As a mental health advocate and consultant, I speak about self-care. A lot. Districts ask me to come in and speak about self-care. A lot. For organizations, it feels like a safer bet than speaking candidly about educator mental health. But there has been a lot of bad press about self-care in general, and I think it's important to understand the difference between practicing self-care and expecting change...because they're not the same. .
Before I begin, however, I want to address my definition of self-care as it's different than the typical manicures and yoga that people usually assume is being discussed. I define self-care as the ways you take care of yourself that improve your mood, your physical wellness, and your mental state. I believe there are four types of self-care: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. You can read more about self-care in Self Care that Goes Beyond Mindfulness and The Self-Care Dilemma and Four Types of Self-care.
I want to be clear about my feelings about self-care. First, it is scientifically proven to build resilience and change the way your brain works (find a Ted Talk here, a study on self-care related to compassion for others here, a study on culturally responsive self-care for educators here). Self-care is not fluff. It is not something extra we do. It is not only about the people who "can" get manicures, or the ones who "take the time" to get massages. It is the necessary things you do to keep your body well. It's like taking a moment to stop and fill your gas tank so you can keep moving or taking your car to the shop for preventative maintenance because it's better to take the time to do both of those than have your check engine light go on.
Self-care also is not the entire answer for what needs to be a complete systemic shift in the way that we expect people to work through really difficult times. There are a few concepts that fall under this same category. Telling people to build resilience, for example, but at the same time ignoring the need for solutions to a difficult situation - is not okay. Telling people who are overwhelmed and at capacity to change their mindset and things will be better - is damaging. Asking people to take care of themselves without a systemic shift in the way that the organization operates - is not an answer. Implying that self-care is a cure to mental health issues is detrimental. The ability for one to practice self-care should never be an excuse to ignore changes that need to be made to support humans who are doing incredibly hard, emotional work.
In many arguments/tweets/blog posts I've heard, "Stop asking me to practice self-care! Make changes instead!" But self-care and sustainable systemic changes are not opposites. Having one does not mean you can or can not have the other. Instead, they need to exist together. Cohesively. Like a team.
Self-care is something we can control. We have the ability to make the decision every day whether we are going to make our wellbeing a priority and practice any type of self-care. We have the option of finding ten minutes here or there to take some deep breaths, read a book, research something interesting, or just stretch our bodies. We make that decision. We have the amazing ability to make that decision. And with intention, we have the ability to find ways to support ourselves even if we believe nobody is going to do it for us. We have the power and we can take the ownership of the way we take care of our physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health. Every day. We have wonderful control over this part of our lives.
Widespread systemic change, on the other hand, is something you cannot necessarily control. It definitely doesn't happen in a day; maybe not even every day. What you do have is influence over changes in the system. You have the ability to be an advocate for change, to ask the hard questions, to get people to change their minds, and to offer solutions. You have the choice to fight the good fight and work toward those massive changes that will ultimately impact everyone in a positive way. Think legacy, friends. Guess what you need to do that?
Guess how you get it?
Self-care. The irony.
This doesn't need to be an either/or issue. Self-care is not a topic to get heated about. The need for systemic change, however, is. Advocate for widespread acceptance of changing the status quo so educators don't have to fight burnout because the supports are in place for them to never reach that point in the first place. We DO need those people. We need solution-focused individuals with the gumption to get people thinking - to blow up the system in favor of the kind of support that we deserve as educators. However, telling people that it is okay to despise a concept like self-care isn't going to get us anywhere because refusing to accept responsibility for your wellbeing isn't going to create systemic change. But, having you healthy might.
Find a free self-care guide on my resources page.