Self-care for Sustaining the Work

This post is an expansion of a post published at the website of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

I was at a recent gathering of crisis workers when the topic of conversation switched to self-care. With enthusiasm, each of the attendees began to tell us their favorite activities. “I do yoga after work most weekdays!” “I’m in a book club with a handful of friends.” “I like going hiking when the weather’s nice.”

The mainstream dialogue around self-care is full of articles about making time for self-care activities in the midst of our busy lives. It’s no wonder we think of self-care as something that we do, rather than viewing it as a philosophy of life, an essential part of our work, or a way we move through our complicated lives, especially as advocates and preventionists dedicated to the movement against sexual violence. It includes making time for things that nourish us, recharge our batteries, and bring us joy. It also means being gentle and present with ourselves in our missteps as well as our successes, in our reactions as well as our intentions, and in our heartache as well as our joy.

As survivors, self-care can mean giving ourselves permission to move through our trauma in our own way and at our own pace. It can mean remembering (and eventually believing) that we are worthy of love and healing, even if love and healing have not been offered to us in abundance by those we trusted. It can mean learning and re-learning, over and over again, our needs, wants, bodies, and desires, so that we can come more and more fully into the spaces we inhabit with connection, rather than dissociation.

As advocates, self-care can mean learning how to tell when we’re feeling a personal discomfort rise up in our work, and learning to balance holding space for others with protecting our own tender hearts. It can mean stepping back to heal ourselves more intensely when we need to, without shame, and stepping up when we’re able. It can mean recognizing the limits of what we are able to do when a boundary is the most appropriate solution, and learning to take care of our hearts when those moments happen. It can mean speaking our truth compassionately even in the face of fear, allowing for silence to listen deeply when words are not helpful, and continuing to grow in ways that allow us to know which is needed in any given moment.


Cozy blanket and pillow, self-care corner by desk, tea station, nice lighting, and pictures of people I love.

As organizations, self-care can mean recognizing that the conditions that allow employees appropriate rest and opportunities to heal and thrive increase an agency’s longevity and potential to flourish. It can mean encouraging debriefs to reduce vicarious trauma, as well as learning about and incorporating trauma-informed supervision to your workplace norms. It can mean encouraging employees to have spaces that are comfortable and personalized to work in, and structuring time and schedules so that enjoyable, recharging activities can be woven throughout the workday.

Standing desk for dance-writing, live plant, rope light, bright window!

What does that look like in practice, in our agencies? At my day job workplace, it means my office is vibrant and quirky, with fun lighting and visuals that inspire me. I have a stress ball and fidgets in my junk drawer and a space heater under my desk since toasty feet is one of my simple pleasures. I have a fuzzy blanket on my chair for if I’m feeling a bit chilly, a tea station in the corner of my desk, and a variety of aromatic teas that taste exquisite. I have a massaging roller ball that I sometimes roll my feet on, a foam roller for my back, and a standing desk. When I have a lot of reading to do, sometimes I’ll close the door to my office, lay on my foam roller, and read while stretching desk-sore muscles. When I have a lot of writing to do, sometimes I’ll take my laptop to the standing desk, put in headphones with a favorite playlist, and move to the music while responding to emails.

My coworkers and I check in on each other throughout the week, and try to be good about reaching out, to each other or to our supervisors, when we need a little extra support. Staff meetings regularly include a moment to share a celebration — something in your work that you are rocking — so your team can celebrate with you. When someone has a family emergency or illness, our team works together to fill in any gaps so that the work still gets done without becoming a burden to any one of us, knowing that the same kindness would be extended to us should we have a crisis. We have an office culture that fosters and encourages big dreams and reaching our fullest potential while allowing space for being human and continually in progress. It is a privilege to have a job where these things are possible, though it should be the norm. It is an imperative for companies, agencies, and workplaces to find ways to tend to employee wellness and self-care in ways that work for the type of business, especially in high-stress, direct service jobs, especially considering the high cost of employee burnout and turnover.

For all of us in all our roles, it means recognizing that the space we take up in our lives, our offices, and our communities, however focused or expansive, has worth and is deserving of security and support. It means recognizing that there are times we will expand and times we will contract, and that we can reduce burnout by making time to take care of our tender hearts and exhausted bodies, both inside and outside of our workplaces.

And why do we do self-care?

So that we can stay present. So we can learn from the world around us without being too tapped out to notice what it is telling us. So we can feel great love and compassion in addition to giving it to others.

I have been re-reading Emergent Strategy lately, as I prepare to engage my work in 2019 with renewed vibrance and attention to holism. I want to offer something holistic, that helps to firmly place my work in its context and each of us in our humanity. I want to learn along with you how to better care for myself as I care for others. I want to learn along with you how to transform myself as I transform our culture. And I want to learn along with you how to listen and pay attention — to my own body and self, to friends and family, to those I support, and to those who bring me feedback.

This is my vocational intention for the coming year, my hope: to continue doing my work to end sexual violence, improve sexual health, and increase pleasure; to continue organizing for LGBTQ+ rights, community, and freedom; and to work against oppression in all its forms while helping people find meaning and safety in their worlds. May I always do so with love, creativity, and wisdom.

I am listening now with all of my senses, as if the whole universe might exist just to teach me more about love. I listen to strangers, I listen to random invitations, I listen to criticisms, I listen to my body, I listen to my creativity and to the artists who inspire me, I listen to elders, I listen to my dreams and the books I am reading. I notice that the more I pay attention, the more I see order, clear messages, patterns, and invitations in the small or seemingly random things that happen in my life. In all these ways, I meditate on love.


adrienne maree brown in Emergent Strategy
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