June 2, 2016

The Re-Integration of Self-Care, When all we’re doing is Just Existing.

woman beach quiet slow down self care

“Would you say that you’re burned out?”

I looked up from my food and saw the concern on my friend’s face.

Her eyes were filled with a caring curiosity that I had not seen before. I told her I was just fine and that there was no way I was burned out. Sure, I work literally all of the time (seven days a week, to be honest) but I reminded her that I’m used to working so hard.

She asked me what do I do to take care of myself.

Putting my fork down, I had to think for a minute. “Well, when I get off of work, I take a shower, and umm…I have dinner. I may watch a couple shows on TV and then I usually go to sleep.”

Picking up my fork again, I went to shovel a spoonful of gnocchi in my mouth, hoping she would decide to just drop it. Noticing that she was silent and had not responded to what I said, I looked up again, and this time I was clearly annoyed.

There she was again, with those worried and concerned eyes. I asked her what was she so worried about. She described how she’s been noticing I’ve been more irritable and exhausted lately, recalling recent conversations and interactions with me where my energy has not felt warm and loving.

“You used to remind me of the sun, and now you don’t anymore,” she said.

Recalling a recent conversation where I complained about something at work, she pointed out how I’ve been feeling less and less appreciated at my job for the work that I do. My eyes started to well up with tears and I said to her, “I’m just so tired, like emotionally and spiritually.” My heart felt heavy as we finished dinner that night.

Over the next few days, I began to notice the changes in my daily routine. I used to journal on a regular basis, but lately, there’s been none of that. Cooking and baking were forms of self-care, and something that happened weekly, if not daily. Now, I find myself eating take out more often or throwing together random food items scavenged from my refrigerator. Most meals have been alone. By choice. Drinking happened much more often during the week. One glass of wine with dinner had turned into two, or three.

Admitting to myself that I was experiencing burnout, which can be described as a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, was really difficult. As a mental health care professional, I encourage my clients to integrate self-care into their lives, and it felt embarrassing to admit that I was not following my own advice.

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” ~ Lena Horne

Shortly after the epiphany that I was burned out, came the shame.

As a black woman, I have received so many messages growing up about “being strong” and resilient. We praise black people who, despite the constant fight against oppressive and harmful systems, have managed to achieve wonderful things. We admire black folks who have defied the systems that said they would never succeed, amount to anything, or be viewed as beautiful.

Although all of that magic deserves to be acknowledged and reveled in, we often forget to talk about the black people living and struggling with exhaustion because the systems we are pushing back on in the hopes of freeing ourselves, push back just as hard. We barely touch on depression and anxiety in black communities.

The message we receive growing up about mental health was that you pray about it and you struggle some, but then you get over it. But what happens when the struggle starts to feel heavier than it used to, or when the getting over part doesn’t come as quickly as it once did?

What happens when you get tired of pushing back and choose to just exist and to do what you have to do, go to sleep, wake up, and do what you have to do again? What happens when joy begins to feel fleeting and rare?

Making a choice to invite love and joy back into the heart, mind, and soul, through intentional acts of self-care, can help to prevent burnout. The following were helpful for me as I considered ways to re-integrate self-care when experiencing burnout or fatigue:

1. Be gentle with yourself.

It is okay to not be okay. Holy sh*t. Say it again. And again. Tell yourself this as many times as you need to until you start to truly believe it. It is okay to be sad. It is okay to be needy. It is okay to want support. It is okay to cry. It is okay to be angry. It is okay to just want to rest. It is okay to not feel well in your heart and in your soul. It is okay to not be okay. We have to remind ourselves that our feelings are valid and real and that we are not deserving of harsh criticism, even from ourselves, about those feelings. Being gentle with yourself and tender with your heart can be hard to do at times, but necessary.

2. Be honest about your emotions.

Saying, “I’m sad” or “I’m lonely” or “I’m feeling really nervous right now,” and allowing the space for that feeling, or state of being to be processed can be so empowering and healing.

