I'm not here to convince you why self-care is important.
Because I think you already know. You know that if you don't take care of yourself, then you won't be able to help anyone else. Put your flight mask on first, and then help others. It's just that simple.
You also know that as advocates and do-gooders, we are the worst culprits of not taking care of ourselves. We slap on that “martyr” sticker and give everything we have to others even when it feels like we have nothing left to give. And then, fatigue and burnout ensue.
So, we're not going to spend any more time on the why.
Rather, I am much more interested in talking about what actually makes it so hard to practice that self-care all the time.
You know you should take a break, set a boundary, go to sleep earlier, get to that yoga class, or eat something that isn't a carb. Your head knows it.
But sometimes it feels like there is about 10,000 miles between what you know you should do and what you actually feel capable of doing.
This is what I like to call the "Self-Care Double Bind," and it's a sneaky little trickster.
The Self-Care Double Bind is the running feedback loop that tells you to "take care of yourself" in x, y, or z ways, and then makes you feel terrible and guilty when you aren't able to do it.
For example, here's a narrative that I hear from clients pretty frequently:
"I really should get to that meditation class today. I know that it will make me feel calm and centered. Today is busy but I have to put myself first, right?! Right!”
Cut to later in the day:
"I didn't get to the class. I must not be trying hard enough to take care of myself. It’s my own fault that I feel so exhausted and scattered."
Now, your narrative might not sound exactly like that one, but I bet that a lot of you have similar rolling thoughts, keeping you feeling like some kind of failure, or guilty for not "doing something right” or "being enough" in some way.
That is the Double Bind. And it is anything but a true expression of compassion.
Especially right now, as the events in Baltimore are unfolding and crowds are rightfully taking to the streets, the last thing any activist needs is to question their commitment to their own livelihood. Our drive to stay alive is, in fact, sometimes the only thing we have.
So, what would it look like if you pulled yourself out from that tangled Double Bind?
Well, I like to call that process: self-love.
If "self-care" is your nagging neighbor who is always ready to pounce with judgment, then self-love is your sweet dog who thinks you are the best person in the world know matter what.
Self-love is the lifelong journey that all of us are on.
With every decision you make, every relationship you start or end, even with every fight with a co-worker or with your mom, you are learning something new about what does or doesn't work for you.
And that process—that sticky, gooey, sometimes yummy process—of learning how to do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t, is self-love. And, it’s the key to feeling the alignment and contentment that we all crave.
Self-love might mean taking that long hot bath or showing up at that meditation class. But, it could also mean forgoing both of those things when what you really want to do is misbehave a bit or throw a tantrum for a few minutes. Self-love will remind you that it's all okay.
So as a starting point for getting untangled from that self-care bind, I invite you to ask yourself the following question:
What do I need in this moment?
Whatever the answer, accept it and follow it.
Following through on your core instincts and desires is what leads to a deeper understanding of yourself, and how to find your way back to that center at any moment.
And when you find yourself getting down on yourself, the broken-record of shame starts playing, or you’re heading towards burnout, tune in and ask “what do I need in this moment?”
Your mind, body, and soul will all thank you.
Alicia Jay is a certified transformational coach and the principal of Rabble Up (www.rabbleup.com), a coaching practice designed to help emerging leaders in the social change sector find sustainability and alignment in their careers and lives. She is also the Managing Director of Make It Work, a national campaign promoting economic security for women and families. With a background in leadership development, philanthropy, and gender justice, she has a deep understanding of how being an activist on behalf of others doesn’t always translate to advocating for your own needs, as well. She is out to change that.
We came to this work with a simple goal in mind: create social change.
Unfortunately, social change is not easy to bring about. The hours are long, the pay is little, and some days it can feel like time, energy and passion are being wasted. So we push ourselves further - staying later, working weekends, and never slowing down. After all the cause is noble, and sleep is a luxury we can’t afford. But sooner or later our “honorable” self-sacrifice catches up to us and we are left feeling exhausted and burnt-out.
But this is not the way it is meant to be! Somewhere between young idealistic intern and martyr for the cause we lost sight of a very important thing, self-care. Self-care is intentionally taking time to attend to our physical, mental, social, and spiritual needs. Despite popular belief, it isn’t selfish to make our own needs a priority. In fact it makes us better at our work! Like any flight attendant would tell you, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can think about helping someone else.
As simple as caring for ourselves sounds (I mean, who could know our needs better?), it is a task that eludes many of us. The concept is great, but how to we translate it into practice? After all, the emails won’t stop just because we decide to go to a yoga class.
CC Image Courtesy of Mike Rastiello via Flickr
It begins with intentionality. We have to be aware of our needs and ready to implement new strategies to meet those needs on a consistent basis. And it can start small. Perhaps with a commitment to go the gym 3 times a week, not check your emails on the weekend, or go to bed at a decent time each night (and actually sleep, not lay in bed and browse Pinterest). It will look different for each person but making a commitment to start is an important first step.
And remember self-care is a process. You won’t get it right all the time and that is ok! There will be times when it comes easy and times when it is hard. Have grace with yourself and stay devoted to finding balance.
And that is exactly what we at YNPN are committing to this May. Together we will explore what it means to practice self-care and provide practical tips to help keep your work and life in balance. And we want to hear from you! Follow the conversation at #npbalance and let us know how you make self-care a priority. The ultimate goal is still social change - we just have to start with ourselves to achieve it!