When you hear the words “self-care,” what images come to mind? Maybe you imagine peace and quiet on an empty beach with crystal blue waters or getting pampered at a local spa, but it could be as simple as being given an hour alone to catch up on a good book or enjoying a cup of coffee at your local park. Some of these images may seem unrealistic or even extravagant, and unfortunately, they don’t occur very often.
For those of us doing social justice work, self-care—in the forms above or in any other way—often feels like a luxury. A compounding factor for many who give their lives to social justice work is that this motivation comes from personal experience, so work and life are inseparable. The work never ends, so time for self-care feels selfish. This message is often accompanied by a societal message that you are not worthy of taking time away to care for yourself—a message that can feel particularly true for groups experiencing racism and oppression.
But as many people have spoken about over the years—in particular activist Audre Lorde and Lakota psychologist Martin Brokenleg, PhD (both of whom provided inspiration for this piece)—self-care is not just important; it is necessary.
With the trauma that accompanies oppression, both through lived experience and the work of social justice, self-care becomes necessary for healing, not just work-life balance. It will take some creativity to prioritize healing and learn to stop, rest and take care of ourselves, and it needs to involve strategies that are integrated into our day-to-day lives rather than focusing on once-in-a-while escapes. Three strategies for self-care you can start practicing on a regular basis are to strengthen your resiliency, identify your self-care rhythms and to practice community self-care. Here we break down what it means to do each of them.
1. Strengthen Your Resiliency
While chronic stress can result in illness, strained relationships or even lives ending early, it doesn’t mean that stress can’t be combated or even that it is always a bad thing. There is a great TED Talk that discusses how your perspective on stress is more influential than the amount of stress itself in terms of how it affects your life. The basic idea is that reactions will always follow stress, and these reactions can be positive or negative based on the amount and type of resiliency a person has built over time. When we talk about self-care, resiliency refers to being able to withstand the stresses that come your way through work and daily life. Building resiliency can take place in many ways. Here are three simple ways to help build the three different types of resiliency:
- The best and simplest way to strengthen our physical resiliency is through deep breathing, exercise and sleep.
- Some ways to strengthen our psychosocial resiliency are by feeling in control of our life, investing in our commitment to our work and feeling challenged rather than threatened by change.
- Strengthening our social resiliency can be achieved by having supportive social interactions and mentors, and engaging in positive teamwork.
2. Identify Your Self-Care Rhythms
Rhythms are defined as strong, regular, repeated patterns of movement or sound. When you identify a self-care rhythm that works for you, it is easier to integrate it into what you are already doing. One way of thinking about self-care rhythms is to do something daily, weekly, seasonally and annually to help bolster your self-care.
- Daily rhythm: Identify your foyer. Too often, people take their work home with them, whether it is physical work (paperwork or emails on your laptop) or emotional work (bearing the burdens of the community or your clients). This isn’t necessarily something you cannot or should not do, but it is important to have some space in your life that is separate from work. One way to help you transition to having more balance in your life is to identify your “foyer.” Just like a foyer in your home, this “foyer” is a space that allows you to transition from the public to the personal in your work-life balance. This may be meditating on your commute home, a walk around the block or a daily jog—anything that allows you to let go of the stressors from work and be fully present in the other areas of your life. Identify your “foyer,” and start making that a part of your daily practice.
- Weekly rhythm: Balance your activities. There is no “right answer” to what activities you should be involved in during the week. It varies for each of us, but four types of activities to consider balancing are work, family and relationships, yourself, and your traditions and cultures. Take a look at these four activities in your life and consider whether you have a weekly balance that brings you energy and nourishment. Once you identify the ideal balance for you, be conscious about making sure each activity is getting enough time.
- Seasonal rhythm: For each season there is a reason. Viewing our work in terms of seasons can help us to prepare and keep the long view in mind, knowing that each season will pass and give way to another. For example, just like fall, winter, summer and spring, there will be seasons of change, trials, growth, and service throughout your work year. When we acknowledge what season we are experiencing in our work, we can prepare to be present for that season.
- Change: One idea during times of change is to have regular meetings with your staff to process the change together. People are often at different places of embracing change and letting go of what was and having this communication not only makes it easier, but ensures each individual feels heard.
- Trials: Like winter, these times can often be difficult and feel like they will never end. It may be a good time to reach out to your community for support during these times. It’s tempting to isolate ourselves, but mentors and friends can often provide a fresh outside perspective.
- Growth: This is when we can finally see the growth that comes out of the trials and obstacles. Some ideas for self-care during times of growth are to read that book that your colleague recommended, invite others to learn with you or go to a training that could be refreshing and stimulating.
- Service: For many working in the nonprofit sector, we do the work for more than just ourselves, so it can often feel like you are always working in a time of service. However there will be times when we are more able to share the growth and joy we have received with others. Times of service are a great time to ask a colleague or someone at a partner organization if you could help them with that project they’re stressed about.
- 4. Annual rhythm: Take a vacation! Make sure you make time once a year to take some time off for you. Do whatever you need to recharge—a vacation far away, a short get away, get out in nature, be alone or spend time with family—whatever is most life-giving for you. Let life and work function without you. (If nothing else, they’ll realize how much they miss you and need you, and won’t take you for granted!) During this rhythm, it can be helpful to intentionally revisit your values and how you are integrating them in your life.
The key to developing self-care strategies based on rhythm is to not depend on the annual rhythm as your only strategy for self-care. Instead you can practice small acts of self-care on a regular basis.
3. Turn to Your Community for Self-Care
Sometimes the overwork people experience results from an expectation placed on them from the larger community. Our jobs don’t stop, and they often can’t stop. And all too often, we assume others are too stressed to be able to provide support. Asking for support can be a humbling action. Consider what type of support you need from your community in order to do the work well, and take care of yourself in the process. Additionally, your community may also be a rich source of self-care through culture—particularly for people of color—and things like spirituality, music, movement, meditation and intergenerational relationship-building are all powerful acts of self-care rooted within culture.
These strategies are a good base for self-care and can be used as the building blocks to find out what works for you. When we start to integrate self-care as an expected part of our lives, I believe we will start to see change—not only for ourselves, but in our communities as well.