Self-Care: You Can't Go It Alone!
I’ve been wrestling with the term of “self-care” since my YNPN fellowship, trying to broaden this care conversation from “self” to “collective” and from “independent” to “interdependent”. What I’ve learned: caring for myself – especially as I care for others – is absolutely vital. And, I can’t go it alone.
If I know one thing deep in the core of my being, it’s the miracle and importance of interdependence. Growing up in a diverse community where folks shared life’s ups and downs together, I became aware that I was not alone in facing challenges – whatever they may be. No matter what I’m struggling with, there are folks out there who can relate and/or support me, and there’s much I can do to identify and reach out to them. That truth has helped me through many difficult moments, and I try to convey it with others who might be struggling.
For me, so many things comes back to relationships: whether it’s developing leaders, building projects and campaigns, and making meaning in the world. My self-care and my effectiveness as a leader have been absolutely dependent on relationships with others: with mentors, caretakers, colleagues, and loved ones. My relationships hold me accountable to my goals, and support me when I have trouble caring for myself.
Accountability Partners Though I’m aware of my needs and goals, I’m more likely to take action and build positive habits when I’m not “going it alone”. That’s especially true if I’m struggling with discouraging thoughts, like “I’m too busy for self care” (oh, the irony!) or “I feel so overwhelmed with ________________.” It helps to have folks beyond my own internal dialogue who can reinforce positive thinking, remind me of my commitments and the values they’re built on, and encourage me to draw on my resources and abilities to face challenging situations.
Most of my relationships happen and evolve informally, but some have been more intentional and structured. I consider those folks accountability partners. Here are a few examples:
- Ellen and I met through a training program for activists and community organizers. We found several mutual interests, including healing the emotional wounds of injustice. In recent years, we’ve coached each other on issues ranging from personal and professional development to financial management.
- My college roommate Michelle and I served as Peer Career Advisors together: we both sought out opportunities to develop our own and others’ leadership. Throughout our careers, we’ve returned to that peer counseling model – strategizing about challenging work scenarios, prepping one another for interviews, and more.
- Katy and I were paired up for an exercise at a spiritual retreat, and have stayed in touch through a structured prayer practice. To use secular language: these conversations help us interrupt the hecticness of our day-to-day lives, refocus on our deepest values and intentions, and think more abundantly about what’s positive and possible in our lives, and in the wider world.
Three things that have made these accountability partnerships successful:
1. Create some kind of structure, and vary / adopt it as needed. I have mixed feelings about structuring my life: for example, I prefer setting my own varied work hours over keeping a rigid, standardized work schedule. With accountability partners, though, I’ve found that structure and regularity take our peer support to a new level. Structuring our time – flexibly so – also helps me stay connected with accountability partners across time zones and overlapping schedules.
For example, Katy and I have brief, structured check-in calls using the same format, even timing ourselves if needed. We each respond to the same basic question/s about how we’re doing and what we’re noticing in our lives, and reflect back what we’ve heard from each other. This helps us “go deep” quickly and make the most our limited time together.
Meanwhile, Ellen and I carve out chunks of time to connect, and then assess what kind of peer support we need most in that moment: We might want to chat most of the time, taking turns sharing updates or asking for feedback. Or we might want a quiet “work session” in which we tackle particular tasks side by side (whether in person or via video chat). Or if we’re in need of a particular self care activity and/or some time alone, we adjust our plan and make that a priority.
2. Connect with people both within and beyond your “usual circles.” Much of my professional and personal network is in the non-profit sector, which is wonderful for finding allies and mentors who understand what those leaders and organizations do day-to-day. At the same time, I’m glad to be connected to folks like Michelle, who’s worked almost entirely in for-profit settings.
Our interchange helps me think bigger than my own current context: about the issues that leaders face across industries and sectors, and about strategies and solutions for common challenges that translate into a variety of work settings.
Connecting ongoingly with someone outside the nonprofit world has also helped me understand the particularities of the sector: for example, the unique challenges nonprofits face in building and sustaining resilient leaders and organizations.
3. Interrupt “normal” working culture and share self care space with each other. One of my mentors, Paul, and I used to have walking meetings in a quiet hillside park. After a while, those walks became part of my muscle memory. As Paul and I talked and walked, my mind would slow down, and I’d gradually become present to the beautiful nature around me.
One time – I was running an intense political campaign, no doubt neglecting my self-care in the process – we paused atop the hill, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. I marveled at the contrast between the speed of the noisy cars and trucks and ships below, and that of the peaceful birds and trees right around us. Seeing that the world would continue moving along without me as I took some time to breathe in nature and sort my thoughts was a powerful, needed reminder that self care was not only needed, but possible within the intense pace of my work life.
Moving forward YNPN is built on a sense of mutuality: creating a movement with multiple avenues for people – in this case, young social change leaders – to both give and receive support, and witness each other’s growth and transformation. If you’re looking for an accountability partner, your local YNPN chapter – or even national resources, like the YNPN conference or LaunchPad program might have what you’re looking for. Or, think of relationships you already have in your life – with friends, relatives, neighbors, classmates, colleagues, or other community members. How you might more formally, intentionally leverage those relationships for your mutual benefit? What kind of personal or professional development goals could you move toward with support from others (while offering, in turn, the support they may need)? What kind of self care – and moreover, community care – is possible when we don’t “go it alone”?
Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward, a former YNPN national fellow, is a social change practitioner whose work has included ministry, community organizing, public speaking, writing, coaching, teaching/training, fundraising, program management, and more. Betty Jeanne drives social change through capacity building and by developing effective, sustainable leaders of all ages, with the goal of activating people, organizations and communities in pursuit of the common good. More on her work can be found on LinkedIn and in a recent interview by her seminary.