Morgan Harper Nichols talks self-care and how TikTok led to her autism diagnosis at 31: 'I finally have language for the things I struggle with'

Morgan Harper Nichols shares how she reduces stress. (Photo: Morgan Harper Nichols; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
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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.

Artist, poet, musician and author Morgan Harper Nichols has created a calming oasis for her 1.7 million followers on Instagram. Her soothing poetry, which touches on acceptance, anxiety and affirmations, floats over dreamy landscapes — and it’s clearly resonating with many who are stressed out during the pandemic.

In fact, the multi-talented Nichols's latest book — How Far You Have Come: Musings on Beauty and Courage — was influenced by the pandemic. Nichols, who lives in Phoenix, Ariz., with her husband and young son, started writing her new book at the beginning of the first lockdown. “It was very challenging because I’d planned on traveling to work on the book,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Everything obviously got shut down. So I had to get creative. I realized I can’t look ahead because I didn't know what was ahead. So I decided to look back.”

Nichols started scrolling through old photos on her iPhone, letting the landscapes of previous trips inspire her poetry and art. “My cover of my book is from my iPhone, leaving Albuquerque, N.M., at sunrise,” says Nichols, whose art often involves painting on top of photos like the one on her book cover. In the book, “the stories, poetry and art are set in eight different landscapes — where the landscape itself was teaching me and I was growing internally,” she notes, adding that looking back on the different places people have traveled, even within their own neighborhoods, “tells the story of how far we’ve come.”

Here, Nichols opens up about her autism diagnosis, the pressure on Black women to be strong and the importance of being your own health advocate.

When you’re feeling stressed or anxious, what techniques help you?

For me, writing, doodling, drawing — just moving my hand across the page really calms me down. A lot of my art comes from that — not pressuring myself to make something that other people are going to see. Some people feel that when going for a run. I feel that on the page. I can really clear my head. I listen to instrumental music and just write and move my hand. I tend to get in my head a lot. Just yesterday I didn't feel like going outside and my son wanted to. And I thought, “You know, this is actually nice. We don’t really have a plan.” I’m just standing out there, and the wind was gently blowing. It was calming. It was so simple but calming.

Do you have a mantra or something you say to yourself?

“Morgan, you are doing the best you can.” “I am doing the best I can.” I often don’t feel that way [or feel] I should be doing more. If you're living through a pandemic — and I've had a really busy workload and have a lot of things going on — you have to remind yourself you’re doing the best you can, and that’s valid.

Can you talk about why it’s important to prioritize wellness, particularly for Black women?

I’ve been learning more and more, especially as Black people and women, [about] dealing with a lot of pressure and feeling that you have to be the strong one. It’s that strong Black woman stereotype in movies. I can see how that could be perceived as positive. But you’re also allowed to be tender. That is something that I've been working on and talking about with my friends and my family. We’re allowed to not be the strong one. We don't have to have all the right words to say or be strong for everybody, even though that pressure is there. I’ve said no to certain requests. I’m a public figure, but I’m also a human. It’s recognizing that we have to continue to remind each other that we’re allowed to be tender and human and to feel.

Do you think your poems addressing anxiety in particular have resonated with your audience throughout the pandemic?

Prior to 2020, I would say that the main criticism I received about my artwork was that I was too passive and I wasn’t pushing people enough. Those kinds of messages have really dwindled out. My philosophy is: Everybody knows you’re receiving messages from somewhere about what you’re not doing. So I don't want to be another person adding to that and being hard on yourself. I don’t want to contribute to that. It’s taking time to just be gentle with yourself. Every day at least one person messages me or leaves a comment saying “I really needed this today.” I hope that we can carry that with us. A lot of us deserve to be kinder to ourselves.

You shared in a blog post how watching women with autism on TikTok led you to finding a specialist and getting diagnosed with autism after struggling with sensory issues for years. How did it feel to get a diagnosis after so long?

It was a huge sense of relief to get a diagnosis. I had reached out to a doctor in the past and he just shot me down, saying, "You're perfectly normal." Sadly, I took his word and it took years later and watching Tiktok videos of autistic women and how it works in women that I realized that’s my story. That’s what led me to getting help. It’s a huge, life-altering moment, and I finally have language for the things I struggle with. I talk about it and share it because I want that experience for everybody who is struggling with something that doesn't have a name. Or a doctor who says they don’t know what they're talking about. It’s about permission to advocate for yourself.

In the post, you also share what the specialist said to you at the end: “…and it’s not your fault.” Why do you think those words are so powerful to hear?

No one had ever said that to me before. I’d been putting all of this pressure on myself to figure out all of these autistic traits I had. I had no idea what they were. “I’m going to fix it. I’ve got to figure out how to navigate through this.” I really put that responsibility on my own shoulders. That’s definitely woven into the strong Black woman thing. I come from a long line of strong women holding it together. But the other side of that is “but not alone.” You don’t have to do it alone, and you're not supposed to carry it all on your shoulders. You’re worthy of that support. And hey, this is bigger than you.

What are your go-to forms of self-care?

Honestly, my community, which is pretty small these days. I’m very fortunate to have a sister who is like my best friend. We both have almost 2-year-olds. She and I talk all the time. It’s so nice to have that. Another thing, I try to make my son’s nap time my nap time. When he goes down, I try to go down with him. I haven’t taken naps in a long time [before that]. Another one is treating myself. Today I ate a snickerdoodle cookie that was delicious, for no reason.

What inspires you when it comes to writing poetry and creating art?

I’m really inspired by real-life interactions and real conversations. I started inviting people to send me an email to share a story with me, and I [would] respond with poetry or art. I love to meet people and connect with people. Being autistic, I do struggle a lot to connect in person the way I want to, so being able to write and make art and share with people in person allowed me to connect with people in a way that’s still authentic. That’s a huge inspiration to me. I still think about these people and their stories. Sometimes I turn a comment into a poem. I think there’s poetry hidden in daily conversations.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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