My five lessons in caring for self to care for others

“Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”― Maya Angelou, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now

I got back from ten days annual leave few days back. Getting back to work after a break is a mixed feeling of being rested but anxious to catch up, and in the work I am engaged in, it is non-stop speed throughout the year. In the humanitarian work, emergencies are part of life and urgency becomes a necessity not due to lack of planning but due to the often unpredictability of our work. There are usually issues that require attention and so one has to make a conscious decision to get away, replenish and get back. If this does not, happen we get fatigue and burn out, and even get sick. I am sure many will say the same in the work they engage in whether employed or self-employed or working in the home/family. It could be more tricky for those who work in the household for their own families as it is often said “she (mostly it is she) does not work she stays at home.”

Self-care is an issue I am very passionate about because of my personal experience of repercussions of burn out and listening to stories of many people in this sector. One of my favorite books in the women’s movement is by Urgent Action Fund, “What is the point of revolution if we can’t dance?” The book shares stories of women rights activists. Over a 100 women shared their experiences of stress, burn out, fatigue, working at finding a balance in life and hence a discussion on sustainability of the activists. Simply put “being able to do the work you love, and still feel happy in every part of your life”. This book comes to mind often when I think about self-care. It has a special nostalgic meaning in my life. I was excited to be participating in the 2008 Awid forum where the AUF launched the book and participants in the AWID’s 11th International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development had animated discussions around self-care. Ironically, I was at the point of complete burn out and I was pushing myself “one more day”. By the time, we left the conference in Cape Town my body had just had enough and I was put in an oxygen mask while in flight to Nairobi as I had problems breathing. When I arrived and went to hospital, the many tests revealed no sickness; the doctor asked me if I was fatigued, I was surprised. That was a momentous experience and a turning point for me. 

It is very easy to keep moving like a robot, working hard to ensure that work is done at both personal space and professional work. The roles that we have do not end at work but continue in the personal spaces with the multiple roles that we have. Professional life has a large contribution to our identity and sense of satisfaction. The humanitarian work that we engage in is really about saving lives. Many lives depend on our work both directly and indirectly. Emergencies are coming up every so often, one can barely keep track. There is need. Dire need in the spaces that we have under our responsibility. It is therefore understandable that often we fail to take our allocated rest days or when we do, we work as hard in other areas of our lives that the body and brain never gets time to recharge. 
In my professional engagement, I have interacted with staff who keep postponing their breaks. The HR policies often put some stringent measures to ensure that people take leave or forfeit the days. Other times, I have interacted with staff who have all the good reasons why they can would take their leave days … just yet.  I have interacted with women who do not think they work! They have no idea why they are so tired after all, “they do not work”. While I would not say that I have perfected this balance, or that I take my own advice all the time, I have learnt a few lessons: and I will share five key lessons below that I have learnt.

Listening to my body – the body is not very good at hiding what is going on inside. I realize that many times when I have experienced severe burnout are the times that I have been too busy to pause. Listening to my body means being conscious and when I feel that not all is well, then I need to ask myself what is happening. Sometimes I may not need annual leave, but just a pause. I realize that it is not so difficult to get that if I plan for it. It may even mean more hours of sleep, physical exercise, freeing my weekends, going for a massage among other basic things. More important, take a break when you need to and recharge.

Creating time for self – this is not easy yet so critical. Creating time for self when all the demands of life are beckoning requires discipline and determination. Creating this time for self can be few minutes in the morning and evening, or taking time away from work and house. I have found myself walking to a coffee shop just to take tea and sit around a coffee shop with no company for an hour when I do not attend to anyone’s need but just sit there and unwind.
connecting with nature

Getting away from the everyday life: the quote above by Maya Angelou challenges me. That life can go on without me, for a day, or forever. In order to be around to enjoy life more and be productive, I need to take the “day away”; otherwise, I may not be productive or may end up taking longer by default if I fall sick from burn out. I formed a habit of taking time away periodically and it is invigorating. Getting away from the usual environment even for a day makes a big difference. This does not have to be an expensive venture; then again, spending on yourself is important. I was surprised to realize the number of interesting places with great environment and connect with nature just few miles from where I live during my leave. Where possible I take time away every year to be away from the everyday hassles and bustles of life. One of the most interesting time was when I went away for a weekend to a place I had heard about that among other things had no telephone coverage. Being away from technology can be so relaxing, yet it is one of the most difficult attachments to forgo. 

Exploring my (healthy) hobbies: My hobbies include reading and blogging. When I am not doing these two, it is usually a sign that I need to recharge in one way or the other, though it can also mean a desired break. Sometimes I need to blog to let out and relax. When I get very inspired or not agitated by some experiences, blogging helps. I have therefore found relaxation in blogging and reading so I create time for these hobbies. This is especially tricky for persons working in the field but it is possible. When I worked in field, I always had extra luggage since I had to get enough books to last till my next R and R. Eventually the airline staff just knew I had extra luggage (all the time)and she would just smile and give me some concession so that I didn’t pay for every extra kilogram. It was worth it. I urge persons working in the field to explore their hobbies otherwise it is very easy to work 24/7. Eventually you get a way to explore what you enjoy or get a new hobby. I developed liking for kindle because of challenges of extra luggage so I could balance between physical books and digital reading and still pursue my hobbies. There is always a way.

Exercises (physical, spiritual, mental) – exercises are crucial to the well-being. I have learnt that ensuring I exercise physically, mentally and spiritually keeps me going. I note how a short walk early in the morning makes me feel energized during the day, or engaging in something that challenges me mentally this can be reflections, meditation or other ways of connecting with self whether you in religious or non-religious.  Moments of silence are golden. I often look out for something to learn that is different from my every day work.

Lastly, life is never so serious … well it is serious but not so serious that we cannot dance, right? We work on difficult issues and we have a vision of a revolution where there will be justice and peace, but if that happened and we became the ‘victims’, then what is the point?


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