The Right to Retreat and the Politics of Self-care

A conversation between Rebecca Godderis and Joanna Brant

September 4, 2015

As colleagues we are both deeply committed to providing care to those who have had traumatic experiences with sexual violence. Joanna is on the front lines as an Executive Director of a sexual assault centre (the Centre). Rebecca is an activist-scholar with a university appointment who participates in community-based organizing and community-directed research, the majority of which is currently focused on preventing and addressing sexual violence on university campuses and in the broader community. Within the same field, we work from very different positions.

For over a year, we have been working together on a research project that helps the Centre articulate, promote, and assess the feminist expertise of those who work and volunteer there. The Centre is known as one of the only local organizations with the capacity to support individuals who have experienced complex trauma. Yet, in an era where the medical model looms large and quantified measures of “success” are in high demand, a feminist-centred approach that challenges the fundamental assumptions of these paradigms is subject to scrutiny. In addition, as an organization primarily providing services to women, the pressure on employees to justify the Centre’s existence is intensified within the current context of the Canadian government’s decisions to dramatically reduce funding for women’s advocacy groups, while also amending the mandate of the Status of Women, cancelling the National Child Care program, and eliminating the federal long gun registry—which was partially intended as a measure to help prevent violence against women.

Self-care has been a constantly-arising topic since we began our work together. The concept of self-care is the idea that community advocates and activists, and those who work in the caring professions, must remember to take care of themselves if they are to continue to be a resource to others, including to their own families and friends. This depiction of self-care leaves us with many questions: how do we undertake “self-care” in a world that is bombarded with gendered versions of consumption as self-care? For instance, the idea of organizing girlfriends to do “shopping therapy” or going to the spa for a pedicure appears to be a common self-care theme. These versions of self-care reinforce highly gendered understandings of what women enjoy, what women are good at, and what women are valued for in Western society.

Less explicitly gendered versions of self-care seem to fall short as well, especially within the context of the intense emotional work required of those who engage in advocacy and activism that challenge complex systems of oppression. For example, self-care is often reduced to mantras like “leave work at work,” directing individuals to not take their work home with them at night or on the weekends. But when you work in an environment where you must be available to those who are in crisis, and that crisis can happen at any time, this is simply not possible. Moreover, when you encounter moments of vicarious trauma by listening to others’ stories and supporting them, the emotional impact can be present for days, weeks, or even months. And even when the initial vicarious trauma may be processed, the traces of such stories remain in our minds and on our bodies. These traces are what drive us to continue to do the work we do; these traces are also what can exhaust us and cause us to burn out.

In the conversation presented below we work through potential answers to some of these questions. It is by no means an exhaustive or definitive examination of the topic, but it is an initial venture into the very real challenges we face with the politics of self-care. At the heart of our conversation is the inspiration we draw from Audre Lorde’s articulation that self-care as self-preservation is a revolutionary act. To preserve one’s self is an act of political warfare in a society where so many structures exist—sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism and so forth—that prevent all of us from being well, both physically and mentally. Lorde’s concept of self-care recognizes that it is not just about individual choices or capabilities. Instead, Lorde demands that we take account of the immense pressures from structural sources of oppression that weigh heavily on all of us, every single day. We invite you to listen in on our conversation about our experiences with self-care and the right to retreat.

Rebecca Godderis (RG): There are days that I wake up totally mad at the world. So angry, you know? I just feel that the enormous weight of violence against women—of what women face every day—is just too much. And it makes me angry that people can intentionally or unintentionally ignore that, or deny that, and yet it is so clear to me. Sometimes I wonder how I keep going in this world and keep having the conversations I need to have.

Joanna Brant (JB): I think there is a difference in how things are set up for you and how things are set up for me because my environment, in some ways, is more sustaining than yours. Because I have those individual client relationships, I see evidence of positive change in a much more direct way. So a lot of things that you’re dealing with are systemic in nature, like sexism and misogyny. I see your contact with the students as being parallel with my clients in a lot of ways, and that can be sustaining, but you don’t have the agreement with them that I have with my clients: the agreement that we are working towards making things better. I think my contact with clients inoculates me against a lot of despair.

