As part of the research for our book, The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Impact without Burnout, I have been following the various conversations threads about self-care, avoiding burnout, compassion fatigue, and work/life balance in the nonprofit and social change sectors. A colleague who I have worked with in the past, Aisha Moore, a health and social justice professional tweeted me from the Mindful Leadership Summit. Kismet! Aisha and I had worked together on a social media training project for HHS/Aids.Gov, so I was excited to see another shared interest and connection.
Aisha Moore has spent 15 years in social justice and health care programs as a communications strategist. The sad truth is the passion that social change activists like Aisha have for their work is a double edge sword. One the one hand, it helps them to keep going in face of difficult challenges. On the other hand, it prevent them from refueling or noticing that they are experiencing the early warning signs of burnout. For Aisha, it came one day when leaving the office for lunch. She felt dizzy and lightheaded. She had to be wheeled out of the office on stretcher and taken to the hospital in an ambulance. After a battery of medical tests, she learned from her doctor that her symptoms were due to chronic stress.
“Stress? I love my work,” she told her doctor. She was so anxious that she did not even notice it was making her sick until she passed out. She recovered through a systematic program of self-care she created for herself. She then launched a coaching practice to help other social change makers avoid her mistake. Aisha was interviewed for a podcast as part of the Mindful Leadership Summit by Meditate This Podcast and shared some of her thinking about creating a self-care plan.
Aisha talked about moments of personal transformation. One of those came to her when she wrote a blog post called, “How To Take Care of Yourself When Your Black Life Doesn’t Matter.” She was feeling the stress of racism and wanted to write about how racism, stress, and mindfulness are connected. She wrote the post for herself, to process what she was seeing in the news and also reinforce the idea that is is okay to take care of herself. It became one of her most shared blog posts – it reinforced her new mission of self-care for social change activists.
On the podcast and her blog, she shares many practical tips about self-care. But the most important one is more of a mindset: Do not to feel guilty about self-care. “You are important, you come up first. Whether you have kids or a job, you have to lead from abundance not scarcity. Remember, that taking care of yourself is part of the work that nonprofits and change makers do in order to take care of others.” On her blog, she has a “Self-Care Bill of Rights.”
The road to well-being and life/work balance includes having a self-care plan. Says Aisha, “When I didn’t have a self-care plan, I got up 20 minutes before I had to leave for work. I gave everything to my work. Now that I have a self-care plan, I give everything to myself in the morning before I get to work.”
For Aisha, her plan includes having a morning and evening routine. Her morning routine is to get up early and spend two hours before going to work engaging in a mindful activity. She calls it, “Choose your own mindful adventure.” Whether this is writing in a journal, coloring in an adult coloring book, yoga, meditation, listening to music, or walking, she does something for herself. For her, she likes having the freedom of choice, although she tends to lean on journaling techniques like Bullet Journaling. She also has an evening routine that includes maximizing her sleep.
Aisha says that self-care is about setting boundaries and acquiring the skill of saying no, especially at work. “I work in an organization where everyone loves each other and everyone says yes. But, you have to realize that it is about being effective and you have to accept that you can’t do it all.”
What has having a self-care done for Aisha? She has a better understanding of her stress levels and knows how to turn around the physical symptoms of stress before it damages her health.
As a social change activist, she says that many people like her were simply not trained about the importance of taking of ourselves. In some nonprofit fields, social work, for example, there is more awareness of the importance of self-care. The University of Buffalo School of Social work has a self-care starter kit and Sara Kay Smullens book on self-care and burnout for social workers.
What do you do as a nonprofit professional to take care of yourself? How do you practice self-care without apology for guilt? How has it helped you be more effective?