The Discipline of Self-Care


In her new book, Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight, Aspen Baker, executive director of Exhale, talks about the need for social justice leaders to be disciplined about self-care — in service of both yourself and your organization.

Aspen is a past participant of CompassPoint’s Thriving as an Executive Director training series, with deep ties to our practice through coaching and a shared commitment toward leading with strengths and empathy. CompassPoint board member Fran Jemmott of the Jemmott-Rollins Group, a founder ofthe California Black Women's Health Project, has also partnered with Exhale through her grantmaking and social justice work in women's health. Look out for a special acknowledgement of CompassPoint’s Michelle Gislason and Thriving co-creator Rich Snowdon in the book.    

Social justice movements, such as those for women's rights and racial equality, are legendary for the sacrifices of their leaders and members. Many have worked endless hours, met countless times, traveled nonstop, and led ongoing campaigns for "the work," neglecting their families, their health, and often their own need to feel happiness and joy.

Before he was assassinated, Dr. King worked 20-hour days, traveled approximately 325,000 miles annually, and often gave as many as 450 speeches per year.24 It is an example that can't be matched and probably shouldn't be attempted. Yet this type of "tireless" effort has set a standard of expectation for many leaders and those who want to be a part of social change. Those who have experienced big losses and made big personal sacrifices often judge someone's value or commitment to the cause by how much he or she has sacrificed.

"It becomes about who sacrifices more for the cause," explained Eveline Shen [Executive Director of Forward Together]. When sacrifice is the bond that binds community together, when it serves as the litmus test to entrance and acceptance in the group, and when it defines a way of life, sacrifice for the greater good becomes the ends, rather than the means, for change.25

"A terrible waste" is how Akaya Windwood, executive director of the Rockwood Leadership Institute for nonprofit social-change leaders, described personal sacrifice.26

The pro-voice movement doesn't want to waste our leaders, our most precious resources; neither does it seek to rescue them from the chance to overcome their own challenges and build the resilience needed for wellbeing. The third way, the meaningful leadership path between sacrifice and futility, is part of the discipline of being pro-voice.

Activist and philanthropist Shira Saperstein spent years funding small, grassroots organizations working for social justice. She sees how the people who work in small organizations are asked to be everywhere all the time and face challenges in saying no. But over her 25-year career, she has seen that it is the organizations that are able to "build up a real deep expertise in a few issues and say no to doing everything on the rest" are the ones that succeed. When people take on too much, when they don't set clear and fewer priorities, Saperstein said, it is to "the detriment of the organization."27

Kirsten Moore, the former president and CEO of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, learned a lot from her own past mistakes in making sacrifices. Now, she understands that "in order to lead, you have to make choices, set priorities, and invest resources. It requires focus and discipline."28 Windwood agrees. She isn't willing to sacrifice herself for her job—which for her would mean working more than 60 hours a week, not seeing her partner, jeopardizing her friendships, disengaging with family, and never going on vacation—but she is "willing to do the work that's in front of me with discipline."29

It's critical to distinguish between the hard work that's needed to generate hope and possibility for social change and the work that is a personal sacrifice, which will trigger resentment and despair. It isn't the same for everyone. One person's hard work can be another person's sacrifice.

Sacred is the root word of sacrifice, Windwood reminds leaders. Knowing what is sacred to you and can't be given away is paramount to each person's ability to make the disciplined choices he or she needs to thrive.

Like many new young leaders, I learned these lessons the hard way. In the first years after our founding, Exhale wasn't operating in a focused, disciplined way to achieve our goals. The counseling strategy of "self-care"—a term we used to help a caller think through ways in which she could take care of herself, physically and emotionally, after an abortion—had been adopted by staff members, volunteers, and board members as a way to escape responsibility. If someone was tired or overwhelmed, she could claim the need for "self-care" and make it everyone else's job to fill the gap she left behind. There was no accountability to the team.

This cultural practice of "self-care" hurt morale, it hurt Exhale, and it hurt our ability to achieve our mission by creating resentment and, eventually, the burnout of everyone who didn't practice "self-care"—i.e., the people who took responsibility to get the job done. It didn't work that well for those who practiced "self-care" either, as they were just as likely to get burdened at the worst possible time by someone else's need to recover. We had put ourselves into a nasty cycle of burnout and recovery, and, worst of all, we set up a situation in which we could take care either of ourselves as individuals or of Exhale, but not both. We had pitted our personal needs against those of the organization. It's no wonder neither was thriving.

Exhale didn't make up this "self-care" tradition. It was what people were used to in the nonprofit world, and they brought their experiences to bear on Exhale. However, Exhale needed a better way to be an organization, a way that could meet the needs of both individuals and the organization. As a team, we took responsibility to redefine the meaning of "self-care." From then on, the term signified the ways in which people cared for themselves and for Exhale. The change was a choice to honor the importance of our work and to sharpen the focus required to make a lasting social impact.

Now, when I think of self-care, I don't think of just manicures and massages or vacations and walks in the park. Self-care is not a simple feel-good activity. It's a much deeper and, ultimately, more meaningful tool: self-care is a discipline that honors what is sacred, including the hard work that provides meaning in our lives.

Aspen Baker is the Founder and Executive Director of Exhale, and author of Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight. Called a "fun, fearless female" by Cosmopolitan, Baker is an award-winning leader who has been featured by CNN, Fox, the New York Times, NPR and many more print and broadcast media. She is the most prominent voice in the nation on how to transform the abortion conflict into peace.

For more on self-care, read these blogs:

Footnotes (excerpted from Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight, Aspen Baker):

24.  King, A Testament of Hope, 555.

25.  Shen, phone conversation.

26.  Akaya Windwood, executive director, Rockwood Leadership Institute, phone conversation with the author, December 2013.

27.  Shira Saperstein, former deputy director, the Moriah Fund, phone conversation with the author, December 2013.

28.  Kirsten Moore, former president and CEO, the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, phone conversation with the author, November 15, 2013.

29.  Windwood, phone conversation. 

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