RG: That is interesting. I would have thought that you experienced more despair because you hear personal stories of trauma and violence that I don’t regularly hear.

JB: When I started at the Centre, it was actually tremendously assistive to me to take crisis calls. I was completely able to engage in that work; it felt restorative. In contrast, to deal with things like media reports, you are a passive recipient who can’t change anything. It is just terrible.

RG: Right, so even for those who are not on “the front lines” per say, the challenges of dealing with the trauma of oppressive systems are still there. That is an important point to recognize for activists and others who may not be doing things like counselling. I think constantly about the structural and systematic patterns of violence against women. I see it everywhere, and I also see the dismissals of those realities.

JB: It really does matter what your base environment is like. In my case, I have two luxuries. One is that everyone at the Centre has a common understanding that the world is messed up, but we also have a collective understanding of why that is—you don’t have to invest a lot of time in translating what is happening out there in the world into the work of the Centre. Also, because I’m the Executive Director, it means that I have the ability to change things. If my colleague is mistreated, I can often do something about it. I can say “that is not a part of the Centre’s philosophy.”

RG: That is why my work with you and with the Centre is so valuable. Our collaboration is really important to make change in the world, but it is also part of our own self-care.

JB: There are parallels between the Centre’s approach to counselling and how we’ve set up our personal relationship when it comes to self-care. For example, at the Centre, if someone is struggling, they can say to themselves:“I don’t have to deal with that now, I can take that to counselling next time I go.” There is also the crisis line if things really heat up between sessions. You and I have set it up similarly because we have an intentional relationship where we schedule time together, value that time, and also support one another in other aspects of our lives. In addition, we have a reciprocal crisis line understanding (laughter from both), where if something has just happened and we don’t know what to do, we call or text each other. I know I can make a crisis call to you when I am just about to make a really big mistake and I don’t actually know how to come back from the brink (laughter). It is very helpful to have somebody who can actually help interrupt your thinking rather than just listen to you about what went wrong after the fact. Those different points of entrance, both scheduled time and the ability to do crisis calls to someone you trust, end up being really important.

RG: Relationships are central to self-care because they allow us to do our work better in a whole number of ways and to feel okay in the world, but they need to be relationships where there is a lot of trust. It seems that comes from sharing the same kind of approach to the world.

JB: I find the spontaneous connection with people—where there’s laughter and it’s dynamic and where you don’t feel you have to prove anything—is a big part of that. I can do goofy things with people who I know are working hard to make things different, who share the same values, and then it doesn’t matter as much what you are doing in that moment of spending time together; it feels like self-care. It allows me to trust people in a different way. You know, a lot of people I really value are sort of “serial activists” (laughter from both). There is a very clear intention to who they are, what they are doing, and what they stand for.

RG: Very true.

JB: I think part of the trick is also having a place where you can be honest about what you can’t do, or having places where you are choosing to show those struggles to someone. There is value in being able to just let it be known that you are having a hard time with something and, you know, that overall I know that you still code me as competent, which is different than other places where you are always having to assert your competence.

RG: For me, the ideal self-care world involves having exactly those spaces where you don’t always have to be the expert, and you can struggle, but you are still understood as competent. One of the aspects of our relationship that helps to sustain me is that I can show you a moment of panic when I am questioning myself and still trust in the fact that, like you say, you will continue to highly respect me, that you think I’m competent, and that we are going to continue to have a good working relationship. Those might be some of the most important moments because having someone else to reflect back the idea that “I still understand you as capable when you struggle,” allows me, in terms of self-care, to remember that I need to maintain confidence in myself. Of course, we can’t always be in that kind of environment but…

JB: …you can work towards creating that by schedule and by choice. Part of what we’ve done is created opportunities to collaborate in order to build a different working environment, and then we can extrapolate based on what feels sustaining in that environment to other settings.

