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Activists and Self-Care: Why we’re bad at it, and how to better care for ourselves (Part 2 of 3)

Updated: May 14, 2022

In part 1 of the this blog, we discussed six common reasons why some activists have a difficult time doing self-care. In this blog, I will discuss some tips and strategies for dealing with the “six reasons.” If you like lists and visuals, you’re in for a treat. I’m big on making things clear and easy to understand.

Recap From Last Time: The “Six Reasons”

To start off, below are the “six reasons” we discussed in the last blog. I expand on the reasons in part 1, so feel free to take a look.

Six Reasons Why Activists Have a Difficult Time Doing Self-Care:

1. We are overworked, and underpaid

2. Sometimes, we feel more comfortable focusing on others, than on ourselves

3. We were taught to prioritize the needs of others

4. We were never taught how to take care of ourselves

5. Self-care is hard work, and requires changes in our daily routine

6. There’s no time for self-care

In this blog, the Six Reasons can be divided into three aspects:

Reason 1 focuses on how to connect our values to self-care

Reason 2 and 3 focuses on how to connect our emotions to self-care

Reason 4 clarifies what self-care is, by dividing it into three dimensions

Reason 5 and 6 focuses on how to develop self-care habits

Addressing Reason 1: We are overworked, and underpaid

For activists, this is more than just finding a “work-life balance.” Our personal values are invested in the non-profit work that we do. This means we are more likely to overlook the fact that we are overworked and underpaid, as we are driven to uphold our values. But in the long run, it will leave us feeling stuck. This feeling makes it difficult to get motivated to do self-care. To deal with this, we need to change the way to approach our work and life, and move from the enmeshed self into the integrity self.

The Enmeshed Self

Because our values have led us to activist and community work, we use our non-profit work as a way to express our values. But the trouble comes when the boundaries are blurred. For example, when we view our work as an extension of our values, then our values and our work become synonymous with each other. This blurring of boundaries is what I call enmeshed self.

We know that the non-profit industry will limit the way we want to uphold our values in our work, while also overworking and underpaying us. And if we continue to enmesh ourselves into this environment, it can trigger feelings of resentment, anger, and frustration. This has negative impact on our mental health.

I’m not saying that we should not let our values show up in our work. I think that’s impossible. What I’m saying is that we should acknowledge that our values and the non-profit industry are two separate things. Your non-profit work is only one aspect/tool in your life where your values are expressed. Instead of practicing the enmeshed self, a better approach is the integrity self.

The Integrity Self

To deal with this enmeshment, we have to challenge the way we see our non-profit work as a full representation of our values. To do this, we have to embrace all the possibilities of our life. That means we need to acknowledge all the different parts of our life where our values can be expressed.

In Diagram 1 below, we see our non-profit work as the only thing that expresses our values. The non-profit industry dictates the rules of how we can express our values in our work. If our values are enmeshed with the non-profit industry, we are essentially trying to control an industry where we have limited control over. This will make us feel disempowered, like you’re being swallowed by a giant, which is how the diagram looks.

A better alternative is to practice the integrity self. In Diagram 2 below, we see that our personal values can be expressed in many different parts of our life. And we want to integrate our values into everything that we do. This is what it means to practice the integrity self. It’s also flexible, because we can choose how we express different parts of our values in different aspects of our lives. We can be creative in how we want to build a value-driven life.

The beautiful part of the integrity self is how flexible and intentional you can spend your energy. For example, if you feel that you have been neglecting your personal health lately, you can prioritize the next two weeks into taking care of yourself.

Remember, there is not one single thing that defines you. You are more than your non-profit work. Exploring and learning about yourself is part of self-care. Give yourself permission to do that. This opens up possibilities, and moves you away from the frustrations of being overworked, underpaid, and feeling stuck within the limitations of the non-profit industry.

