Self Care, Resilience and Self-Emptying: thoughts

There’s so much I could blog about at the minute, but there has been little time.  I want to blog about the debate polarisation going on in diet and tobacco harm reduction and whether this polarisation helps the people we are supposed to be serving (remember them?)  Another time.

But a few things have led me to blog about self-care and self-emptying.  It’s year of volunteering from today, and I’m offering some resilience and self-care sessions to volunteers and leaders as part of the year. I’ve been doing this for some time now.

I am, outside work, someone who volunteers. From cleaning the church I am part of to being a Trustee on several charities to being an advisor of others.  I love it. It usually energises me. There are times when it doesn’t (10pm in a finance committee and we still can’t agree on whether health and safety allows us to replace our own ceiling lights), but they are rare.

My interest in public mental health

I never really thought of myself as having that much more interest or much of a role in things to improve the mental health and resilience of our population than anybody else.  And I look back and realise that this was not really doing what I could have done. One of the people who changed that was Executive Member for Public Health. She has a passion for good mental health that you can almost touch. And it’s energising. And the past three years of reflection and action spurred on by her prompting have suggested to me a number of different dimensions of the mental health of our population that I have often not thought through until more recently.

Similar challenges, different situations

In the last two months, looking through this public mental health lens, some similar issues have been thrown up by five different groups for whom I’ve delivered some sessions:

  1. A group of social and health care workers (clinicians,managers and volunteers) who all want to understand their faith and their work integration better. Part of the answer for at least three of them was a manager hostile to their faith or insensitive about their disability. So much for workplace diversity!
  2. A group of volunteer leaders who wanted a session on leadership in public health volunteering
  3. A group of people who have survived the mental health care system and want to lead a public mental health agenda
  4. A really good conference for the International Day against Homophobia on May 17th where statutory agencies and lgbt advocates came together, and I was a speaker
  5. Some people preparing to work out what their role for health improvement is in the Hertfordshire Year of Volunteering, which kicks off today

The issues are essentially about self-care and resilience. They all struggle with it. We ended up in every session spending some of the time I had alloted to talking about it. Usually because stuff in the group brought it to the surface more or less tangibly.

Self-emptying : the good and the bad

A major commonality is they all demonstrate what I call “kenotic”styles of leadership – from the Greek kenosis – for self-emptying.

Kenosis for me given my upbringing is a very, very, VERY Christian concept because it’s what Jesus did – emptied himself out of love for the sake of others – and it’s what so many of my heroes did and still do, whether of any faith or none.  It’s striking how many people – possibly quite unconsciously – engage in this kenotic style. They give and often do not count the cost, because that is what they feel will help their fellow humans. Self-emptying leadership and service (and whether you’re cleaning a floor or delivering training or writing policy you’re leading) is it seems so very common among us all.

There are great benefits to self-emptying leadership. It gets things done. And it can actually be energizing, but only if you have something else replenishing you. From Jonny Benjamin, who – with great benefit for us – didn’t end his own life and started doing enormous good on mental health to the mother bereaved by suicide, aching still from it, who creates the safe space for others to ache and hurt, these kenotic leaders soothe and change and charge the world with their love and concern.

But there are risks and downsides. I speak from first-hand experience. Stress, burnout, not coping. Kenosis can also mean avoiding the fundamental issue at heart (the times when someone tells me “I havent grieved” or “I dont really accept myself”), that well practiced ability to love others into a better place while being unable really to love oneself. And boundaries can go awry, leading from service to abuse of power.

A public mental health issue

Why am I writing about this?  Because it is fundamentally an issue of population mental health. Scientific research (such as there is) on volunteering will tell you it brings benefits but has costs. It can energise and it can burn out.

In a society which owes so much to volunteers, or people in their day jobs who go above and beyond the call of duty, and especially in a year of volunteering, we need to look seriously at some of the issues here. It is a public mental health issue: building resilience rather than building in risk and vulnerability should be a key concern for us.

How do organisations support the kenotic leaders?

I asked the question especially about how employers support those employees who are really “out there” in their leadership changing things. I can think of a muslim colleague, a vaping advocate colleague and a transgender equality advocate colleague who have all taken personal, reputational and other knocks and risks for what they believe is right. How is their organisation supporting them?

So, what do we do about it?

Kenosis is not the only style of service, but for those who get the balance right between self-empyting and being replenished, the rewards outweigh the risks and things progress. For those who dont, stress, burnout, exhaustion and illness can become the order of the day.  So the first thing NOT to do is try to stop it.

I find myself talking again and again these days about how a fundamental part of being resilient in a busy life is to have a self-care strategy: tools or tactics to make sure that you can and do cope and thrive.

I have spent the last eight years doing self-care as part of leadership training.  from future public health consultants to young sisters and brothers in religious life who have just taken their first vows and are thrown in the deep end of service to volunteer trauma counsellors to LGBT or mental health advocates.

