A Guide to Self-Care for Social Impact Professionals in 2021

Alexandra Nemeth

Content Marketing Manager at MovingWorlds.org

Here’s an understatement for you: it’s been a tough year to be working in social impact. 

Before jumping into the theme of this article, I first want to say thank you: The social sector has never been needed more. We see you. We value you. And the world is better because of you.

As we move towards celebrating the New Year, I do think we need to acknowledge the tremendous challenges we’ve faced as a sector in 2020. Hit particularly hard by the global pandemic and economic meltdown, the social impact space has been caught between an explosion of needs and dwindling resources available to meet them. As a result, many of the changemakers who are finding solutions to our most pressing global challenges are also facing significant personal challenges of their own.

Even before the pandemic, back in 2018, nearly 50% of social entrepreneurs who attended the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting reported to have struggled with burnout and depression at some point. Nonprofit professionals have long reported similar challenges.

Why is it so hard to prioritize our own wellbeing, especially for those of us doing purpose-driven work? 

Many in the social change sector have an inner narrative that goes something like this: “I’m exhausted and depleted, but there is still so much to do. It feels selfish to take care of myself given all the needs and issues I see in other communities. I don’t have enough time to do it all, so taking care of myself is the first thing to get cut from the list.”

If that resonates with you, you’re not alone. I wrote this article with the intention of lovingly challenging you to reframe your conception of self-care with a combination of evidence-based research and my own lived experience. 

The link between pressure, performance, and impact

The “It feels selfish to take care of myself given all the needs and issues I see in other communities” line of thinking may work in the short-term, but over an extended period of time, operating in constant crisis mode at the expense of yourself will backfire. Counterintuitive as it may sound, the more pressure you put on yourself to do it all, the less capable you’ll be of actually doing it. As the graph below from the World Economic Forum shows, straining like this for too long can push you into the “zone of delusion”, the last stop before arriving at burnout. 

The reason is simple: you can’t pour from an empty cup. When you’re burnt out, your cup is empty – you have nothing left to give, to yourself or to anyone else. Unless you take the time to nurture your own wellbeing – filling your cup – your performance and ability to create change will be limited.

The link between wellbeing and well-doing

The Schwab Foundation was one of the first organizations of its kind to recognize the interdependence of wellbeing and well-doing. Along with other social entrepreneurship support organizations including Skoll, India Development Review, and Stanford Social innovation Review, the Schwab Foundation is promoting a global movement through its Wellbeing Project to support the human aspects of entrepreneurship to unleash the potential for social change.

The Project conducted interviews with 50 leading social change leaders, and published its findings in this research report. The report found that that prioritising individual wellbeing has a positive ripple effect across organisations, improving innovation, collaboration and social impact capacity—that is, wellbeing inspires welldoing. The data validated the Wellbeing Project’s initial hypothesis: that inner wellbeing translates to a better and healthier relationship with self, one’s social environment, and one’s work. 

Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.Eleanor Brownn

This intuitively makes sense, but those of us working in social impact struggle to live it. The report showed that while 75% of respondents characterized wellbeing as “very important”, only 25% of respondents reported that they were actually practicing self-care to a “great extent”. 

A big reason for this discrepancy is the inner narrative referenced in the introduction of this article — feeling like there is never enough time, and struggling to prioritize your own needs over the needs of others. Other reasons cited by social entrepreneurs participating in the study for neglecting their wellbeing included “a range of health-related issues, a lack of adequate resources, a feeling that their work is never done, and perceiving self-care as self-indulgence.” Many of us are attracted to the social change space because it allows us to live our values, but the other side of that coin is that it becomes “difficult to distance [ourselves] from work because of how closely [our ] identities are interlinked with [our] roles.”

Systems change starts with changing ourselves from the inside out

How do we close this gap between knowing we should engage in self care, and actually investing in our own wellbeing?

Wellbeing means different things in different contexts. The Wellbeing Project defines it as “an ongoing personal journey towards wholeness and connection. It is a journey of inner work that entails healing, personal development and ultimately integration of self.” This concept of wholeness resonates with the work we do at MovingWorlds. Internally as a top-ranked employer and in our community of inspiring Fellows, we’ve seen firsthand the benefits that come when people value their ‘whole self.’

