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Burnout, Boundaries, and Better Self-Care

A photograph of a water body. The sky is tinged with pink-mauve-yellow and is reflecting yellow on the different shades of blue of the waves.



That is perhaps the only phrase that can describe this scene: a 23-year-old recent law-school graduate working as aprogramme coordinator at a large human rights organisation, squatting on the floor of her boss’ office, in tears. Tears weren’t an uncommon sight at  the office. Of clients tortured and abused by the system, of lawyers frustrated and defeated by the system, and of bosses struggling to secure funding within the system to ensure their staff can feed their families the following month. This wasn’t the first time I had felt a sense of being overwhelmed, but it was the first time that I let my guard down in front of my boss. I had understood very early on in my career that working in the development sector, particularly in human rights advocacy, meant that the lines between you, your work, your social life, your ‘purpose’, and your politics were all blurred. I very clearly remember that day, when I had walked out of my boss’ cabin. Something had changed in me. I knew that there was something I was doing wrong because of the extent to which I was feeling overwhelmed. Somewhere, while doing the work, that I very much loved, unknown to me, I had lost myself and feared that the next thing I would lose is the passion I had for the work.  As much as I didn’t have faith in my ability to cope at the time, I had faith in the work I did. And that meant staying in the system yet changing things, because giving up on the work I truly loved to do was not an option for me. And that was where my self-care journey while working in human rights advocacy started.

Here are some of the things that have helped me in my self-care journey:

  1. Seeing self-care as an act of political warfare: For most of us who work in the roles of providing support, as caregivers or those advocating for the marginalised, or doing any other kind of ‘people work’, there is always a tendency to prioritise everything and everyone over ourselves and put ourselves last. It was this quote by Audre Lorde that was able to convince me to give self-care the importance it deserves in our lives: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Understanding self-care as radical, as feminist, as anti-racist, and as essential to restoration and sustained engagement with my work laid the foundation of my self-care practice. In this vision, self-care is about taking back our power. Taking back power by taking ownership of ourselves, our mental health and what works best for us while challenging the norms that define who we should be and how we should be. With this understanding, I noticed the guilt associated with self-care reducing significantly. The strength I got from this change in perspective has also helped me in not internalising the trauma associated with the issues I work on, while being truly empathetic and working with strength and perseverance. Accepting the importance of self-care in my life and not seeing it as an indulgence was also the first step for me in improving my sense of self and confidence. In turn, this confidence and better sense of self has helped me be more aware of my feelings and emotions which has helped me better understand what makes me uncomfortable as well as better recognise situations of mistreatment and abuse.

    2. Setting boundaries: As a young, fresh graduate brimming with passion to ‘solve the world’s problems’, my boundaries were pretty much non-existent. I worked late into the night, had no life beyond work, was available to colleagues and bosses 24/7, and committed to doing way too many more projects than I could handle. Even though I didn’t know much about boundary-setting, I could associate the sense of overwhelm that I felt with some sort of violation of my space. It felt like I had opened the floodgates of a dam and was now inundated with feelings of overwhelm, fear and anxiety. In her book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself’, author Nedra Glover Tawaab talks about how boundaries are essential in helping us feel safer and more comfortable in relationships, and  enable us to lead more peaceful lives. The importance of boundaries, particularly in the sector I work in, cannot be emphasised enough. When our sense of self is so closely attached to the work we do and what we stand for, we are very likely to never set boundaries, or very easily allow violations of boundaries in case we do set them. And as a result of this, we may feel overwhelmed, get burnt out easily, and start to resent the work we do, the people we work with or the organisations we work for. Boundaries, i.e., expectations when it comes to our life, work, relationships, and emotions are like a safety jacket which ensures that we have healthy relationships and that we take responsibility for our emotions and actions as part of a community. Although the nature of our boundaries may have to do with our childhood experiences, fears and anxieties we have, and our past experiences of boundaries not being respected, it is never too late to set new boundaries and work towards maintaining them. While boundaries at work can look like our limiting our work hours or saying no to additional tasks when we have enough on our plate, even planning a daily routine, expressing our expectations and needs in relationships, and limiting interaction with people with whom we do not feel safe and comfortable with are all boundaries that can help us be more at  peace.

  3. Knowing my self better: One of the root causes of my inability to set boundaries or take time off for myself was my inability to say ‘no’. I didn’t know why I was not able to do so either. I kept ending up in situations where I had conceded my likes and dislikes, accepted tasks that I didn’t want to do, or was sometimes just unaware of how I felt about things that were happening. When I realised this, I went into overdrive to get to know myself better. From therapy to reading multiple self-help books, and listening to podcasts, to being involved in different types of non-traditional relationships, I have been on this journey of self-discovery for two years now. In this getting-to-know-myself period, I have learnt how much knowing my self better makes a difference in my life, at work and in relationships. Knowing ourselves helps us know what we like and what we don’t and what aligns with our values and what does not, in our personal, professional, and intimate lives. It helps us chalk out the boundaries we need and most importantly, understand what self-care means to us. Knowing myself better has helped me make better decisions at work, express my needs and expectations in relationships, correct mistakes and apologise when needed, come out of abusive and/or toxic relationships, and without a doubt, strengthened my passion for the work I do. It has also helped me create a community of people I trust and wherein we help each other grow. While we may want to know what our attachment styles, love languages (i.e. how we express and experience love), or our personality type are, being aware of our thoughts and feelings, and mindful of our actions can be the first few steps that help us with this.

As they say, self-discovery is an endless process and we are always learning, each day and with each interaction. My self-care journey has only just begun and I have a long way to go. I do have bouts of self-doubt, anxiety, and panic, and I still go through periods of feeling overwhelmed. However, more than anything, I have learnt that self-care, for me, is a subversive act, and caring for myself gives me the strength to challenge the status quo and play my part in social justice movements.

Cover Image: Unsplash

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