There are several pillars to self-care:

  1. Learn to appraise sources of stress and whether they are really stressors (things you dont have the resources to cope with) or whether they can be made neutral or even positive. (Sometimes a deadline is energizing, especially if its the most boring task in the universe.) If they are stressors learn to find resources to deal with them, ask for help, chunk up the task.
  2. Self-acceptance : nobody likes everything about themselves (thats why change and growth is lifelong) but we should all be able to accept who we are. Sometimes this is a major issue. Sometimes it isnt.
  3. A healthy diet, keeping active and getting a good sleep work wonders
  4. the five ways to wellbeing are important. They can also help establish patterns for you
  5. Know your pressure points and weaknesses and know what to do about them
  6. Be gentle with yourself – most of us serve because we need to be needed. recognise explicitly your motivation, work our the positives and risks of those and what you will do
  7. spend some time working through a guide to resilience such as Derek Mowbrays
  8. Work out a rhythm to life. And when it goes wrong, try to bring it back. Include down time and personal time in that rhythm
  9. Share, reflect and refine
  10. your self care strategy will really NOT be the same as anyone else’s. Take what works for you from theirs, but you are not them
  11. Your plan should cover your attitude to life, your way of keeping pace, learning and leading, down time and what for you is your bottom line. For some folk their bottom line is “leave me alone on Saturdays” for others its very different

Doing this in a group, where you feel safe to share, can be a really good exercise.

Dame Rennie Fitchie, the erstwhile Civil Service Commissioner, once said to a group of us that she worked out the demands made on her by a large jar of little blue glass pebbles. One for every day of the working year. And in those pebbles were four red pebbles, which was the number of weekends she was prepared to give up, because her weekends were precious.

For what it’s worth, here is my self-care strategy:

My attitude to life

  1. My motivation is to try to do as much good as I can, for as many people as I can, for as long as I can.
  2. There are only so many things I am prepared to take seriously. Life’s too short.
  3. I will have fun while I’m doing that, and I will squeeze every possible drop of enjoyment out of life
  4. I do have a cynical tendency. I will try to be the kind of cynic who sees and pokes fun at things which are wrong as part of efforts to change them rather than the type who gets bitter and angry, especially when people take the piss
  5. I do like manners and basic courtesy. They cost nothing and deliver much.  And I like them being reciprocated. Nothing is worse than a churl. And while I will try subtly to address this, occasionally I will make it obvious you’re being a churl or are otherwise taking the piss and need to stop.
  6. Whimsy is restorative (see item 9 below.)
  7. I will not beat myself up for failing in any of these.
  8. I will learn from my heroes. St Edith Stein said “the world doesn’t need what you have, but who you are”.
  9. I will regularly switch my brain off for periods of being a kid again.
  10. I am regularly double booked. I cant bilocate so I will do as much as I can and not stress about it. You shouldnt either.

Leading, learning and working

  1. I will never stop learning but I wont worry that I cant keep up with everything
  2. I will not sweat the small stuff. Seriously, I really won’t.
  3. But I will sometimes take delight in the good small stuff (someone buys me a cuppa or the recent issue by ADPH of lapel badges for its members had me almost dancing with joy, which I’m sure came across as odd.)
  4. I will remember in times of frustration all organisations and partnerships are dysfunctional, because they are human. (See point 4 above and points 5 and 6 below.) There is almost nothing that cannot be made worse before it is made better by giving it to a committee or partnership. That is the joy and frustration of being human.
  5. Nothing winds me up more than partnerships where one party wants everything on their terms. Thats a neuralgic point for me and I try to watch it. But be aware that this usually means I will seek every way of evening out the playing field even if you dont like it and it leads to confrontation.
  6. I will sometime tell you where to get off. Especially if you or your organisation are taking the piss. And if I feel you have the emotional intelligence of a doorstep I may do that very pointedly. I expect mature relationships. Deal with it.
  7. will appraise every stressor, and if I dont feel I have the resources to not be stressed by it I will ask for help
  8. I will rely on others and trust them.
  9. I will usually have a plan  B, and a plan C and D.
  10. 9 above and frequently smiling makes people regularly wonder what I’m up to and that can be an immense source of amusement and opportunity.
  11. I will lead with and learn from others and be led by them, I do not know everything
  12. I will get things done. On Monday I will look at what I need to do and on Friday I will look at what I have done.
  13. The “to do list” like death and taxes, is always with us. I will not stress about it

Pace, Health and Life

  1. There is, always, time for a cuppa
  2. I will enjoy the fact my eating healthily and being active gives me buckets of energy
  3. I will remember that the day after leg day and deadlift day when I have trouble walking
  4. I will have a treat/ cheat meal now and again . Especially if it’s chocolate covered or comes in cake form.
  5. The service of people brings me closer to why I am here. I will be energized by that
  6. I will have down time and personal time : every day
  7. I will have a lunch break
  8. I will protect some gym time, prayer time, family time and sad nerdy science fiction time. Nothing gets in the way of these.
  9. I will allow myself to moan and whinge and then remember these principles in case I allow it to get too much
  10. I will be choosy about how many weekends I will be prepared to give up for service/work/volunteering.

The bottom line

  1. I will not apologise for who I am.
  2. My faith is an explicit motivator for me, and a vital source of grace and challenge and renewal and replenishment and I am not going to apologise for that. I’m sorry if that’s a problem for you but it’s the core of my functioning, understanding of life and ability to serve.
  3. Like Catherine of Siena I believe that if we can be who we were made to be, we will set the world on fire.

Anyway, my self care is leading me to a cycle, a steak, a gym session and the cinema. Have a wonderful weekend folks





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