White and yellow petalled pansy grows out from from black and white ground and background. Yellow text overlaid: 'The Radical Act of Protective Self-Care, Nikki Kilburn'

The Radical Act of Protective Self-Care

Our bodies tell stories outside our control while we go about living our lives the constructs of society decide how we are seen and perceived. Our bio-intelligence measures the labels, judgements, and assumptions we receive against a scale of acceptance, disapproval, confusion, and rejection. These messages are felt, heard, and internalised, manifesting in a range of biological responses, from evoking experiences of inclusion and wellness to triggering symptoms of physical and psychological illness.

The level of privilege we have is an indicator of the layers of armour we need to protect ourselves; fortifying implies there is a lack of trust just as letting our guard down requires trust. It’s a screening process that can consume breaking point levels of energy. A life where, for some of us, being constantly at risk of attack is the norm, and it’s too dicey to consider shedding the defence.

People and places are not always easy to avoid, and we are often left with no choice but to play roulette. The deprivation of loss occupies like identity fraud creating micro exterminators that vandalise our sense of safety and wellbeing. Left to roam, toxic stress circulates the body like bees around the honey pot and we are forced to find healthy ways of release and restoration, or we become unwell.

The history and tools of self-protection date back centuries. Knowledge can be found across our religious and spiritual scriptures and is passed down through oral, familial and community practices embedded in rites of passage. Often embedded in our favourite music, spiritual and wellbeing rituals are protection invocations offering a sense of relational safety.

Generally, we learn to care for ourselves by how we have seen our primary carers care for themselves while raising us. If this resonates, from a place of compassion, take time to reflect on how they articulated their emotional responses: was it into a dialogue that normalised and supported the need for protective self-care? For many of us, it was the stories we heard and silently felt, messages in behaviour and subtext in communication that imparted wisdom and sadly filled us with shame.

We inherit the insight along with the pain we can’t escape from the hands that raised us, the same way we are, to an extent, influenced by the ancestry that runs through our blood. If this legacy informs all or part(s) of our identity belong in the annexe of exclusion, we apply specific helpful and unhelpful learned coping strategies. Some of them mirroring our elders, others repurposed, the rest our unique invention.

We may find ourselves consistently negotiating for inclusion, only able to completely relax in designated safe zones if they are available to us.

It’s true, regardless of background, we can inherit a good or a hard deal. The difference is inequity. If the background we are from means we have saddled a bag or more of kryptonite to navigate a world where, unless protected, we will be harmed, the question is simply: what can we do to create safety and wellbeing?

When we are attuned to our environment from a place of safety and choice our vibrations go up, the cells in our bodies are flooded with restorative and soothing chemicals, and we release and metabolise toxic stress. If our wellbeing requires constant regulation to detox the disturbance of habitual societal discrimination, it is essential that we have sustainable wellbeing practices we can do easily and without the burden of cost. Many of us are committed to spiritual practice and/or self-care routines, and yet for a variety of reasons, we struggle with the consistency of what we know we need to be well.

Sure, there are plenty of online resources giving us this sound advice, but for sustainable wellness, we need to be radical. Attune with self-knowledge. This doesn’t mean we don’t tap into useful information. It means we listen first to our own voice. We gift ourselves time to create our own safe space to listen past the noise to what we need, not what we are told we need. It’s essential we connect to ourselves with kindness because listening and being vulnerable isn’t easy. Similarly, we take our time and respond with compassion to our reactions and barriers of protection. Gently we coax out our suffering and ask ourselves what we need for support, self-care, and healing. It can be unrealistic to meet all of our needs so we do what we can with what we have.  

For those of us that are new to listening, we do a little at a time like taking tiny sips of water. If we are well versed, we set time aside to immerse ourselves as deep as we can whilst maintaining psychological safety. We need to know our limits because listening can dysregulate us. We practice with awareness of our wellbeing needs and with our self-support pre-planned and in place.  

We need wholesome nourishment and shelter from the storm. Radical self-care means we get serious about keeping ourselves safe and well daily. Certain choices may be outside our control, but we commit to putting our wellbeing needs first when we can choose. Using our voice isn’t always easy and making changes can be a struggle, but unless we find a way to speak up, our needs are at risk of not being visible. One foot in front of the other, a step at a time.  

Connecting with people that nurture us is essential, when people don’t have a lived experience frame-of-reference, being understood can be one of the hardest things. When we come together with people that have lived it and support each other, we can breathe easier. How we care for ourselves reflects our worth and our value when we are receiving systematic messages that devalue us – it’s tiring and can drain our confidence and self-esteem. Acceptance of the struggle and doing what we can with the energy we have is holding ourselves in kindness and generosity. And that makes us pretty damn amazing.

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Woman with grey curly hair smiling. She wears a white top, black cardigan and silver necklace.

Nikki Kilburn lives in Edinburgh. She works in mental health practice development and is the creative director of True and Woke a media project focused on centering the experience of marginalised communities. Nikki is also a photographer and writer with an interest in how identity and lived experience creates complex realities.

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