As we enter a new era and a new year, I am dedicating this blog to all people who work to make a difference in the world. The topic I chose, caring for our selves and each other as we work to make a difference, is in keeping with the theme of transformation and renewal. Many thanks to Lea Arellano,of Human Solutions Consulting and Training, for her coaching and feedback in writing this blog.

Passionate People Losing Passion

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to make a difference. As a girl, I gave money to the United Farmworkers, marched with my mother and other teachers when they went on strike and protested the war in Viet Nam. Since then, I have worked on a number of different issues ranging from anti-racism to building support for LGBTQ youth. In the best of times, my passion and enthusiasm for social change has been nurtured through my work. In some of the hardest times, I neglected my own needs as I strived to contribute to the greater good. Years after I suffered the devastating loss of my first husband and developed a chronic health problem, I finally began taking my own well being seriously. Over the years, I have learned and relearned that self-care is necessary, not only for myself, but also for my work to thrive.

I am privileged to work with many people who were drawn to what they do because they care deeply about children and families, workers, people with life threatening diseases, the environment and a host of issues. Their workplaces give them a place to feed their passions and work towards the world they envision. Unfortunately, those passions often become dampened, when their needs are not attended to. Here are some of the things I’ve heard from people working on social causes:

  • “No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to meet expectations. I never feel good enough.”
  • “I don’t take lunch breaks. I work and eat at the same time.”
  • “My supervisor wasn’t supportive when I had to take care of my sick child.”
  • “I feel judged when I try to set boundaries around my time. Everyone is expected to be available all the time.”
  • “I wouldn’t want a leadership role, because then I really won’t have a life.”
  • “My work is emotionally draining, and I don’t have any support or time to process my emotions.
  • “The need is endless and I can never do enough.”
  • “The campaign always comes first. We are expected to do whatever it takes.”

In many cases, the people who work for social change put their own health and well being last. We work in a challenging world, often times on urgent issues against great odds. But, does this work necessarily need to involve sacrificing our own wellbeing?

The Cultural Challenge

There are many different reasons why self-care is low priority, including social injustices and a related lack of social investment in the important work we do. But, there is one obstacle that resides within many of us—the people who do this work.  This obstacle is a deep-seated cultural belief that caring for the people doing the work, our selves included, is less important than the work at hand. When we buy into this mindset, we develop organizational practices that are unsupportive of staff and volunteers.  And, as individuals, we may develop patterns in our every day lives that are detrimental to our wellbeing and sustainability.

Many people are calling attention to this as an issue of justice, organizational effectiveness, and sustainability. Today, I’m adding my voice to the choir. As people and organizations working for social change, it’s time for a cultural shift—one which values the people doing the work as much as the communities and issues we work with.

I grew up in the days when activists put many of their own personal aspirations and self-care on the back burner to work for social change. People who pursued their education, wanted to have children or wanted freedom to do other things were sometimes judged and seen as being self-indulgent and lacking commitment to the cause. While this way of being seemed necessary at the time, it was not sustainable. I am heartened to see many activists today who think differently and lead more balanced lives. I also see that we still have a ways to go.

Unlearning Ways of Thinking

In many cultures, including the dominant U.S. culture, many of us are taught that our needs are not important. Members of oppressed groups are treated as second-class citizens. As we internalize negative messages we receive, we may believe that we are not worthy or not important. We may believe that our ideas are not valuable, our dreams not realizable or our needs don’t matter.

We are taught to put our own needs on the back burner. Women are socialized to be selfless caretakers. Men, on the other hand are socialized to believe that their worth is largely defined by their careers and ability to earn money. Self-care (other than working out) is not considered manly. Guilt can also deter people from practicing self-care. It can be difficult to spend time or money doing things for our selves, when the destruction of mother earth continues, countless people are starving and homeless, and many more are threatened by violence.

This dominant mentality towards concern for self is embedded in our language. Words connected to “self”, like selfish and self-centered usually have negative connotations and suggest total disregard for others. We are taught that thinking about and tending to our own needs is in contradiction to caring for others.  This either/or thinking fails to recognize that as individuals we are connected to other people; and our health and happiness are also interconnected.

