On Taking a Break

The concept of taking a break, or spending time to work on your mental health, is a challenging idea to balance with the high standards that young PoC often places on themselves. We have so many tokenistic ‘wellbeing weeks’ and ‘puppy picnics’ thrown at us by our workplaces and universities, the same people that tell us that our self-worth is intrinsically linked to how high our GPA is and how much we earn. 

Learning how to tackle my mental illnesses at university has been a steep learning curve. The hardest part of it, though, has been learning what my limits are and when I ‘deserve’ a break. I’m told daily by friends, “take a break” or “you should say no to doing more” — and my personal favourite — “make sure you take care of yourself.” I’ve never really known what exactly that means. 

For young women of colour, taking care of ourselves mentally is often seen as a negative, a synonym for laziness. We fear that if we slow down, we will fall behind, not only past our white competitors but also the other people of colour who are working even harder to compensate for the discrimination we all know we will encounter when applying for jobs and internships. 

But let’s say we do take a break. We might turn off our phones for a weekend, indulge in UberEats, pop on a sheet mask that we know is overpriced, and see how much Grey’s Anatomy we can cram into that precious 48 hours. We think this is what taking care of ourselves looks like. It is what our targeted YouTube ads, bus stop billboards, and wellness conglomerates covertly drill into us day in and day out. We are left with the corporate vision for self-care engrained into us; surely, our anxiety and stress will be vanquished by the lighting of a $60 lavender scented candle, right?!

The “treat yourself” culture around self-care inadvertently places even more guilt onto the act. If taking care of one’s mental health is a ‘treat’, there is an implication that it is a luxury in which we are able to overindulge. There is, consequently, inherent guilt in taking care of ourselves, where wellness and success are incongruous goals. We fear that if we take a break, it will be met with taunting remarks of “so and so’s daughter graduated early, with honours” or “so and so’s son is doing an MBA now” when we go home for Christmas. 

Neo-liberal feminism assumes that women of colour have successfully assimilated and are able to partake in self-care™ in the same way that white women are. This dangerous veer away from feminism as an intersectional movement allows high-ranking corporate women, like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, to provide the solution of ‘leaning in’ to male domination of the workplace, while remaining silent on the structural and economic reasons why this occurs in the first place. The very notion of feminism in the 21st Century zeitgeist has been colonised. Neo-liberal feminism is a zero-sum game in which the attention that women CEOs garner for being champions of feminism chastises not only women of colour but poor, disabled, and trans women for not being able to do the same. The white woman’s self-care fantasy that is sold to us is not accessible or realistic for most women. Not only does it assume that we have the time and the money to partake in luxurious acts, but it also fails to address the actual aggravating factors contributing to our very need to take a break.  

In some WoC communities, poor mental health is so commonplace that it has almost become a badge of honour, the yardstick against which we can tell if we are working hard enough. Nikki Gerrard’s groundbreaking 1991 paper ‘Racism and Sexism, Together, In Counselling’, was the first academic discussion of how racism and sexism intersect to affect the mental health of women of colour. The paper recounts troubling incidents of how women of colour are largely unable to find help through Western mental health systems, as the racism and sexism that they experience is self-perpetuating when therapists and people who have the power to assist inculcate myths and stereotypes by way of their power to enforce them (Fernandez). The common thread throughout the incidents states that even those who were trained in a professional capacity to assist with mental illness and trauma were dismissive of their experience, limited in the options they provided. Body language and tone policing reinforced to the participants that they were not important in the therapist’s purview (Gerrad). Our mental health is placed at loggerheads between a culture that expects us to work harder than others. A self-care system predicated on consumerism and a mental health system that we cannot rely on. 

We have been subscribed to a pay-to-win version of self-care and good mental health that we never signed up for. It may only be through bringing the feminist movement back on track to advocate for all women that we may be freed from the battle between our simultaneous pursuit of accomplishment and a well-deserved break.

Fernandez, J. P. (1981). Racism and Sexism in Corporate Life. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, D. D. Heath & Co.

Gerrard, N. (1991). Racism and Sexism, Together, in Counselling: Three Women of Colour Tell Their Stories. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 25(4). Retrieved from https://cjc-rcc.ucalgary.ca/article/view/59478

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Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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