Self Care

By Barbara Spraker

Women are caregivers.  This message was repeated over and over by the women participating in the nine Conversations.  Their families are central to their lives.  They sacrifice.  “I was a good student when I was in school,” one participant explained, but  “I give care to my family even more than what I give to myself.  I have grown in a family where we were orphans and I was the one responsible to raise four of my sisters.  I even managed to cancel early marriage of my sister and now she is in a good position and I am very proud of that.”

Outside the home, they work with children who lost parents due to AIDS.  They work with the elderly, women HIV victims, and the homeless.  They comfort those who have lost family members, provide support for women giving birth, and help women who have experienced domestic abuse.  They collect money and organize community shelters.  They involve youth in community activities to help them avoid drugs and alcohol and to help them realize they are needed and important in their communities. They help women understand their rights and teach them to read.

These women also care about their greater communities.  A participant in Ethiopia commented,  “As a communal society I give much care about the community.  Even if we women are burdened a lot more than men in our society, it is us who are involved in the society.”

Between all of this giving, the women who participated in the Conversations highlighted the necessity for self-care.  They are clear that if they are to continue in these caring roles, and even expand their work, they need to take responsibility for their own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.  A Conversation participant at Antioch University Seattle summed it up, “We can’t do it without taking care of ourselves.”

This section explores three aspects of self care: nurturing inner strength, opening ourselves to learning, and gaining support from others.  Within each of these aspects of self care, we highlight several tools and approaches to help leaders develop from the inside out.

Nurturing Inner Strength

“Where does the support to be a leader come from?” asked one Conversation participant.  As women, most of us have been reminded in many ways that we are not leaders.  The Conversation participants in Burkina Faso vividly express this.  Speaking of the ways our societies are structured so that some people are under the influence of others or are dependent on others, they comment, “This phenomenon seems to be universal because societies have proven extremely creative when it comes to designing ways of oppressing women and girls.”

Many women have internalized that message.  To overcome that, the support to be a leader must begin inside ourselves.  This means recognizing that contributing to our families and communities is leadership.  As the participants in the Muckleshoot Conversation remind us, “We have come to the realization that we do work daily that is investing in our community, and with the support of each other we can further our network, resources, and skills to broaden the scope of work possible.”  We can all recall a time when something good happened because of something we did or said, a time that we were role models for someone else.  These are all acts of leadership!

As we begin to recognize the importance of what we do, we can begin to also recognize the importance of loving one’s self and of developing our inner resources.  This includes nourishing our motivation and skill in opening ourselves to new learning and creating diverse ways to engage the support of others.  This nurturing then multiplies our energy.

Because women are habitually concerned about others, it takes intention and resolve to focus on self.  It is not selfish to love oneself!  Instead, it is our first responsibility.  It is not possible to care for others or pursue one’s vision when physically exhausted or emotionally drained.

To lead as I want to, I need to be more confident to be myself.

– participant in the AUS Conversation

Loving Self

To love one’s self is to appreciate, accept, and honor self.  It means realizing that each of us is unique, and celebrating the qualities and strengths that creates who we are.  It is being gentle with ourselves, accepting failures with grace, valuing the learning gained, and respecting the willingness to try in the first place.  It is standing up for self, honoring one’s wisdom and perspective.  It is affirming, deep inside, the value we bring to the world.  As we take seriously what it means to love self, we understand more fully how to love others.

It is not enough to think about this once in awhile.  Rather, it is necessary to create a ritual or practice whereby in each day there is time to appreciate self.  Perhaps we welcome the day by saying aloud, “I welcome this new day by acknowledging and appreciating how creative I am!”  Perhaps in the evening we take time to identify and affirm one thing we did that pleases us.  “Today, though I was busy, I took time to really listen to my colleague, Julia.  She was grateful and seemed more confident about her decision.”

Create your own ritual, and commit to it.  This is a gift to yourself and to the world.  Loving self is a foundational building block to developing such confidence.

Centering and Grounding

Loving self deepens appreciation for who you are and invites practices that support you in being fully who you are.  One of the most effective ways of caring for self is engaging in some type of meditation practice.  Standing Meditation is one powerful way of centering and grounding.  It enables us to go to a quiet space inside and BE present in the moment.