Addressing Reason 2: Sometimes, we feel more comfortable focusing on others, than on ourselves

For some people, focusing all their energy to help others is much less scary than focusing internally on their own mental health. Different people may have different reasons for this. It is important to reflect on these reasons, to continuously work on ourselves and improve our self-care. A good system to help us reflect is the CBT Triangle. CBT stands for cognitive-behavioural therapy. The CBT Triangle looks at the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

I’ll use the CBT Triangle to reflect on a real-life example in my life:

Scenario: About 7 years prior to the moment writing this blog, I was deeply involved with many different community organizations and activist work. I was a member of a board of director, volunteered for multiple organizations, worked part-time for a non-profit organization, and worked as a research assistant. All this while I was enrolled full-time in my MSW degree. I didn’t allow myself time to rest. I felt depleted and burnt out. This was clearly not working for me.
Questions to ask myself: Why did I force myself to be so busy? And why did I have such a hard time saying “no” to new roles and responsibilities?
Reflection using CBT Triangle: When I have idle time for myself, I would feel anxiety and guilt (feeling).  In my mind, I keep thinking that I am wasting time (thought). I would then feel guilty (feeling) that I have the privilege of free time (thought). I would tell myself that I need to stop being lazy and keep pushing myself to do more activist work (thought). I would then find things to do for my existing projects, or look for new projects that I can be involved in (behaviour). When I started doing work, my feelings of anxiety and guilt decreases.

This pattern is closely associated with my feelings of anxiety and guilt, and my need to decrease the intensity of these uncomfortable feelings. My strategy was to focus on things outside of myself, which was doing more work. It never occurred to me that I can focus inwards. As I began to focus inward, I began to understand my own anxiety and guilt in relation to my own trauma. It allowed me to challenge the thoughts that came with these feelings. And it allowed me to be kind and gentle to myself.

Reflecting on, and changing patterns, is not an easy task, especially for people who has experienced trauma. Certain patterns can make your day-to-day living a struggle. If you are interested in therapy support for making changes in your life, you can click here to contact me, or click her for more information.

Addressing Reason 3: We were taught to prioritize the needs of others

For some of us, we have been taught to prioritize the needs of others. This means that there are three skills that we may be lacking in:

  1. Being able to recognize our needs

  2. Being able to consider our own needs and the needs of others, when making decisions

  3. Being able to communicate our needs to others

Building these skills is not easy. It requires us to understand and break our existing pattern of responding to the needs of others. We can use the same CBT Triangle to help us understand our patterns. I’ll use an example that I’ve experienced in the past. Maybe you can relate to it as well:

A friend of mine wanted to meet up to chat about something that she was struggling with. So we met at a coffee shop. Our meet up was right before my physiotherapy appointment. As the time neared for me to go, I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt her. I felt guilty (feelings) for wanting to interrupt. In my mind, I tried to rationalize my feelings by telling myself that I can let her talk for 5 more minute and still make my physiotherapy appointment on time (thought). I continued to sit and listen to her (behaviour), but I was getting more anxious (feeling), and couldn’t focus on what she was saying. The anxiety also made me feel annoyed (feeling). Finally, I interrupted her, to tell her that I had to leave (behaviour). I ended up arriving late for my physiotherapy appointment, which I also felt guilty about (feeling), and brought up feelings of anxiety (feeling).
In this pattern, my thoughts and behaviours were linked to my feelings of guilt and anxiety. In that moment, my need was to end the conversation, and tend to other aspects of my life (attend my physiotherapy appointment). The guilt made it difficult for me to prioritize and communicate my need. This led to feelings of anxiety and annoyance. And this became a cycle, when I felt guilty and anxious for arriving late to my physiotherapy appointment.

The CBT Triangle gives us a good framework to understand our patterns. It is the first step towards developing new patterns. Be patient with yourself, as you begin to build the three skills for taking care of yourself. Whether you do this on your own, or with a therapist, know that change is possible. Finding the balance of prioritizing your needs and the needs of others is important in your journey to self-care.

Addressing Reason 4: We were never taught how to take care of ourselves

For some of us, we were never taught how to take care of ourselves. So when we’re told to do self-care, we don’t actually know what that means. A simple framework is to divide self-care into three dimensions:

  1. Mind – mental and emotional health, rest

  2. Body – nutrition, exercise, rest

  3. Spirit – pursuing things that give you energy, creativity, curiosity

To have holistic health, we must take care of all three dimensions. Using this framework, you can plan your weekly self-care routine to ensure you are taking care of all three dimensions of your health. In part 3 of this blog series, I will delve deeper into the three dimensions.

It is never too late to learn about self-care. Look up information. Search YouTube and look into blogs such as this one. The search for information is also an act of self-care, and it will help you feel productive, and builds motivation and anticipation to do more. It is well worth your effort to learn how to do self-care; after all, if you’re not willing to spend effort into your own health, then who else would do it for you?

