The Self-Care Paradox: Seeking Restoration in the System We’re Working to Dismantle

Photo by Glodi Miessi on Unsplash

I just finished dicing strawberries for my daughter as my wife grabs a bib and wipes down the high chair. This could be a typical morning, but it’s not. News of George Floyd’s murder is streaming from my iPhone atop our cherry oak wood table. Since the COVID-19 quarantine began, we’ve sat and listened to a five-minute summary of current events during meals.

Still, it’s unsettling to hear: “and the officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds.” 

We don’t stop eating. We’re used to this. Used to making decisions that help us survive, while the ache of grief coils around our chest and makes it difficult to breathe. 

I tell my wife: “Listening to his story, and the story of every single other Black person brutalized by police never feels old.” We’ve never had much time in between these omniscient and filmed killings. I’m convinced they won’t end in my lifetime. 

It’s no different when I scroll on social media. The most draining and angering content these days is seeing friends and influencers share their support for #AllLivesMatter. Not only does it miss the point of the Black Lives Matter movement, but seeing these sentiments causes distrust to bubble up within me. If they can’t take a moment to center a group of people who’ve been marginalized, enslaved and disenfranchised since they were brought to this country, how can they truly care about me? 

At some point I stop holding silent debates in my head and log off.

I never speak for all Black people, no one does, but it’s evident that many of us are tired, upset and angry. Taking care of ourselves feels like a paradox. How do we seek refuge and restoration in the very system we’re working to dismantle? How do we seek rest when there’s unrest everywhere we look? And why is it up to us to make others feel comfortable enough to fight for us? Using words like racism seems to push away the very same people we need as allies — the kind that stand with us, fight with us and use their privilege to affect change on all levels.

Let’s call it what it is: racism. It’s systemic, it’s here, and it’s taken its toll on my physical and mental health.

I’m no longer living for myself. I have a wife and child who need me to show up as healthy as I can. Alas, this is my charge. As a Black man, I’m called to discover a way to beat the statistics. To manage diabetes passed down to me from my grandmother’s grandma. To continue to utilize mental health services like therapy and psychiatry so that I can process the trauma and heartache. I refuse to quit. Not now when I recognize how much of a hole I’d leave in the lives of those who love me. 

And so, that’s my why. That’s what prompts me to remove myself from the conversation and from the activism for long enough to breathe, heal what I can and sleep. 

If you’re looking for ways to practice better self-care in a time when everything is burning down, here’s are a few tips: 

Be purposeful on social media.

This means asking yourself: “How can I be intentional with the next 20 minutes I spend online?” It’s helped me to set restraints for myself. For example, I’ve muted words like “shooting” and “murdered” on Twitter. I’ve shut off video auto-play on Facebook. And I quickly mute or block accounts that are just out to upset or be blatantly hateful. I’ll admit, I’ve taken time to report users who’ve violated community standards, but even this has been a drain on my resources. So, now when I’m online, I’m more intentional about being informed, laughing at the hilarity that is Black Twitter and connecting with friends who are standing with me. 

Designate news hours. 

We only listen to news during meals, and typically in five minute to 20 minute chunks. We have narrowed our subscription down to one media source so that we’re not induated. Taking in news as a family allows it to be a conversational tool. This way we’re not hit with something heavy and then going on with the rest of our day without processing it. 

Lean on your affinity group. 

I’m a member of a few Facebook groups for Black people (one’s for education professionals and the other is for lovers of Black film). We need time to rest, because racial battle fatigue can exhaust us. It’s easy to get caught up in constantly performing, or defending one’s Blackness. We get to put ourselves in places where we’re nurtured, where we can breathe easy and where we can be ourselves without having to constantly explain ourselves. 

Each of us has the personal responsibility of choosing to do what’s healthy, but this isn’t always the most evident or even attractive option. So if you’re drowning right now, if you don’t know which way is up, I want you to know that you’re not alone, and that asking for help doesn’t make you weak or less than. Taking care of yourself isn’t an easy thing, but it’s a necessary thing. 

Writer, womanist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

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Enough is enough: how to identify and manage burnout

Photo by Lechon Kirb on Unsplash

Everyone was where they were supposed to be: in class, in an office, in bed. But, I sat in my 2014 Toyota Corolla with the air conditioner blasting and gospel music filling me up. 