To begin Standing Meditation, select a quiet space.  Stand with feet firmly on the ground, arms loosely at the side.  Stand erect, but not rigid, head up, as though suspended by a string.  Your eyes should be closed or gently open, not focusing on anything.  Feel the earth through the soles of your feet.  Imagine that roots extend from your feet deep into the earth.  These roots provide stability and also nourishment from the earth.  This is not a time for thinking; it is a time for being.  Let your mind relax and focus on your breathing.  Notice that, although you are rooted, you also can sway.  Feel yourself standing up for who you are and what you cherish.  Holding your body erect, gently sway from side to side, front to back.  Feel the roots providing stability that enables movement.  When you are ready, gently shake your arms and bring your mind back to your surroundings.  Practicing Standing Meditation for five minutes a day will calm your body and mind, help you gather your energy, and feel alert and relaxed.

Identifying Personal Strengths and Values

In nurturing inner strength, it is also important to honestly identify and acknowledge the qualities and skills that are yours.  Some of these are natural gifts you have been given, and others are skills you have worked hard to develop.  Both of them are the means by which you achieve your goals and contribute to your world.  It is important to acknowledge the best of who we are.

Each person has a social responsibility to bring her or his gifts to the world.”

– Jasmine Keel, a coach and consultant in Beijing

What descriptive words come to mind as you reflect about who you are?  Are you creative?   Responsible?  A good listener?  An organizer?  Musically talented?  Skilled at numbers and math?  A caring friend?  Thoughtful?  Persuasive? A good cook?  Think about how your good friends would describe you.  Often we take for granted those qualities or skills that seem easy to us, when actually they may be our biggest assets.

Now write down at least 25 personal strengths.  Think about how significant these qualities are to your family and your community.  Understand the value you bring to the world.  As author and activist Marianne Williamson reminds us, our playing small does not serve the world.  Remind yourself to remove the words “I’m just a  . . . . .” from your speech.  Own your strengths and leverage them.  They are what you were given, and they are how you contribute to the world.

From your list of 25 strengths, select the five to ten that are most important and central to you.  Then focus on these five to ten, and ask: How do these strengths show up in my life right now?  In other words, how are you using your strengths?  How do these strengths contribute to your family, community and professional work?  Noticing the link between our strengths and our daily choices and decisions enables us to live into our full potential.

Next, consider these questions:  How else do I want to use my strengths?  In what other ways might I contribute my gifts?  How do I want to enhance my strengths?  The importance of this reflection is to notice any gaps where our strengths are not being fully used, or where we are undermining our abilities. Once noted we can commit ourselves to finding ways to bring voice to our strengths and to claim them more powerfully and more often in those areas.

In addition to having unique personal strengths, we each embrace important values that guide our decision-making and influence how we invest our time and energy.  What is most important to you?  Is it being an honest, authentic person?  Is it family?  Security?  The opportunity to serve others?  Autonomy?  Perhaps it is survival.

The most accurate reflection of our values is revealed when we examine our actions – how we spend our time, our energy and our resources.  We may say that we value diversity, for example, but if we’ve spent most of our time in the past year with the same people and engaged in the same kinds of activities, is diversity truly an important value?  We may say we value independence, but if we lean on someone else every time we are challenged, or blame others when things “go wrong,” we should question whether or not we really value independence.  Aligning these two elements – values and action – is what makes us a person of integrity.

Review the following list of values and add others that come to mind.  Then select the three that seem most important to you.  Write them down, and think about what the words means to you.  Did you bundle some meaning into each word?

Put your list away and go on about your life.  In a month or six months, take the list out again and consider how each of these values guided you. Do you still feel that each of your top three is important?  How can you make choices in the future to a life more in alignment with those values?  As you reflect, adjust your list of values as needed, or envision different actions that honor the values you’ve chosen.

Our personal strengths and values are the source of our energy, our confidence and our influence.  When we are struggling to develop strengths because someone else thinks we should be able to do something, our motivation lags.  When we say we value something, but it really isn’t what we resonate with most deeply, our energy is not fully called forth.  However, when we are using strengths that are our own, that we love using, and in service to values that are most important to us, we speak and act with confidence and enthusiasm, and others are drawn to our energy.  Life becomes joyful.  This is the “juice” of our lives!

Opening to Learning

As leaders who want to make a difference, one of our first commitments must be to our own development.  We are the instruments of our work in the world.  As our confidence grows, our vision of what we can accomplish expands and we seek to learn and to develop new skills.  Our desire to be “all that we can be” becomes strong.  We want to increase our effectiveness and expand our influence.  How do we proceed?

We must keep ourselves finely tuned. The way to do this is through continuous learning. Before we start exploring potential resources, we need to reflect on who we are as learners.  We need to pay attention to how we learn best, what we are most deeply curious about, and how we deal with inner resistance when we are out of our comfort zones.