RG: Right, so more consciously thinking about which relationships we keep and which ones we do not keep, and which projects will help to sustain us. Then those choices end up becoming acts of self-care. I do think that self-care is too often understood as “what do you do outside of work to make work-life balance better.” And that means separating work and “life” as if there is this clear separation between your work life and your non-work life. Self-care needs to be something that blurs those boundaries. Self-care can be about the choices you make in work life, as well as during moments when you are not technically working.

JB: I think things are often set up as a dichotomous or exclusive terrain for women. There is the mothering sphere, which isn’t supposed to overlap with the working sphere, which isn’t supposed to overlap with your love life. If you’re not going to create false dichotomies then what are the implications for self-care—sitting on a yoga ball while you are typing for eight hours? But I keep thinking about the Audre Lorde quote and the incredible heritage around that level of activism that seems really unattainable in a lot of ways. I know that is the opposite of what is intended, but I would want self-care to be an act of caring for yourself in ways that make sense to you—even if that’s really imperfect and even if it’s something that you manage well at certain times and not at others. This is still a revolutionary act. It doesn’t have to be a perfect act of self-care in order for you to be a good feminist activist.

RG: Throughout our conversations that is something that has really become clear to me. We don’t want to make self-care another thing to check off the list which makes you a “good feminist” or a “good activist.” Self-care is messy and it’s complicated, and it looks like this because the systems that we are in are so messy and complicated. In fact, when I am in a routine that would be considered “good self-care,” like going to the gym regularly in the mornings before work, it also feels like a fake life because it has to be so incredibly regimented. I have to get to bed early in the evening, and I have to have no additional stress that keeps me awake at night, because otherwise I can’t get up early enough to go to the gym in order to be in the office on time. It’s another form of work that I have to add to my day, on top of everything else, in order to fulfill what it means to be “healthy” and do good self-care.

JB: I’ve really resisted the concept of self-care for a long time as being another unachievable marker that is used to measure women specifically. There is a funny sort of victim blaming element there. I remember having a colleague who died after she had a very short battle with cancer. The sort of collective wisdom was, “you know, she never really took care of herself,” and that was from a community that, right up until she had died, had been very much in awe of her activism, her drive, and her ability to sacrifice her needs for the women, the organization, and the community at large. Then as soon as she died, everyone sort of turned on her in a way.

RG: So is there a different thing we can call it? Something other than self-care?

JB: I think part of what we have been talking about is setting up a life that works for you. You know, setting up a world so that it’s not as hard on people, setting up our work so it’s not as hard on us, and setting up relationships that can sustain us. When I am starting to feel really depleted not doing “self-care” is one of the things I give myself permission to do. I’m going to pick up fast food on the way home, I’m going to sit in front of the TV for two hours even if I don’t remember what I watch, and then I’m going to start working at 10:30 p.m. when the house is quiet and work until four in the morning because that will allow me to be tired and to go to sleep, and feel like I’ve moved through enough stuff that it’s not hopeless. And in what book does that constitute self-care? It’s like the antithesis of self-care in a lot of ways.

RG: So maybe what we are talking about is not self-care at all.

JB: It is a retreat from self-care.

RG: Ah. Perhaps it’s the right to retreat.

When we embarked upon this conversation, it was already clear to us that relationships were integral to being able to take care of ourselves. We had also recognized that the expectation of self-care has the potential to place an additional burden upon the very people who carry some of the heaviest burdens, namely women who care for other women, whether these women formally work in social service and not-for-profit agencies, are community advocates, or are friends and family. However, what crystalized for us through this conversation was the understanding that having personal allies who can witness your struggle, while continuing to remind you of your competence and abilities, is irreplaceable. In Audre Lorde’s words, it is a revolutionary act. Moreover, our chance to explicitly discuss the politics of self-care has meant that we are now more intentional in our relationship with one another about the need to allow space for witnessing, struggling, and the general messiness of self-care. We plan to have many more conversations about our right to retreat, and we hope this conversation has inspired you to do so as well.

Further Reading

For more information see Canadian Association of University Teachers website:

Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984)


Circa 1925: Five women at the beach posing in their swimming costumes. (Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images via The Culturist)


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