Self-Care For Poor Folks: Dealing With Poverty Shame

We shouldn't ever have nice things.

People who have been poor for a long time, I’m sure, are familiar with the million ways people judge our poverty levels.

We know -- we understand the looks and the other various microaggressions. We know the rules.

We shouldn't look too poor. But if we look too good, people say we don’t look poor. If we have jobs, we should have better jobs; if we are unemployed we are lazy.

I’m sure a lot of us have heard it all.

We shouldn’t ever have nice things. Maybe the nice thing is a Clarisonic, a nice purse, a suit, a car, a decent place to live.

If we didn’t have a nice thing, we wouldn’t be poor, right? Obviously, if we hadn't bought that lipstick everything would be great.

Today I want to talk about ways of dealing with the insidious ways that these messages can screw up how poor folks engage with and practice self-care, especially in the context of how I’ve used the term for this series.

First thing: I want to tell you again that you deserve self-care. Not because you earned it, not because it’s a treat, but because you deserve to be treated like the most magnificent human on the planet.

I also want to say again that you don’t have to do what I do in order to be doing it right. If something works for you, you’re doing it right for you.

The other thing I want you to remember is that regardless of what anyone says does or does not count as self-care, they are not living in your brain or your skin. I trust you enough to know that you know yourself and how to take care of yourself.

For me, part of learning to take good care of myself involved learning to separate my sense of self-worth from my economic status. That, in and of itself, is really hard, especially in American culture. The pressure to present as not poor but not fancy is enormous -- even more so if you are marginalized along other axis.

For instance if you are disabled, chronically ill, a person of color, or dealing with any other marginalization (or multiple marginalizations), there is immense pressure to at least look inspirational and like you are trying everything people tell you so you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and not be poor and be “better.”

If we just adhere, we're told, to the One True Way ideology, we will be acceptable and -- in the eyes of the world -- worth self-care without justification or suffering the lectures of strangers. I know you know this is BS; I also know how hard it is to really believe that it being BS applies to you personally.

I got started really learning to believe that my poverty is not a reflection on me as a human being when I started looking at it this way: Imagine a beloved friend or family member coming to you and saying, "I feel like such an awful person. I am struggling to pay my bills and my self-esteem is in the toilet. I just feel terrible."

Now, would you tell this person that, yes, they are, in fact, an awful person and that they don’t deserve to have good self-esteem or to feel good? "You know, friend, if you hadn’t bought that lipstick, all your bills would be paid right now."

Or would you instead say something else? "I know this is rough, and I’m here to help what do you need." Maybe you'd say, "Hey, how about we give each other manicures and watch some movies?"

If what you’d offer is your love and support in that moment of vulnerability to someone else, that means you can offer the same to yourself.

This is something I still sometimes struggle with. When it comes to being the jerkiest of jerks, I am the biggest jerk to myself -- because it can be very hard to believe I am still a good person when I’m too broke to eat something good or when I’m staring down a bill that will eat away a quarter of my paycheck. It's hard work to remember I am worth good treatment, especially when I am by myself.

When talking about figuring out how to start treating yourself well, sometimes it will really come down to the smallest things.

Maybe today you drank all the water you need to feel well hydrated -- you made the extra effort to take good care of you.

You might spend 15 minutes sitting in the sun reading, watching kitty videos, sitting doing nothing.

The end game with this thought exercise is, of course, to remind you that you are just as important and worthy as anyone else. My suggestion is to do this in whatever way works for you.

My preferred method is to tell myself, "No, stop it."

I believe that learning more ways of engaging in self-care means we have more ways of combating the harmful things we’re taught about being poor. It takes a whole lot of hard work and sometimes hard times to start shedding those beliefs and improving the quality of our lives.

Learning to treat yourself the way you treat those you love is way easier said than done.

One of the main reasons I wanted to do this series is to share some of the tools that have worked for me. More than that, I want y’all to give each other tools and support. This is the future and we can do this together -- and it is fantastic.

I’ve seen you doing it, and I have to say I think it is a beautiful thing. Please remember that for some of us, this is going to be a big serious struggle.

Also, nothing I’m saying here will fix everything.

Truthfully, I don’t believe there is One True Way to self-care or live. There are going to be times when none of this makes a difference. There will be times when you’re in a dark place and all you can do is survive. I hope that as you survive those times, some of these tips come back to you and you can use them to give yourself some relief.

With all this in mind, I invite you to take a couple of minutes. If you’re thirsty get some water. if you are feeling stiff stretch out. Pet your dog, kiss your baby, read a web comic you love, smell a flower, have some tea, stare out the window thinking about cheese -- do what you need or want to do for a little bit. After that, remember that you’re doing self-care right.

Next time we’re here, I want to share some of my greatest Internet-assisted free things that almost always make my days better.