I’ll be the first to tell you that I think everyone should make time for self-care.
When I say “self-care,” though, I don’t just mean self-care that’s tied to consumerism or that’s all sheet masks and bath bombs. I mean self-care as a collection of tools—from coping mechanisms to healthful habits to feel-good activities—that get us through the day. Or the week, or the month, or the year. Everyone, I believe, can make existing in this world just a little easier by curating their own personal collection of self-care tools.
That said, I would be lying if I told you I didn’t have a special place in my heart for just how important self-care can be for people in the LGBTQ+ community. Of course, no single member of the community will have the same experience. But for me, and for so many queer and trans people I know, self-care isn’t just a good thing; it can be a matter of survival.
It wasn’t until recently that I had words to describe what I was feeling. While reporting for a completely different story on self-care for my day job, an expert told me about the concept of minority stress, a framework to help us understand how stigma, prejudice, and discrimination create a stressful social environment that fosters the very mental health problems. Minority stress accounts in part for why we are more than twice as likely as heterosexual adults to experience a mental health condition and why LGBTQ+ people are at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
Simply put, existing in the world as a queer or trans person can wear down our minds and bodies. When this specific systemic and targeted stress is part of our lives, it becomes important to take care of ourselves in any way we can. And so, I’ve developed my own stress toolkit in order to exist in the world as a queer woman.
Here are a few of those tips from my book, The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care, adapted exclusively for Queerty.
1. Set your boundaries
You’ve probably heard about the importance of setting boundaries, but the idea is such a broad and nebulous one that it can be hard to know where to start. We’re not talking about building fences to keep out annoying neighbors here. Boundaries are essentially ground rules you put in place—both by communicating them to others and committing to them yourself—to protect your time, values, mood, emotional well-being, comfort, and even safety. They can be big or small, emotional or physical. Without healthy boundaries, it’s really difficult to create a safe space for you and your relationships to flourish.
For many LGTBQ+ people, the most important boundaries you can set are to protect yourself from toxicity in your life—conservative and close-minded family members, the never-ending deluge of headlines about the trash fire that is 2019, or even exes if you’re unlucky enough to live in a place where the queer community feels this big. That might mean dropping them cold turkey, or something a little less drastic if you’re not able to cut the cord. Anyone else have a no-politics rule at the Thanksgiving dinner table?
2. Get creative
Creative outlets like journaling, writing, and drawing have always been the first place I go to feel safe in a world that seems committed to misunderstanding me and parts of my identity. If you’re a creative person—whatever that means to you—nourishing that creative energy is a huge part of taking care of your spirit. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that you’re neglecting an important part of you, and that neglect could have a profound effect on your well-being. Poet Mary Oliver once wrote in Blue Pastures, a collection of prose pieces, “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” If these words speak to you, don’t forget them.
3. Make some internet friends
I know I’m not the only one who made her very first queer and trans friends on the internet. When I was younger and my bisexuality was a secret, it wasn’t exactly easy to find other people. And even now that I’m older and out, the internet—from Twitter to Tumblr to RPG forums—remains a portal that streamlines the search for humans you would never otherwise meet IRL. At this point, everyone should have internet friends—we spend too much time online not to.
4. Find an LGBTQ+ affirming therapist
The very act of allowing yourself a space to focus on you and only you is one of the most compassionate things you can do for yourself—but it feels weird. We’re all used to relationships being reciprocal, a balance between talking and listening, venting and helping. Which is what makes having a therapist so magical. Yes, it’s a professional relationship, but it’s also a weird, wonderful, intimate one, probably unlike any other connection you have. Here’s this person in your corner whose job it is to be an expert at supporting you. Where else can you get that?
5. Ditch the brave face
Do you know how exhausting it is to pretend to be OK? When we’re in pain, emotional or physical, it’s wild how much energy we put into making our experiences palatable and easier to digest for others. For example, we push through pain to avoid canceling plans, we smile and say we’re doing well when people ask, we sanitize our crises and episodes so they don’t sound like a big deal. We’ve been taught that it’s admirable and noble to be unwavering and strong in the face of adversity, but whom does that help? Not us. In fact, it might hurt us. We don’t have to expend energy on making other people comfortable with our pain.
The people who are worth our time will be supportive if we occasionally need to let it out.
Anna Borges is Senior Health Editor at Self magazine and a mental health advocate. Previously, Borges was a health and wellness staff writer at BuzzFeed, where she helped build its mental health platform from the ground up.
Her writing has appeared in Glamour, Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, and The Outline. She lives in Brooklyn and this is her first book.