I’ll use myself as an example to make the concept of the ‘whole self’ more concrete. If you’re reading this, you already know I’m a writer and a content marketer who is passionate about using storytelling to inspire and educate others working on social change. That’s one part of myself. But to understand my whole self, you would also need to know that I’m also a voracious reader who is emotionally attached to my Kindle, an avid needlepoint-er when I get anxious and need something to do with my hands, and to relax after work, I like to experiment with watercolors. My grandmother is the most important person in my life, and we go on weekly dates (usually involving margaritas.) I’m also someone who is coping with tremendous grief — my little brother passed away unexpectedly just over a year ago, and my grandfather passed away in April. I am sensitive, empathetic, and feel things deeply. I can be very sociable, but when my ‘social battery’ is drained, I need quiet time alone to recharge. 

As much as I pride myself on my ability to get things done and do a good job, there are days where I don’t have the social energy left to help others tell their stories. During the holidays in particular, I find that the grief of the past year makes it hard to focus. If I really want to do the best possible job at work for my team and our global community, I need more than some motivational Brené Brown quotes (although these 25 are sure to help). There is some self work, and time investment in self, that is needed so that I can best show up for those I’m here to serve, and also so that I can find joy, purpose, and connection with others outside of work.

In my own journey towards wholeness and wellbeing, I’ve found two areas of focus to be key: #1 self connection and #2 team connection. The Wellbeing Project report does a great job of documenting these focus areas, which I’ll explain in more detail below.

 #1: Self connection

One of the best things you can do to support your wellbeing is finding new ways to connect with yourself outside of work. As the Project found, “reclaiming an identity that is more whole, and less defined by work, enriched [participants] work and their life more generally.” Journaling, creative hobbies, exercise, time in nature, and even therapy are all great conduits to self-connection that will nurture your whole self. 

The Study found that cultivating and embracing your identity outside of work — your whole self — leads to a series of inner shifts that enhance wellbeing. These include:

  1. Letting go of the ‘hero’ model: According to the report, “The role often assumed by changemakers is that of hero. Participants observed that, in the long term, however, playing such a role can distort an individual’s sense of self and diminish their wellbeing.” Stanford Social Innovation Review also highlights the problem with Heropreneurship. Transformative change requires collaboration, agility, and curiosity – it’s not up to you to ‘save the world’, so allow yourself to let go of that pressure and instead engage with the world from the secure place of your relationship with yourself. 
  2. Redefining success and failure: We can be our own biggest wellbeing detractors when we use rigid and narrow definitions of success and failure to beat ourselves up with. At MovingWorlds, we take a hypothesis-driven design approach to problem solving that takes the judgement out of ‘failure’ and instead reframes it as a valuable opportunity to learn, iterate, and try again. This is central to cultivating a growth mindset, where challenging experiences are opportunities to learn and engage with more stakeholders, not situations of judgement.
  3. Recognizing that to take care of others, you have to take care of yourself first: It’s a constant balancing act, but shifting to an orientation of valuing yourself and filling your own cup first is the first step. In the Institute, we ask people to share weekly highs and lows – oftentimes with giphys – to take a moment to create space to accept and honor ourselves.
  4. Practicing vulnerability to build emotional resilience: When you take the time to cultivate your relationship with yourself, you will intuitively gain a better understanding of your emotions. This gives you the power to respond – rather than just react – to situations with greater ease. Knowing yourself also benefits your relationships with others, allowing you to have more honest and vulnerable conversations that lead to deeper connections. 

These findings deeply resonate with my own inner work journey towards wholeness. Therapy and journaling have been an invaluable tool for me to learn how to recognize when I’m out of balance, identify what I need, and be able to ask for it specifically. I’ve built more rest and downtime into my schedule, protecting my evenings for creative hobbies that help me relax, like reading, needlepointing, or experimenting with watercolors. As I’ve grown in self-awareness, I’ve also been able to communicate more openly and vulnerably with my team about where I am and how I’m doing – even when I’m not doing well. In my experience, modeling vulnerability gives others permission to be vulnerable as well, and I’ve been able to have deeper conversations and connections with my co-workers by bringing my whole self to work, and accepting their wholeness as well.

#2: Team connection

Embracing your identity outside of work also has positive ripple effects at the organizational level. According to the Project, these include:

  1. Connecting with each other not just as professionals, but as human beings: having conversations that aren’t solely about work, and that foster connection through vulnerability and authenticity
  2. Empowering others to assume greater responsibility through capacity-building: shifting away from an ‘only I can fix it’ approach to prioritizing relationship-building as the first step of problem solving
  3. Building a culture of trust and care: Leaders place trust in others and take a step back; they allow themselves to be led by others and to adopt a model of co-learning, co-working and co-sharing

Additionally, the better you know yourself, the more able you are to identify and ask for the different kinds of support you need from your organization. 

