Guest Post from Bronwen Nettles
A Spectrum of Advocacy, Caregiving, and Self-care
DEI professionals are in the belly of the beast: implementing purpose-driven policies, raising consciousness, illuminating internal biases, and creating safety, equity, and opportunity for traditionally marginalized employees. This is a field that bears a unique challenge that many other occupations do not. Kelley A. Bonner, therapist, and founder of BurnBright, in the DEI after 5 podcast, “Managing Burnout” states:
“We are doing the work, but we are also impacted by the work.”
As a DEI professional you are most likely in this field because of your own experiences in a systemically inequitable world. Not only do most DEI workers have trauma from being mistreated because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or dis/ability, they are also exposed to the vicarious trauma that comes from advocating for others with similar wounds. Vicarious trauma is secondary PTSD, when someone who empathetically engages with survivors consequently takes on that trauma themselves.
This is common amongst medical providers, therapists, and social workers. It is even more likely to occur when the trauma survivor is from an affinity group. DEI practitioners fall into this category. There are layers of stress and pain that both you and the people you are advocating for have mutually experienced.
If you are involved in DEI while also serving as in informal caregiver when not at work, you are a in a remarkable situation that necessitates serious self-care if you are to continue to effectively manage both roles.
DEI and Caregiving
Informal caregivers are unpaid family and friends who provide support to their loved ones living with illness and or dis/ability. Those you help support can be either children or adults with health or functional needs.
As a result of the imminent graduation of Baby Boomers, there is a major increase in the need for unpaid caregivers in the United States. According to the “Caregiving in the U.S. 2020” report published by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP Public Policy Institute, there are currently 53 million informal caregivers in America. (1) This affects 21% of the current population and that number is growing. The CDC projects by the year 2030, when all Baby Boomers will have reached the age of 65, there will be only 4 potential family caregivers while currently there are 7 potential caregivers per adult. (2)
Another layer of challenge to this growing reality directly affects many DEI practitioners. Those who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) disproportionately represent nearly 40% of all informal caregivers and report challenges that many of their white counterparts do not experience. BIPOC caregivers more often feel left out of crucial medical decisions and dismissed by staff in medical settings. There is also often a belief in non-white ethnic groups that one assumes the role of caretaker as an inescapable cultural obligation. (3) People of color are more likely to experience a deterioration in their health and to shoulder more intense levels of caregiving than their white counterparts. (4)
As these statistics demonstrate more people will be needed to help and communities of color are carrying more of a burden often with less resources and more deleterious impact. Being committed to world changing work while substantially taking care of dependent loved ones creates a tremendous challenge. If you are balancing both DEI work AND care giving off the clock you are in a perfect storm that could lead to burnout.
Signs of burnout are akin to depression and anxiety and can show up as:
- Feelings of resentment towards yourself or others
- Sense of failure
- Detachment from your work or the person you are caring for
- Physical and emotional fatigue
- Difficulty sleeping
- Change in eating habits
- Irritability with life’s daily challenges and/or the person you are caring for
- Maladaptive coping with smoking, drinking or drugs
- A sense of hopelessness
- No longer enjoying activities, thoughts, or relationships that once brought you happiness
- A decrease in your general health and new chronic pain or illness
Everyone has a finite reservoir of physical, emotional, and spiritual energy. If a water reservoir stopped letting the rain in it would dry up and no longer provide drinking water that people desperately need. Your personal reservoir needs to receive enough to be able to continue to provide for those who depend on you. To avoid burnout in DEI and care giving you need to integrate self-care realistically into your life. Just because yoga, green tea and meditation are popular and powerful acts of self-care, doesn’t mean you HAVE to care for yourself in a one size fits all prescription. Self-care ought to feel like a homecoming, an attunement to your truest self. Avoid the pitfalls of toxic positivity where self-care becomes a “should” and experiencing unpleasant emotions is avoided. It’s ok to feel broken some days because breakdowns are often breakthroughs. Sitting with your unpleasant emotions can be a form of self-care. When you can name and claim what isn’t working or does not align with your values you are putting your house in order. Then you can release the habits and thoughts that are not feeding your reservoir.
Core Principles of Managing Burnout: Acceptance, Asking for Help, Cultivating Pleasure
Acceptance is making peace with how things are currently. It does not require one to give up goals to improve, to say that bad things are ok or that the current situation won’t change later.The Serenity Prayer sums this well, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” This is realistically evaluating the situation you are in so you can focus on what you CAN do vs. all that you CAN’T do at this moment. Bonner eloquently states in the podcast “Managing Burnout”,
“There will always be more demanded of you than the resources it takes to get it done.”
This is not acquiescence, but a pragmatism that allows space to breath and know when it is time to rest or end the day. Throwing all your remaining energy into a problem that will not be solved that day takes from your reservoir to approach it fresh the next day. Clock out, go home, find your people or be alone. Accept your limits and rest.
Asking for Help:
Admitting you need help is brave and being willing to accept it is critical to survival. This is your opportunity to delegate tasks that others can effectively perform in your place. It doesn’t mean you aren’t doing your job or don’t care about those you are serving at work or home. It means you are working smarter instead of harder. Assess your tasks by the level of stress they cause. You can make a list of all you do and re-read it. Pay attention to your body as you do this. When you come to an item that causes a physical reaction prioritize delegating it, at least temporarily, to a co-worker, friend, family member, or outside professional. Another way to ask for help is to seek counseling, a support group, or respite. Just taking time to be in a space where you can vent and discharge your stress and examine your challenges through the eyes of others can be tremendously restorative. Respite services can provide short term relief for primary caregivers. Your loved one can be given care in your home while you go elsewhere, or they can be brought to a medical facility or care center. Respite can be for children or adult dependents, and it is often free depending on the provider.
What makes you feel good. Like, really good. Maybe it IS the aforementioned yoga/green tea/meditation. Or maybe it’s a hip hop dance class/bourbon neat/nap under an oak tree. Write a list of what gives you joy. Re-read and notice if any sensations arise in your body. A warmth in your chest, a buzz in your legs, a butterfly in your stomach. Being mindful illuminates your inner self. You may notice an item on your list creates an unpleasant feeling, informing you what you intellectually thought should bring you peace and comfort no longer does. Neuroscience proves that all humans have happy, healing, feeling good neurochemicals ready to be released when activated. We literally have our own pharmacy built into our bodies to keep us thriving. Dopamine rewards us with feeling good and is stimulated by achieving goals and receiving rewards. Set realistic goals that you can frequently accomplish. Meditation, exercise, sunlight, and music all boost your dopamine levels. Endorphins help alleviate pain and can be released with high-intensity exercise, orgasm, and acupuncture. Oxytocin is released through physical contact and creates a sense of love and connection. Hugs, sexual intimacy, or even cuddling with your favorite pet all release the hormone oxytocin.
Create a self-care regimen that is tailored for you. Start with 5 minutes a day of mindfulness. Stop wherever you are and whatever you are doing and focus on the rhythm of your breath. Notice how you feel, what you hear and what thoughts arise. After every mindful break ask yourself, “What do I need?” Taking time to be in the moment, you allow yourself to feel your emotions without judgement. Your genuine needs will naturally rise from this mindfulness. If you need help, ask for it. If you need pleasure, seek it. You deserve and need the love and compassion you give others. Giving care to yourself is a beautiful investment.
Resources for Caregivers:
Caregiver Action Network
Center for Parent Information and Resources (specifically for parents of children with special needs)
ARCH National Respite Network and Resource Center
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