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 theircareers 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.