Shelly Tygielski on Radical Self-Care to Promote Social Change

Book Talk

Shelly Tygielski on Radical Self-Care to Promote Social Change

Demetrius Philip

Pandemic of Love founder and author Shelly Tygielski outlines how radical self-care can change the world.

Self-care isn’t selfish, Shelly Tygielski explains to S&H. It is actually an important aspect of community-building and social change. Tygielski is the author of Sit Down to Rise Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change the World and founder of the global grassroots mutual aid organization Pandemic of Love. Her work has been featured by over 100 media outlets, including CNN Heroes, The Kelly Clarkson Show, CBS This Morning, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

Tygielski’s book Sit Down to Rise Up was reviewed in the November/December 2021 issue of Spirituality & Health.

S&H: How do most of us define self-care? How would you suggest we define it instead?

Shelly Tygielski: Self-care is often considered self-centered and selfish. It can imply caring that extends only to ourselves as individuals. But we can expand our definition of the word “self” to extend beyond the individual and allow it to include our family, community, the natural world, and all sentient beings. Self-care means caring for the entire community of which we are a part; it encompasses and protects this larger order.

The inner work is not about being virtuous. In a way, it means living and working in ways that are consistent with and model how we want the world to work. Here is another way to frame it: The best version of the world, starts with the best version of us. Therefore, even if the word “self” implies an individualistic approach, in the case of self-care, for it to work and for us to be at our best, we must take a communal approach. When the people in our circle of influence and community are well, healthy, and have their basic needs met, the collective can thrive.

[Read: “Nourishing Self-Care Practices for Now.”]

Why is it important for us to practice the self-care you describe?

When we understand and can embody the interconnectivity that is our natural state of being, we can thoroughly understand that the best version of the world starts with the best version of us. When we do so, the quality of the way we show up for ourselves, of course, is changed, but the quality of the way we show up in the world becomes different as well.

What’s the connection between self-care and community-building?

There is an anecdote told about a famous Irish storyteller named Peig Sayers who once lived in the Blasket Islands off the coast of Ireland. The winds are so great that even trees can’t survive on this island, and she was asked, “How can you live in a place like this?” To which she responded quite simply, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” In the West, self-care almost always focuses on the individual and on what we can do for ourselves. We’re taught that each individual has all they need, that the power for transformation and thriving lies within, just waiting to be harnessed.

We are taught not to be a burden on others, and that we alone should beat back the demons plaguing us and come through to the other side refreshed and ready to fight again. The connection between self-care and community building is one and the same—they cannot happen without each other. We simply cannot successfully achieve all that self-care requires—from survival to thriving—without leaning on community, and a successful communal ecosystem cannot be built without self-care as a primary pillar.

[Explore S&H’s Community Champion column.]

What’s the connection between self-care and spiritual growth?

The gateway to spiritual growth is self-care because it requires that we turn our focus and attention on ourselves in a pursuit of growth, healing, and the best version of ourselves in this moment in time. Normally, when we focus attention inward, it is in a critical way. The mind likes to pay attention to what is not going right and what we perceive to be “wrong” with us. But as Walt Whitman once wrote: “Alone, and the soul emerges.”

When we can dedicate ourselves to the familiarization of mind and heart, which is really the core of all self-care practices, we can begin to understand the connection between the two. This is where I believe spirituality lies. In most Eastern languages, the words for “heart” and “mind” are the same, and meditation practices usually see no distinction.

What keeps us from acknowledging that we need help? What can we do to move through our resistance to this?

There is a stigma associated with asking for help that leads us to believe that we are a burden, that we are failing, and that we are not enough. In order to destigmatize this notion that we are burdening others and normalize asking for help, we need to root ourselves in communal care where a system like mutual aid is a pillar.

When that happens, it becomes inherently understood that being part of this community means you have something you need, but also something you can offer. Those things change over time and fluctuate based on what is going on in our lives. True community care becomes a liberation of sorts, because it removes the need to ask for help. Instead, giving and getting help is built into the fiber of our society and becomes an extension of the way we exist.

How can we deal with the overwhelm we may feel about expressing our needs—and trying to meet others’ needs?

When we plug ourselves into a true community of care, one that is formalized, the overwhelm dissipates because we function as an ecosystem that relies on each other, rather than as individuals who are all trying to merely survive. My suggestion is to look at the root causes of your overwhelm and remove those obstacles, but don’t believe for one minute that you can go at it alone.

Understand that you have the tools and talents that can help others’ meet their needs in your community and that they, in turn, will do the same for you. In order for that to happen, we need to change the systems that we are plugging into. The root cause of overwhelm is systemic in nature. If we change the system, we change our reaction for response.

You write about the “ripple effect” in your book. Can you briefly explain this effect, and how it energizes us to make change?

I think oftentimes people believe that for change to happen we need to employ grand, lofty gestures or have huge platforms. However, the ripple effect is rooted in the notion that there are no small acts that contribute to change because every small act has the opportunity to create ripples that are far-reaching and impactful. In the book, I compare this to the Big Bang. I ask the reader to consider the universe, which was created from a single burst of energy—planets, galaxies, life in exponential forms, and the creation of ourselves. It all started with one, singular event.

A ripple in the fabric of space, something that emanated from seemingly nothing. We each have this piece of “godliness” in us—we are each divine creators in our own right. We can create something out of nothing, and perhaps even more importantly, we can continue to cocreate as our actions ripple out. Rest assured, the ripples will continue to spread far and wide, but if we choose to deliberately ride or follow them, they can lead us to places beyond our imagination—to a place of real change.

You describe two kinds of happiness: One that’s conditional and another that’s unconditional. How would you suggest we cultivate unconditional happiness?

The answer lies in the cultivation of the mind—familiarizing ourselves with our thoughts, becoming aware of them and then balancing them out by looking at them with a different lens. I came to recognize that if I changed my perception of the problems and challenges, I was facing (whether past or present), or if I saw even the worst experiences in a different light, I experienced them differently. The ability to do this sets us free. It gives us the tools to use the recognition of our own agency to dislodge ourselves when we are stuck, and when we strengthen that muscle, we can even be moved to action.

To learn more about Shelly Tygielski, visit her online at

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