I’ll give you an example of what that looks like in practice. At the beginning of October, I could feel myself shifting into a depression as the one year anniversary of my brother’s death approached at the end of the month. I wasn’t in full-blown crisis mode, but I could feel it coming. I wanted to be able to stick to the plan and achieve all I had set out to achieve for the month, but with the looming anniversary taking up more and more of my mental space, I knew that wasn’t realistic. My cup was empty.

In the past, I might have ignored the feeling and tried to push through to meet the expectations others had of me before meeting my own needs. I would have felt guilty asking for time off, even when I really needed it. The likely outcome of this would have been a quick trip through the ‘zone of delusion’ directly into burnout, with both my team being let down by work that slipped, and me being let down by myself. Thankfully, that is not the choice I made.

The inner work I had been doing allowed me to make a different and ultimately better choice. Rather than ignoring the feeling, I brought it up with my team as soon as it arose. Based on work with my therapist, I learned that the anniversary response is well-documented and to be expected, and shared that information with my team as well. I was able to ask for what I needed – two weeks leave at the end of the month to grieve, process, and heal. 

And because MovingWorlds is intentionally cultivating a culture that values the whole self, my team was receptive and supportive. Being proactive about my need for a break, rather than waiting until I was at a breaking point, allowed my team and I to work together as collaborators to develop a plan that met my needs and the organization’s. Our Operations & Knowledge manager scheduled a series of meetings with me to ensure all tasks were covered so that my time away was protected from work interruptions. Instead of responding with disapproval, my team demonstrated tremendous support and care. 

A few days into my two week leave, this arrived on my doorstep: 

I was so touched by this gesture. To me, this is the ultimate acceptance of the whole self — another way of saying, “even when you can’t be the ‘productive’ work self, we still value you.” The psychological safety that created allowed me to fully dedicate my time away to therapy, rest, time with my grandma, and building healthier routines into my day like taking walks and improving my diet. 

I returned from my leave refreshed, more balanced, and ready to dive back into my work. Like the participants in the Project, I found that being part of a work culture supportive of inner wellbeing resulted in “decreased stress, increased positivity, personal and professional growth, increased engagement, higher levels of productivity and commitment to work, increased commitment to the organization, and a desire for alignment between personal values, inner work and the organization’s mission.”

Recent feedback helped me learn that as grateful as I was to my team, my team was also grateful to me for being proactive about self-care, doing the work, and listening to my needs.

Steps I plan to keep taking in 2021 to nurture my wellbeing

The last thing anybody needs right now is another list of things to do. But if my story resonated with you at all, and you’re curious about embarking on your own journey to wholeness and wellbeing in 2021, here are the 5 primary areas of self care – inspired by this more comprehensive list from The Wellbeing Project – that I plan on continuing to invest in:

  • Increasing awareness: Actively cultivating the ability to identify and sit with my feelings (yes, even the hard ones.) Engaging in mindfulness and other practices that cultivate presence in the moment, like journaling, watercoloring, and of course needlepoint.
  • Creating space to experience self: Building in time for reflection, meditating, and maybe even trying some new Wim Hoff breathing exercises (thanks to our Director of Engineering for introducing me to that one!) I also plan to work with my team to build in more opportunities for us to share how we’re doing – both in the context of work and outside of it – so that we can best support each other.
  • Doing inner work: Working with my therapist, building a gratitude practice, and facing and overcoming my fears around things like perfectionism or failure. 
  • Taking care of my body: Scheduling a daily walk, eating healthier, and prioritizing sleep more
  • Changing external relationships: Working with my team to keep evolving and improving our culture, how we give feedback to each other, and building in more time for celebrations and gratitude.

In a society that says ‘put yourself last’, self-love and self-acceptance are almost revolutionary.Brené Brown

A final note

Wellbeing isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes work – learning new habits, being open to new perspectives, practicing new behaviors. Like most things worth doing, including social entrepreneurship, it is less about perfection and more about a willingness to learn and keep trying. It takes courage to maintain an open heart and mind. My hope for the New Year is that we continue to develop the emotional agility to embrace each other’s wholeness.