Stop swimming in the shallow end of self care

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When we think about self care, we focus far too often on things like having massages, going to yoga, or having naps. Now don’t get me wrong. These are important. A massage is wonderful, and many people find yoga re-invigorating. I personally love having a nap more than anything in this world. However, these are practices of self care and don’t represent the whole picture. They are also things that can feel like an addition to an already jam-packed to do list. And, too often, they get moved to the bottom of the list or bumped off altogether when we have ‘more important’ things to do. And that’s why we need to have a deeper understanding of self care that goes beyond the practices that help it come to life.

In the nonprofit sector, we do work that is often emotionally challenging. We help people that have fallen through the gaps of other sectors. We fight for a better planet, even when it seems like a hopeless climb. We can often be found doing work that no one else wants to do. A regular massage may be useful, but in order to truly be helpful in this work, we need to have a deeper understanding of, and commitment to, ourselves as individuals. This seems like a conundrum for many of us who are doing this work specifically because we want to focus more on helping others. But, it’s just like being on an airplane where we are told to put on our oxygen masks before assisting anyone else. When I first heard an air steward say that, I thought it was terrible advice. As a lifelong helper type, I considered it to be selfish. But with more travel and time spent on airplanes I understood it. And I really got it when I first went on a plane with my son. He was 5 months old and we were moving back to Canada from the UK. He couldn’t put his own mask on and completely relied on me to do it for him. I realized that if I did not make sure that I was breathing comfortably first, it was unlikely I would be able to help him properly.

The people we generally work with in the nonprofit sector are not helpless, and have often demonstrated incredible resilience and skill in surviving life’s challenges. But they do need something from us. They need our help, our support, and most of all, our compassion. And the compassion part is what goes first when we burn out or feel chronically stressed. The real challenge is that we often don’t see it. We blame the clients – ‘is it just me or are THEY getting worse’? We blame other staff. We blame our workplaces. We blame the government. But fundamentally, we have not been looking after ourselves and the burn out is a symptom of our inability to pay attention to our own needs on an ongoing basis.

So what does a deeper approach to self care look like? It looks like this:

I call this the ‘Circle of Self’ because we need all three of these elements - self awareness, self reflection AND self care working together to truly be able to look after ourselves both in the work and in the world.

Self Awareness is about knowing who we are. What gives me energy? What takes away energy? What triggers me emotionally? What values do I hold and what do I do when they feel compromised? Self awareness helps us to be more in tune with our own needs and how to meet them.

Self Reflection involves a practice of checking in with ourselves. How am I feeling? What is this reaction I am having to what that person said? What is going on for me right now? Self reflection helps us to better understand what is happening for us emotionally and gives us a little planning time to deal with things better.

Self Care is the actual practice of looking after ourselves. Whether that is eating better, going to yoga, or having horizontal life pauses (AKA naps!), it is about putting on our oxygen mask first. When we feel energized, refreshed, and replenished, we do a better job of helping others.

Now you may be thinking ‘that sounds great but where in my work day does this fit?’ The straight answer is it probably doesn’t right now. You have to find and take the time. Rather than working through your lunch break, go for a walk and have some thinking time. Set a timer and close your eyes at your desk for 10 minutes to relax or sleep. Set your intentions at the beginning of the day about the kind of day you will have and what you will accomplish. Keep it simple and only do what you can. Take time on the weekends to do nothing but dream.

Although self care is an individual pursuit, there is a lot we can do within nonprofit organizations to support our people in looking after themselves better. Nonprofits often have a culture of giving when it comes to our clients/customers, donors and funders. Unfortunately, we also tend to have a culture of taking when it comes to our employees. We work them hard all day, every day, all in the name of our cause. That needs to shift if we are to keep great staff, have employees that are ready and willing to help others in the best way possible, and most importantly, have people working for us that continue to care.

Here’s how organizations can grow a culture of self care:

Give more time off.  In many countries, the minimum number of days off per year is at least 20. This is a recognition of the need to re-charge. In the nonprofit sector, we don’t pay people the big bucks and we ask them to give a lot of themselves to what is often challenging and draining work. More time off means more refreshed and energetic employees.

Give time for reflection.  Have a culture of taking breaks, thinking about things, and taking planned action rather than constantly reacting. Openly advocate for your employees to take time to reflect and think throughout the day. Do some reflection together in team meetings.

Leaders: Model it. We are in a race to the bottom by continually talking about how ‘busy’ we are and competing with others for ‘busiest’. What is the prize to be won? When we as leaders incessantly talk about how busy we are, we are modelling the exact opposite of self care. For our staff to truly feel good about looking after themselves, leaders need to look after themselves first too.

I will expand further upon these ideas and give more helpful ‘how tos’ in the upcoming CharityVillage webinar, The Importance of Self-Care. I hope to see you there. In the meantime, I am off for my nap!

Lianne Picot is a self-described leadership and story obsessive who has worked in the nonprofit sectors in the UK, Ireland and Canada for over 25 years. Currently, as a Leadership Coach, Strategist, and Trainer, Lianne specializes in helping leaders to be more inspiring. Lianne is a Certified Executive Coach and a Part-time Instructor at The Chang School, Ryerson University, teaching in the Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Management Certificate program. Lianne is also currently undertaking her Master’s in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) with a focus on workplace learning. She is the creator of ‘The Leadership Leap’, an online leadership program that helps new and aspiring leaders to be more inspiring, have more influence, and get better results. Connect with Lianne at or find out more about her services at

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