There is still a tendency among people working in nonprofits or social change organizations to value those who selflessly work long hours and set few personal boundaries. People who don’t follow suit may have their commitment questioned. This way of thinking can be very detrimental to the health of people and organizations. For individuals, it harms self-esteem and discourages people from setting healthy boundaries, pursuing their own passions, expressing or doing things to meet their own needs. At the organizational level, it results in high levels of burnout, high rates of turnover, unhealthy organizational culture and zaps organizations of their vitality and sustainability.

Good News!

The good news is that many people are recognizing the benefits of thinking and acting differently when it comes to self-care. Recognizing that old ways are not working, there are the beginnings of a cultural shift on this topic. We are beginning to recognize that self-care and caring for others aren’t mutually exclusive. Instead, they are deeply interconnected.

There is other good news! Some organizations have worked to embody commitment to their staff and volunteers. One organization I had the privilege to work with listened to and addressed the ideas and concern of every staff member and intern in their strategic planning process. Several staff wide dialogues as well as one-on-one meetings were held to inform decisions about a substantial restructuring of their work. Another organization restructured their workflow so that staff could have more down time and provided counseling support for staff working with clients with life threatening diseases. This staff framed “self-care” as an issue of organizational sustainability and gained support for the importance of these changes from their governing board.

A Different Mindset

We can shift our mindset if we reconsider the notion that there is something wrong with being self-important. Here are six reasons why our own needs and our own self-care are important.

  1. All of us matter. Every human being has thoughts, feelings, experiences and needs that matter. As Maisha Z. Johnson states, “…we all deserve care, simply because we exist. That means you.”
  2. For people who are marginalized and devalued by society, self-care is a way of claiming one’s own value and sustaining one’s self in the face of oppression. In the words of Audre Lorde “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
  3. When we care for ourselves, we can contribute more fully to our communities and society. We can nurture and pursue our passions more effectively. We can be more generous with others.  We can bring more happiness and peaceful energy to our interactions.
  4. Self-care makes it possible to communicate authentically. We can only express our thoughts, feelings and ideas if we value ourselves. Authentic communication is essential for effective teams.
  5. We are models for the people around us. By modeling self-care and behaving like our own needs matter, the people around us learn to do the same for themselves. For example, parents who value their own self-care help their children learn by example.
  6. Self-care is necessary for sustainability.  The work that we are all doing will require long-term commitment. By caring for our selves, organizations can reduce turnover and maintain continuity of staff. As individuals, self-care can enable us sustain our ability to contribute for the long haul.

Broadening the Concept of Self-Care

What do we mean by self-care? Some people shun the idea of self-care as something that is individualistic and classist, available only to the middle and upper classes. Self-care doesn’t necessarily involve yoga classes, organic food and meditation retreats. If we take a broader approach to self-care, it can have more potential and relevance to all of us. Self-care is the revolutionary idea that our own feelings, needs and thoughts are important.

Self-care might look different to different people. It might be tending to our spiritual or emotional needs, connecting with nature, finding an outlet for our rage, being listened to, journaling, caring for our bodies, creating a community garden, stopping to breathe, speaking up about something that is bothering us, connecting with community, setting boundaries, working for social justice, healing from oppression, finding creative expression, leaving a toxic environment, or pursuing our dreams. However it looks, self-care can only happen if we value our selves.

Self-care cannot happen in isolation. We cannot value ourselves if we don’t also value our fellow human beings and the earth that sustains us. Creating a culture of caring requires a cultural shift in our thinking and changes in our structures and patterns of living and working. In the long run, it requires shifting the priorities of our society so that the wellbeing of all people and the earth that sustains us are valued over the profits of a few. In the meantime, there is much we can do as individuals and organizations to build a culture of caring for our selves as we care for others and work for social change.

Note to readers: I hope you enjoyed reading “Lessons from the Field”. If you find this information useful and want to share it with others for purposes of learning (not for profit), please feel free to do so. Please acknowledge Mayeno Consulting and include my web address ( if you pass it on to others. Thanks!