Many of us have a history of taking all of our emotions and putting them in a box, which we then carry over to a closet. We stack that box nicely inside of the closet, on top of the others, and close the door. Although, we might feel better in the moment, we don’t feel better in the long run. Those feelings never go away, regardless of how much we try to stifle or hide them. What happens to those feelings is that they build on top of each other. They fester in the closets inside of us and eventually everything comes tumbling out. We implode or we explode.

Choosing to be honest about our feelings, as we feel them, and setting up the expectation that honesty about feelings are welcomed and respected, can help to prevent that inevitable moment when sh*t finally hits the fan. Plus, being honest about those feelings allows people we are connected with to be honest about theirs, which can lead to more authentic connections.

3. Ask for support.

“I need help,” can be so incredibly hard for people to say, especially people of color, particularly black people. All of our lives we’ve had to work hard and often times without stable and consistent help from others. We get so used to doing everything on our own that we forget that sometimes we need help. Asking for support from a community, family, chosen family, mental health professionals, or trusted colleagues is an essential component of self-care and healing.

We can’t do this alone. You can’t do this alone and you don’t have to.

Through love, empathy, and compassion we can support one another through difficult times, when we find ourselves lost in the dark parts of our minds and souls. We always find our way back to the light much easier when we’ve got a friend holding our hand and walking with us through all of the darkness.

4. Take care of your body.

This looks differently for different people. For some folks, taking care of their body looks like laying on the couch. For others it may look like yoga and meditation. For some people taking care of their body may mean exercising. For me, taking care of my body looks like resting it. Taking care of my body looks like sleep. Taking care of my body looks like a bowl with two scoops of ginger snap custard. It looks like swimming in a cold spring. It looks like wading in water at the beach. On a day when energy is bursting at the seams, it looks like twerking to the new drake album in my apartment, as my dog dances at my feet.

Whenever we lose sight of self-care, and find ourselves lost in a stage of burnout and exhaustion, our bodies become less of a priority. We start doing less of the things that used to make us feel good. In our journey to re-integrate self-care back into our lives, we have to remind ourselves to do more of these things. Our souls always feels lighter and the smiles show up more frequently when we feel better in our skin and in our body, whatever way that looks like for you.

5. Make time to do more of the things you love to do.

What is it that you like to do? What makes your heart sing? What makes you laugh and smile? What lifts you up whenever you’re feeling down? What makes you feel connected to your community, your environment, and your spiritual self? What recharges and rejuvenates you? Ask yourself these questions and invite others to do the same. Making a list helps. Being intentional and setting boundaries with time helps.

My biggest excuse for not engaging in self-care was that I didn’t have the time. However, as we find ourselves experiencing burnout, we realize that not making the time for the things we love to do hinders us from doing work that feels sustainable and effective. Not showing ourselves what love looks like, makes it hard for us to love others fully.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” ~ Audre Lorde

Now of course, it’s important to understand that self-care sounds like a privilege at times. One that isn’t accessible to everyone all of the time.

Often when I talk about self-care and the accessibility of self-care, I think about my mother who worked a full time and part time job, while going to school, and had to take care of two children. We were poor and she had to work her *ss off to keep the utilities on and to keep a roof over our heads. I think about how inaccessible self-care was for her because life and all of its complications was just all-consuming. Providing for my brother and I was her priority, and taking care of herself was not.

However, how I’ve come to understand self-care is that it does not have to look any particular way. It doesn’t have to cost any money and can be done at any point in time during the day.

Self-care can look like a cold soda, having lunch outside instead of in the break room, or slowing down to gaze at the sunset on a drive home from work. It can look like playing with your child a few minutes before their bed time and allowing their laughter to become yours. Self-care can be a hot bath or shower. Self-care can consist of practicing gratitude and being thankful for life. It can look like reframing a negative situation into one where it can be viewed as an opportunity for growth.

Self-care is whatever you choose it to be.

Allow yourself to invite joy and self-love into your heart and mind through intentional acts of self-care. Believe me, there’s always time.


Author: Alandria Mustafa

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Image: micadew/Flickr 

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