The Self Care Shakedown

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This past Sunday Minds On Fire hosted its first Self Care Shakedown for youth development professionals. By all measures, the event was a success! We were at capacity, and all attendees brought their best selves to an afternoon of challenging internal work. The premise behind the Shakedown is that getting further along in our self care is not a matter of “doing more.” We won’t really be taking better care of ourselves if all we aspire to is to be able to go to the gym more often, meditate for longer, or get more massages. No: The self care journey is about transformation. It’s about figuring out and committing to a new way of being in the world. That’s why it’s a shakedown: We aren’t messing around here!

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I was pretty much on a high for a full 24 hours around the event, but perhaps the most exciting bit for me was getting to debut a brand new workshop that I’m provisionally calling “Core beliefs or Sacred Cows?” (You will recall that I am currently obsessed with staring sacred cows in the face.) I’m of the opinion that youth-service professionals—myself very much included—are a very particular type of animal: We come to this work for very specific reasons that probably reach back to our own childhoods, and we bring a certain disposition to the work that is a double-edged sword. If that sword starts bleeding you dry, might I suggest swapping out the weapon for a less hazardous tool? This exercise gets to the heart of that process very, very quickly.

We start off by listing all the reasons why we entered youth work and continue to do it: Why We Do What We Do. Then we build a second list called Pain Points, which airs all the ways we suffer in our work. My hypothesis is that there are aspects of what appear in the first list that lead to all our complaints on the second list. If I am right about this, and I believe I am, then it is in our power to resolve our pain points. We do this by questioning all our assumptions—even if they may feel like our most deeply held principles (remember, these are sacred cows!)—and finding healthier ways of framing our work.

You probably won’t be far off imagining many of the reasons this particular room full of people entered youth service, and I bet you can guess at least three ways in which we struggle with it on a daily basis. But in the interest of confidentiality, I will only go into my own example so I can walk you partially through this process of taking a sacred cow and turning it into a core belief that you can then play around with. My motivation for entering the work was “Because I love my young people.” My pain point (all last year) was “Why am I burning out doing something I love?” 

So the first thing I have to recognize about my situation is that one of the causes of burnout for me is rooted in what I had named as my primary motivation for doing the work. This was a very bitter pill to swallow. For a very long time I could not accept the fact that it was possible to work too hard on something I was passionate about. If I “loved” my work, was it even work? It took physical illness for me to finally accept that YES, overwork is overwork—it doesn’t matter if it’s manual labor, intellectual labor, creative expression, or “purpose-driven” work. A human being has limits.

The second thing I had to reckon with was my definition of “love.” Well, first of all, consider the possessive “my” in that statement. There is some affection there, for sure, and a healthy dose of responsibility, but that can easily creep into shades of obligation that probably aren’t good for me. And then, of course, there were a lot of unhealthy behaviors attached to my old definition of love—poor boundaries and martyrdom, just to name two. This realization led to me redefine love in a way that served both myself and others much better.

This is just a quick overview of the exercise. In follow up workshops I’d like to devote more time to how I sit with my phrases and attune to my body in order to help me find points of resistance, and also to use the mind in service of the heart to change the language we use to talk about our work. This is a matter not only reframing our approach to work, but also a profound process of changing perceptions of who we are in relation to our work, and transforming our ways of being in the world. This is deep stuff!

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