February 3, 2012

When Did Self-Care Become Selfish? ~ Beth Berila

One of the students in my Women’s Studies class approached me this week, deeply upset. She was agonizing over a decision she had made to cancel a meeting she was supposed to lead, so that she could attend a significant professional event.

“Did I make the right decision?” she wondered.  “I know that this event – that only takes place once a year– will offer me important feminist and career networking opportunities,” she told me, “but… am I being selfish?”

How easily we, women, resort to guilt and self-blame when we take care of ourselves. We are supposed to succeed and, thanks to the feminist movement, we now have many more opportunities to do so. But we are still somehow expected to put everyone else’s needs ahead of our own.

Or at least we think we are.

“Can the meeting you were supposed to lead be rescheduled?” I asked. “Is there enough time to accomplish what you need to accomplish even if the meeting is rescheduled?”

“Yes,” she said, “but I feel selfish. Am I making the right decision?”

The sense of duty and responsibility she feels toward her feminist commitments is admirable. It’s what happens when we devote our lives to a cause larger than ourselves. It is a kind of Karma yoga that calls us to serve others.

Judith Lasater poses the provocative question:

“Is it possible to serve without attachment to outcome, including how you should appear to others? How do you honor the spirit of karma yoga and also honor your own needs?”

This young woman offers a great deal of her energies to organize feminist activities — so why was this one choice to prioritize her own professional advancement seen as an act of selfish individualism?

@ The U.S. National Archives

Her angst was familiar. I often envy my colleagues who promote themselves with apparent ease. I too, have a hard time tooting my own horn or compromising my sense of feminist duty to work on my own advancement.

And until yoga, I had an even harder time letting go of responsibilities to take care of myself.

But, as Toni Cade Bambara told us, “if your house ain’t in order, you ain’t in order.”

Putting your house in order means many things; it includes knowing when to step back, recharge, rest, and regroup.

There is a reason why airplane recordings tell us to fasten our own oxygen masks before helping anyone else. We cannot stay in the game of social change for the long haul if we don’t take care of ourselves. And we cannot be sure to keep a grounded, clear, compassionate feminist vision of social change if we let ourselves get so burned out that our vision gets skewed and reactionary.

Yoga has taught me that it is, in fact, feminist to engage in healthy self-care. When I carve out time for my yoga practice, when I have fun with friends, when I chill out, I can come back to my responsibilities refreshed, rejuvenated and yes, grounded.

When I go to my mat on a regular basis, I am much more likely to approach my feminist work with the compassion, balance, and equanimity that I want to bring to it.

Giving to ourselves means we have more of ourselves to give.

My student will have made connections at that event that will allow her to continue with her feminist social change work in the long run. That is a good feminist choice.

“When you serve yourself, you make it possible to serve others. And when you serve others, you acknowledge your interdependence with all of life.”

~ Judith Lasater


Edited by Andréa Balt.


Beth’s day is made when she can do some Anusara yoga and work with her Women’s Studies students. She directs the Women’s Studies Program at St. Cloud State University and Chairs the Ethnic and Women’s Studies Department at St. Cloud State University. She teaches classes on gender and popular culture, gender and the body and yoga. She is inspired by the connections between feminism and yoga, which she explores at Feminist Yogini.


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