How to Care for Yourself When You’re Caring for Others

If Your Life Work Supports Others, You Owe It to Them to Support Yourself

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Finding your calling in life is a tremendous gift, and I wake up every day grateful that I found mine: working toward a more inclusive and equitable city in St. Louis, my hometown. Still, giving your whole life over to a cause you’re tremendously passionate about can take a toll on your body and mind.

I work at the intersections of education, equity, and entrepreneurship, and my work life revolves around the planned chaos of consulting, training, workshops, and advocacy. I run a consultancy through ExpandED Equity Collaborative, host podcasts through ExpandED Conversations and Educators for Social Justice, and am the co-founder of GLAMM-Girls Lead and Make Moves. Oh, and I work full-time managing the Education Hub. And I’m a wife and mother.

In other words, my goal isn’t to just build an inclusive, collaborative, multidisciplined community, and it isn’t just to eliminate barriers for people of color or support folks at their most vulnerable. My overarching goal is to be able to make a difference in the world without losing sight of something we all take for granted: ourselves.

Nurturing others? Learn to nurture yourself.

One of the things I love about my work is that each day brings new chances to engage with people. For example, an artist I recently met with challenged me to shift my thinking on how I can really set an example of living out the kind of change I want to see in St. Louis. Having those deep conversations is one of my favorite things I get to do, but it also burns through a lot of my energy. If I don’t refuel, I’ll inevitably be unable to keep giving to entrepreneurs, educators, teachers, students, and my city as a whole.

That’s one of the reasons the nonprofit and social work worlds are rife with burnout. One survey estimates that around half of all people working in my sector are either completely depleted or darn close. Ultimately, this hurts them, as well as their organizations and the people they serve. And that, of course, only leads to more stress — is it any wonder that nonprofit turnover is at 19 percent?

It doesn’t help that being a person of color further increases my risk of burnout: In research conducted by the National Survey of American Life, 5 percent of African-American and a little less than 3 percent of Afro-Caribbean survey participants reported generalized anxiety linked to racial discrimination. Adding those pressures to an already hectic routine can put your mental health at risk if you don’t actively take measures to care for it.

3 tips to help calm the soul amid chaos

If your goal is to help others, you need to start by helping yourself — and the more hectic life gets, the more important this work becomes. Here are some productive, healthy ways you can add a little “me time” to the tornadic mix.

1. Bookend your days with reflection and peace.
Two hours before my family wakes, I’m drinking coffee and setting intentions for the day. I consider this time sacred. Not only do I read and send pressing emails, but I also update my calendar and review my to-do lists. Having an early focus on what’s important helps me map out my days. At nighttime, I make sure I’m ready to journal before bed, dumping ideas into a place I can return to later for inspiration or reflection.

2. Schedule a monthly pampering session.

One day a month, you won’t find me in the office right when it opens — I’ll be enjoying breakfast and a manicure, appointment-free. I look forward to that date with myself and work toward it with joy. Of course, I also do little things for myself that dovetail with my passions throughout the month, such as buying local from folks of color in St. Louis. But intentionally setting aside a specific time for myself every few weeks helps keep me balanced throughout the rest of the month.

3. Steal time from work for family.

I have three daughters: one at college, one entering college, and one in elementary school. My husband and I recognize how precious and fleeting our time is with our children, so we make moments together count. To honor this time, I intentionally block off the calendar to fill my emotional cup with family. I work hard to make the world a better place for my kids; I should be able to enjoy the fruits of those labors.

4. Embrace the power of your energy.

If you haven’t tried meditation, I highly recommend getting on board. Talking about race and racism can be hard, hard work, especially when you’re helping people of color work through internalized racial trauma that negatively impacts our own communities. By meditating, I calm my brain and find clarity after difficult conversations. I’m left feeling energized and positive, ready to tackle another day.

When you find your calling, you’ll no doubt pursue it fiercely. But don’t forget to balance your hard work with time spent to improve your quality of life. Otherwise, you’ll never have the drive you need to fully reach your potential.
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