Getting the Message

I knew something was terribly wrong when I could barely summon the strength to get out of bed to use the bathroom. For the next two days I remained in bed hoping that I had a bad case of the flu and that my illness would pass. Unfortunately, it didn’t.  Shortly thereafter I was admitted to the hospital with a case of double pneumonia.    

The week I spent in the hospital would have been a good opportunity for me reflect on my life and evaluate the choices that led me to being in this situation. Instead, all I could think about was how far behind I was falling in my work and getting back to the office as soon as possible.  Because other people were depending on me (or so I thought), my well-being came second to the program I was responsible for managing for an international aid organization.

Guilt about getting sick towards the end of an extended family visit and a desire to get back to work prompted my return to the office shortly after being released from the hospital. I was unprepared for the reaction I received from my supervisor and co-workers. Instead of being glad to have me back, they were genuinely concerned that I hadn’t fully recovered from my illness and had returned to work too soon. It was when I was lectured by a senior leader about the dangers of being a workaholic that I started to connect the dots between taking better care of myself and “being the change.”

Learning the Lesson

After my alarming wake up call, I took self-care a lot more seriously. Although my life changed for the better (or so I thought), I found out that there was more to learn about self-care beyond eating healthy, exercising regularly, and getting more sleep. Although my activities had changed, my mindset about self-care was largely the same. It was only when the next crisis hit that I became more fully aware of the lesson I needed to learn.  

Several years and a career change later I found myself on the verge of a melt down. On the surface my consulting practice seemed to be going well with several projects underway. The trouble was that in wanting to please my clients I had agreed to multiple deadlines that coincided. I found myself struggling to keep all of my commitments, especially since some of the projects were taking longer to complete than I had anticipated. 

Thankfully, I had a call scheduled with my coach just as I was feeling like a candle burning at both ends. Through our conversation I learned that by failing to consistently take my own needs into account, I had become a martyr again only this time instead of for a cause it was for my clients. In working with my coach I learned that I needed to value myself as much as my work and others in my life. This transition in perspective required being open to the possibility of “yes and” (figuring out how to get my own and others’ needs met) instead of being stuck in the limiting belief of “either or” (you win, I lose). More importantly, I realized that to “be the change” I needed to change my relationship to self-care to embrace wholehearted living.

Passing on the Message

In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown discusses what it means to live wholeheartedly, which is a reflection of our worthiness for love and belonging as well as demonstrating the courage to show up and allow ourselves to be fully seen. Among the qualities that constitute wholehearted living are cultivating self-compassion by letting go of perfection, cultivating play and rest by letting go of productivity as self-worth and exhaustion as a status symbol, and cultivating calm and stillness by letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle.

Brown’s invitation to live wholeheartedly is well suited to changemakers who are struggling to consistently practice self-care because they value their cause more than they value themselves. If the usual self-care tips aren’t working perhaps the start of the New Year is a good time to reflect on the quality of your life and whether this is helping or hindering your efforts to make a positive difference in the world.

The following tips are intended to help you develop the self-care practices that contribute to wholehearted living as a changemaker.        

·      Develop and maintain a self-care mindset: Being an effective agent of change involves adopting a mindset that is useful for achieving your goals. The first step is to become aware of your beliefs by paying closer attention to what you think and say. With self-awareness comes the opportunity to challenge beliefs that are inconsistent with self-compassion by reframing them. This could include viewing challenges as opportunities and failures as steppingstones to success. A coach can help you increase your self-awareness and challenge beliefs that get in the way of self-care. 

·      Set intentions and build a support system for self-care: Change begins with setting and following through on your intention. For example, making more time for play and rest could involve setting a timer for taking a stretch break during the day, scheduling time for going out with friends, or instituting a policy of not checking e-mails after working hours. The key is to develop a support system, like a friend or colleague that can hold you accountable for promises made, to ensure that intentions are fulfilled.

·      Make self-care a regular practice: Just as we apply our talents to bringing about positive change, we can also fully bring ourselves to the practice self-care. This could involve increasing our self-awareness through reflection and journaling. We can also bring more calm and stillness into our life through meditation.

My passion is helping changemakers build support systems, which leads to healthier and more productive work environments, which means that they are better positioned to achieve social change goals. By following my passion, along with the help of coaches and organization development training, I’m more aware of my learning edge when it comes to self-care. The challenge is maintaining my belief when the going gets tough that I am still deserving of self-care.

Where are you on your self-care journey?

This post was published by SEE Change Magazine on January 21, 2016.


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