Self-care in the field

“There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” - Nelson Mandela

This has always been one of my favorite quotes—a call to action, a challenge and the articulation of the trajectory of my life. Even if I do not always know what path I am walking, knowing that following passion and not playing small form the outer edges of the road that guides where my feet take me. Everyone on the Expo staff is drawn toward the challenges of working in the field for different reasons: some want to test their mettle, some explore new places, some are seeking entry into the broader world of international work—but all of us woke up knowing that unless we tried it out, we would not be content with our lives. I have learned over the past several years, however, that self care is a huge component of living the life you are capable of living—I am no use to anyone when I am not fully myself.

Living and working together in the field, often in close quarters, offers us the opportunity to develop deep and meaningful connection very quickly—no intimacy develops faster than having to share a bathroom. However, it can also lead to wear and tear: no matter how sensitive, thoughtful, intentional and considerate you are. When you live with your co-workers, you are never fully “off.” This might come in to form of dinner conversations drifting back toward work, personal issues showing up during check-ins, or when someone can’t get ahold of your roommate, they know to call you. Much of the grating comes from just simply being unable to disconnect. And it is precicely at these times that good self-care makes all the difference

So what constitutes good self-care? There are a myriad of blogs written about it in varying degrees of usefulness. Some of my favorites are: 9 Excuses to Avoid Self Care, Tips for Developing Emotional Resilience, and almost anything from Expat Backup.

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Some of my favorite self-care strategies and activities come from my time working in restorative justice where as the facilitator of the circle process (a conflict resolution tool), I needed to be present with emotions yet not controlled by them. One activity, introduced to me by a brilliant clinical supervisor, is called ICE, or In Case of Emergency. Have you ever been in a situation where you are so stressed or overwhelmed or exhausted that you just cannot seem to make a decision? When our brains are stressed, the front part of our brains responsible for decision-making, problem-solving, cause and effect thinking and regulating emotions actually shuts down. Most of our activity moves to the center of the brain and the brain stem, which are responsible for safety, control of movement, breathing, body position, hearing, sight and sleep. The decision-making paralysis you feel is truly happening in your brain in that moment—which is not to say you cannot ever make decisions, but the decisions we are forced to make under stress are often not as good as our well-reasoned decisions made with a clear head.

ICE is a brainstorming activity that lets you use your creativity when you are not stressed to come up with things you can do when you are stressed that you don’t have to think about because you’ve already thought about them! Divided into 5 self-care categories of physical (take a walk, do yoga), mental (write a letter, do a crossword), emotional (have a good cry, journal or do art), spiritual (be in nature, meditate), and social (call your best friend, set up an activity with friends so you have something to look forward to), you design either a sheet of paper or an index card with a list of activities you can do for each of those 5 categories. Then you can illustrate or write in different colors. The second part of the ICE activity, is to identify which of the options are on your “Shakira List” (the Whenever, Wherever or no materials/planning necessary). For example, on my Shakira list I have silly photo shoots (that requires a camera but I have it on my phone and my phone is always with me), cry, go for a walk, singing, and my gratefulness list. The idea behind ICE cards is that you carry them with you or post them where you can see them, and it reminds you of what you already know to take care of yourself. Throughout the years, my ICE card has grown considerably—both because I have started tracking what I know helps, and because having shared it with others I benefit from hearing about their self-care strategies as well!

While it can seem quaint, I have to say that to be committed to living big instead of living small, I need reminders to take care of myself. Sometimes it comes from being attuned to what I need, more often it comes from external places: either a gentle cue from a trusted friend or mentor, or witnessing someone else in need of a break and using that as a time to check in with myself. Taking care of myself helps me not let Nelson Mandela (or me!) down, a noble goal if ever there was one.


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