Addressing Reason 5: Self-care is hard work, and requires changes in our daily routine

This is true. The words “self-care” can create a lot of anxiety for people. Hopefully, this blog helps create some order in the chaos. When first starting out with creating a self-care routine, I suggest two primary things to aim for:

  1. Something that you enjoy doing

  2. Something that is easy and realistic in your schedule

We want to build the feeling of success in our self-care routine. When we feel successful, we are more motivated to continue to do it. Doing something that we enjoy would increase the motivation for us to do that task. This can be biking, drawing, walking, writing, joining an interest group, etc.

When you have selected an activity, set a time in your schedule for the task. Make sure it is easy and realistic. Instead of a one hour bike ride, start with 15 minutes. Instead of creating a polished art piece, aim to simply start doing any art form that you enjoy. When you make it easy and realistic, you are more likely to do it, and enjoy it. And when you put it in your schedule, it means you have intentionally set a time for self-care, and it can also be something you look forward to in your week.

Follow through with the self-care activity for a couple weeks. If you are consistently following through, then you can consider increasing the time of the activity, or adding a new activity. Just remember that it should be easy and realistic in your schedule. If you find it difficult to complete the self-care activity, give yourself some time to reflect on why you find it difficult, and make changes when necessary. The CBT Triangle can be a helpful framework for the reflection.

Be kind to yourself, and don’t judge yourself for not being able to follow through. Remember, any change in habits and patterns takes time. By reading this blog, and attempting at scheduling a self-care activity, you have taken action towards taking better care of yourself. That’s progress. Celebrate the small wins. If you improve 1% each day, you will have improved 365% by the end of the year.

Addressing Reason 6: There’s no time for self-care

We live in a busy world. Activists and community-builders are often doing “the work” outside of their work. Alongside other priorities such as family, daily life tasks and maintenance, self-care may often go to the wayside.

While prioritizing our tasks is an important process to decide which tasks to do first, it does not help create more time for ourselves. When we say “yes” to doing something, we are saying “no” to something else. That is because we have a finite amount of time. When we say “yes” to doing something, it means we will have less time to do something else. Sometimes, we have to say “no” to something we love, so we can say “yes” to something we love even more.

We need to prioritize more than just our tasks. We need to prioritize the aspects of our lives that is important to us. I recommend reading “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen R. Covey. In the book, he goes into detail on how to identify your values, prioritize the important relationships in your life, and create intentional weekly schedules to uphold the values and strengthen your relationships.

To help create more time for yourself, you can also try the 3-step process of simplification. When faced with tasks, go through the three steps and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Eliminate – Can I eliminate this task? Or is it crucial in my life?

  2. Automate – Can I automate this task, so it can get done automatically in the future?

  3. Delegate – Can I delegate the task for someone else to do? Or do I have to do it myself?

Here are some examples where I used this process of simplification in my life:

  • I love playing both badminton and basketball. Both activities are part of my self-care routine. But as my schedule became busier, I didn’t have time to do both. So I decided to eliminate badminton from my schedule. I said “no” to what I love, so I can do something I that love even more. It also saved me the travel time of going to multiple locations during the week.

  • Paying my credit card bill is a task that cannot be eliminated. But it can be automated. I invested about 45 minutes of my time to link up all my accounts and automate my payments. This saves me 15-20 minutes each month, and also saves me from the stress of making sure I remember to pay my bills on time.

  • I decided to delegate the task of creating my website to a website designer. I invested a few hours reaching out to my network to find a suitable person that fits my budget for this task. While I had to spend some money for the website building service, I saved over 30-40 hours trying to learn how to build a website. The money and initial time investment saved me a lot of time to do other things, and I ended up with a website that is higher quality than anything I could have created myself.

It is possible to be intentional with your time. Self-care should be one of the top priorities in your life. If you get sick, or burn out, you won’t be able to use your time effectively to get things done. So if you feel that you don’t have time, then it is even more important to make time for self-care.

I hope this blog was helpful, and gave some clarity for addressing the 6 reasons why we are bad at doing self-care. While many ideas, strategies, and frameworks were shared here, I encourage all of us to take it one step at a time. I also plan to flesh out a lot of these ideas in future blogs. So stay tuned.

As always, thanks for tuning in. If you found this helpful, consider sharing this with others who might also find it helpful.

Take care, and keep being you!


I’m always open to your feedback and comments. If you, or someone you know, may benefit from my therapy support, you can contact me here for a free consultation. For more information, click here.

Harry Au

Therapy for Asians

MSW, RSW | he/him

Resources: Newsletter | Blog

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