Author Blair Imani on the importance of setting boundaries: 'I'm not trying to set myself on fire to keep other people warm'

·5 min read
Historian and author Blair Imani shares how she resets. (Photo: Courtesy photo; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Historian and author Blair Imani shares how she resets. (Photo: Courtesy photo; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Blair Imani — historian, educator, influencer and author of the books Read This to Get Smarter, Making Our Way Home and Modern HERstory — has inspired people worldwide with her “Smarter in Seconds” Instagram videos, where she sparks conversation about the intersection of identifying as both queer and Muslim, and delves into topics like cultural appropriation and gender expression.

While Blair’s work centers mainly on women and girls, global Black communities and the LGBTQ community, she is always looking to amplify the voices and work of those fighting the good fight — and is a huge advocate for mental health, too. For the 28-year-old Imani, the day-to-day approach to mental health is a practice she’s been cultivating from a very young age.

“My mother trained as a social worker and my dad takes care of people with developmental disabilities — and that’s caused me to view mental health as a necessary accommodation,” Imani tells Yahoo Life. “I approach it very openly; that was my baseline growing up. But I as I got older, I realized that people think of mental health as a personal failure or a character flaw. But [mental health] is based on science, and it has to have an element of compassion; everyone needs different resources and everyone can succeed when they’re given the resources they need.”

For Imani, that includes giving herself permission to take time off — something she says makes her a better boss. Though communication is key to running her businesses, she has had to switch things up as her fame grows and more work opportunities flow in.

“I’ve had to figure out how to scale the way I communicate with people, because I can’t sit behind a screen all day checking emails constantly,” she says, explaining why she prefers the informality of Slack to emails. “I grew up in the early 2000s on AOL Messenger, so I love DMs, I love using Slack — but I don't love texts for some reason. I really just love communicating with people; I talk to about 600 people every week.”

When asked what she gets out of being connected with so many people, so often, to Imani the answer is simple: It makes her happy.

“I get joy from slices of people's lives,” she says. “I love seeing people's accomplishments and being able to boost people up and be there for people — and be the person I may have needed, but doing it on a bigger scale.”

As she's learned to adapt to a growing audience, Imani has also had to grow into the role of boss and leader — which included figuring out how to not to burn out along the way by prioritizing self-care, time off and scheduling mental health check-ins.

“I work for myself, I’m my own boss, so I can take time off when I need to,” Imani says. “Our society is very secular — I use prayer to reset, but I don't talk about it publicly. I try to log off and literally reset, whether it’s setting an out-of-office responder or a Slack status. It’s just a great way to feel like I’m taking care of the people who rely on me, but I’m also taking care of myself. I have to set boundaries and do-not-disturbs and prioritize myself because you can’t pour from an empty cup. What I’ve learned is: Someone else’s growth can not come at your expense. You can give give give but if it’s at your expense? I just don’t believe in being a martyr; I’m not trying to set myself on fire to keep other people warm.”

Imani also credits her family, fiancé and close circle of friends for keeping her grounded as she remains a steady resource and touchstone to her community of “Smarties.” Imani also depends on technology to stay connected with her peers virtually.

“I rely a lot on the people in my real life,” she says. “My younger sister keeps me humble and down to earth. My family goes to sushi every Friday at a local place, and those moments restore me to my baseline. It’s the one constant that keeps me grounded. It’s usually me and my fiancé, my parents, sister and a rotating group of friends. I’m [also] part of group chats, which can be helpful."

To Imani, the accessibility and connectivity that technology provides can be a lifeline for those struggling mentally and emotionally. While she’s been fortunate enough to benefit from therapy, she’s aware that it’s a privilege, not a right.

“Therapy is encouraged — but so much of health care is tied to a workspace. I have friends who can't afford therapy," she says, adding that talking it out in a Slack group or DM can be helpful. "A lot of mental health crises come from isolation, and we have to look at treating mental health diversely and expansively. And for those in therapy, you have to take an active role in your own personal healing. People can’t heal you for you.”

Imani has a big year ahead with major collaboration and dream projects lined up. “2022! The year of new endeavors!” Imani says, adding: “I’m developing a show with the Jim Henson Company — I’m excited about that! I’m also doing an upcoming collaboration with Fempower Beauty. I’ve accomplished a lot of things I didn't think were possible so I’m just trying to make more dreams come true.”

As for her Smarties and the advice Imani wants them to take away this year? “Stick to your purpose; opinions are not the primary consideration. Walk in your purpose and don't worry about anyone’s approval.”

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