If I got out of my car and walked quickly to the office, I’d get to the staff meeting in time. But I didn’t want to attend another meeting that could have been an email.

I didn’t want to see my coworker’s faces or hear my boss give updates. My workplace was toxic. You could feel the disappointment when you walked into the office. Some people job searched during meetings, openly, unashamed. 

We had a reputation around campus. 

How is it in your department?

I heard Jack is leaving soon. Wow! He just got here.

You guys aren’t able to keep anyone for long, huh? 

They weren’t wrong. Our office had more turnover than a hipster bakery. It was bad. I was getting sick. The kind of sick Urgent Care couldn’t do anything about. It was the kind of sick that made it hard for me to breathe, to actually show up and do my best work.

Quitting felt like the only option, and that wasn’t an option because I needed that job. 

I was burnt out. Have you ever been there? Are you there now? 

Burnout is you when you are: 

  • Snapping at people more often than usual
  • Very easily frustrated by others
  • Tired of showing up 
  • Lacking any shred of motivation 
  • Overly sensitive to anything that’s said to you 
  • Ready to call it quits 
  • Inclined to settle for less
  • Far from being aligned with your values
  • Repeatedly making a lot of avoidable mistakes
  • Feeling isolated in your distress

And it’s not just at work. You can be burnt out with the significant other who keeps disappointing you and breaking promises, with the friend who seems to intentionally go against any sound advice, with a project you’re working on, with being a parent or guardian, with unreliable members of your church small group, with your government, with your life.

All of us hit a wall at times. Burnout is like hitting that same wall over and over again and feeling like you’ll never get around it, over it, under it, or through it.

It’s when you’re at the end of your rope, you’ve lost all hope, and you’ve said enough is enough for the last time. 

Step one: Get clear on your goals.

So, what can you do about burnout? Well, first you need to get clear on your goals and you need to be realistic. 

Keep in mind, stress is at the center of burnout. You can’t breathe and you’ve told yourself that you don’t have time to even figure things out.

Your goal might be to have more head space. It might be to have better boundaries in place. Maybe you want to be reassigned to a new team or group. Perhaps you want more help with the kids and it’s time to actually ask for help.

It’s going to look different for everyone.

The question to ask yourself is: If I had a magic wand, what would all this look like? 

Step two: Identify what’s in your control.

Who can you work with to give you leverage at your job? Have you been clear with your partner about your needs and frustrations? Are you continuing to pile too much on your plate, thus getting in your own way again and again? Are you playing therapist with your friends when it’s really you that needs to book an appointment?

Be honest with yourself. 

Step three: Take action.

I suggest taking one small action, then another, and building momentum. When you’re stressed out, it’s overwhelming to make big changes. Remember the last time you wanted to clean your house, but didn’t because it all felt like too much.

Don’t try to fix it all at once. Instead, pick one thing to tackle first. 

Whenever my computer desktop is cluttered with files, I create a folder titled Old Stuff and a folder titled Current Stuff. Then I sort everything into the two folders.

My desktop is now clear and I feel better.

Your small step might be to put up an away message and close your office door. It might be requesting a few days off in the next month. It could be cancelling a meet up with a friend who can be extra draining.

The key here is to take a small, simple, and effective step. It needs to be something you can get done in less than 10 minutes. If not, you’re just adding more to your plate and falling even deeper in to burnout. 

Final step: Get accountability and support. 

If you’re overwhelmed or feeling over it, you might be keeping all this in your head. It’s time to vent and share your frustrations with someone you trust.

It’s also wise to let this person know what you plan to do and to ask them to hold you accountable. If your plan is to set up a meeting with your boss to have a difficult discussion about how you’re doing all the work on your team, your accountability buddy should be following up with you to make sure you’ve actually had said meeting. 

Putting it all together.

Get clear on your goal, identify what’s in your control, take action, then seek accountability and support. You might find that it’s time for you to change jobs or leave a relationship, and if that’s where you land that’s okay.

But, sometimes, we’ve just got to a point where we don’t know which way is up. Where leaving isn’t the only option, and where things can be reconcilded and improved.

There aren’t always easy answers. 

You can do this. 

You don’t have to let burnout win. You can dig yourself out of this no matter the size of your shovel. Stepping back and getting a different perspective can make all the difference. It can give you a chance to see what’s been stressing you out. 

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