are often much closer at hand than we might expect, though. We shouldn’t have to pull them out of thin air or invent a whole new routine to bring ourselves in new alignment with opportunities for self-care and community care. Just like we’re living alongside the terrifying reality that decoherence is increasingly ubiquitous and out of our individual control, we’re living alongside a community who is scared, isolated, and interested in engaging in community building. Think about the moments that already happen in your day, and consider them moments ripe for meaning-making:
Witness your kid as you sit next to them at story time; ground yourselves in the moment.
Look your neighbor in the eye on the street; stop to chat.
Read a really great book, then share it in a free community library.
Find lost keys on a trail; make a real attempt to get them back to their owner.
See a meme that makes you feel validated; send it to a group chat.
In each of these moments is an element of self-care and an element of community care. Each of these moments can happen while the chaos churns. Our power lies in bringing these moments into existence and living them fully.