I consider myself a servant leader. My main purpose in life is to serve others and use my privileges, resources, and power for the betterment of my communities. I know many, many people like me who seek to be the change they wish to see in the world. And like me, most of these people burn out at some point in time. My family constantly worried that I was doing much for others but nothing for myself, and I know many of you can relate.
"Denise, but how can you keep helping if you're not helping yourself? How long do you think you can keep this up before you crash and burn?"
A few years ago while I was more heavily involved in activism, I had a health scare involving my uterus and ovaries. I was diagnosed with a semi-advanced level of endometriosis and had an orange-sized cyst on my right ovary. As someone who has always wanted to be a parent, and someone who had been relatively healthy, I was extremely scared. I had surgery to have this large cyst removed so it wouldn't erupt in my body and cause further issues. I was forced to rest for the first time. After years of working three jobs, plus running my organization for activism work, my body told me to slow down, and I finally recognized how burned out I was.
Since my surgery, I have been forced to care for myself in different ways: healthier eating habits (I don't put salt on my barbacoa anymore, ok!), working out and not hating it the whole time, and prioritizing my spiritual and mental health.
Thankfully, I now have ONE job where I'm paid to serve some of the communities I love so much. I have my weekends back and I can afford to see a therapist. I am fully cognizant not everyone has these resources readily available or accessible to them. I tried to Google "mental health of public/social service workers," and could only come up with hiring information related to social workers who specialize in mental health care or what roles social service workers play in helping those with mental health issues.
What about those of us who help all kinds of people from all backgrounds and situations every single day? How is being empathetic and action-oriented with little to no outlets for ourselves affecting us and our health? (Yes, compassion fatigue is a thing.)
(Side note: I wonder if data collected would show a clear trend reflecting women as the majority of those in these positions and feeling these effects.)
Following my wake up call, I now frequently consider the "airplane attendant" model of self-care my family tried to impart: put your mask on first before you can help those around you. Basically, how helpful can we truly be if we're not caring for ourselves first? Trust me, I know how hard this mentality can be to center, and I often experience guilt associated with feeling extremely selfish.
Because my job is hyper-focused on working directly with individuals and families to aid or solve their issues with local governmental resources, I find myself not having any energy left to expend on socializing or connecting with others for fun like I used to. This is a new symptom of this work I hadn't anticipated fully.
I initially thought maybe my want to isolate and stay at home was a sign getting older, but as I've further examined my feelings and patterns, I feel like I give all of my social energy away at work and save none for my friends or the communities I was inextricably a part of. Often, the thought alone of willingly socializing exhausts me further. When I do try to socialize I feel like I'm performing as myself versus fully showing up and being present. Of course this is no benefit to anyone, especially myself. Lately I've felt extremely isolated and disconnected from all of the things I used to love about being a social person, as someone who genuinely enjoys connection with others.
After I purposefully skipped out on yet another interesting social event, I reached out to my online community who also have heavily people-centered jobs. I asked what they do to restore their energy. A few responses shared they spend time with their pets, and many shared they spend time in nature. Some helpful advice was completely disconnecting from being online and scheduling time to be completely alone. It personally helps me to spend time in bodies of water, read a fiction book for fun before going to bed, journal, and dance. A lot of these were things that brought me joy as a child. (This is topic which I will expand upon in another blog in the future.) I did more reserach about "social fatigue," and have found many resources relating to the symptoms and solutions. In many ways it's comforting knowing I'm not alone, but I also can't help to reflect how sad it is so many of us continually operate this way.
While we have ongoing conversations on how the disease of capitalism has once again caused an ugly symptom of a culture that ingrains working until we get sick and/or die, I hope we can have more conversations on what we can all do for ourselves to take care. I hope we can continue to have conversations on what community cares looks like and how it can be implemented for all people.
To those of you in public service jobs - where our compensation will likely never match our effort and care to make this world a little bit better than we left it - I see you and I am you. This is as much of a note to me as it is to you: take care of yourself because all of us need all of us to build a better tomorrow for all.
Keep up with my musings about political chismé, life, my relationship, food, San Anto history, my dog, and everything in between.