How Do I Learn Best?

You’ve acknowledged your strengths and values.  As you look at these, do they suggest how you learn?  Think about a practical skill you may have – like knowing how to use a computer or how to conduct a meeting or how to bake a cake, and reflect on how you came to “own” this knowledge.  Did you learn by:

  • Reading and studying a manual?
  • Watching someone else?
  • Participating in a group where you could help each other?
  • Having hands-on help from a teacher?
  • Trying your ideas and seeing what works best for you?

While you may have used all of these methods, most of us have preferred ways of learning.  Knowing what that is provides an important clue about how to approach learning any new skill.  So, if you want to become more skilled at mobilizing a group to take action, you may decide to “shadow” someone who does it well, or to read about people who have successfully mobilized others, or join an effort and just dive in and do it.  After you consider how you best learn, write out three specific first steps you can take to enhance your ability to learn more and take action.

Nurturing Deep Curiosity

Some teachers believe that the most important gift we can give our children is nurturing their curiosity. Curiosity fuels our desire to learn.

When you consider what matters to you and how you want to move forward toward a goal, engage your curiosity.  Begin to write down every question that comes up for you about your goal.  Here are some that may jump-start your curiosity.

  • What have I already done that prompts this new vision/goal?
  • What about this vision/goal is most important to me?
  • How will it benefit the community?
  • What skills do I have that I can depend on to get started?
  • Who else is interested in this vision?
  • What else do I need to know before I can move ahead?
  • Who can help me make this vision a success?
  • What do I need to let go of before I can move on?

The notion of “deep curiosity” means that we are not simply interested on a superficial or cursory level, but that we are so deeply desirous of learning and being more, that we let in “the other” – whether this is a person or a set of ideas different from our own – and that we are willing to be changed by the other.   Allowing new information or experiences to change how we see and interact with the world is a powerful, and sometimes vulnerable, position to take.  Yet this deep curiosity guarantees that we will become more, and be able to give more, as a result.

Dealing with Inner Resistance

As we engage in deep curiosity, we may encounter inner resistance.  As we learn new ideas, visualize a change or get specific about a goal, we may find ourselves unexpectedly feeling resistant to the new reality, or feeling “stuck” about how to move forward.

Otto Scharmer, in his book, Theory U:  Leading from the Future as it Emerges, identifies three barriers that get in the way of being open to a new reality:

  • Voice of judgment – old patterns of thinking about what is and is not possible.  This is the opposite of engaging our curiosity.
  • Voice of cynicism – old emotional patterns of skepticism and distrust.  This causes us to stay disconnected from others, rather than to build relationships with others.
  • Voice of fear – holding on to what is familiar, being unwilling to step into the space of the unknown.  Fear keeps us shut down, holding on to the past, reacting, rather than taking the initiative.

Perhaps these barriers feel familiar.  When others demand, or you ask yourself, What makes you think you can do that? you are listening to old messages.  In order to silence those messages and move to a place of empowerment, write the old, negative message down on the left hand side of a sheet of paper.  On the right hand side, write the message that empowers you to move ahead toward your goal.  Read your new messages aloud, every day.  Feel the difference in your body – as you open to possibility.  Feel how you are changing as a leader as you affirm your strengths and as you acknowledge the power of connecting with others who share concern for the greater good.


This belief no longer serves me: What is true for me:
You will never change his mind. As I listen to the concerns and desires of another, I can share my own views in ways he can understand.  Our mutual respect will enable us to work together.
You do not have the skills to achieve that goal. I have excellent skills and I know others who share my goal.  As we work together we have all the skills we need.
There is no money to do that. We live in an abundant universe.  Working together creatively, we have all the resources we need.


Attracting the Support of Others

In examining what self-care means and how necessary it is for us to be effective in our work in the world, we began at the center – nurturing our inner strength, and then moved outward to opening ourselves to learning.  It is also important to attract the support of others.  As Mabilia in Guatemala pointed out,  “Alone I am good.  Together we are great!”  She and several of her participants spoke of the importance of teaching one another.  This is a key strategy for generating energy around a goal.  It is a key strategy for increasing our skills and our impact as leaders in our communities.

Part of self-care is knowing we need not be alone.  Isolation steals our power.  Leaders who want to increase their influence must take responsibility for reaching out to others and for identifying and using other resources that are readily available.  The model below demonstrates a cyclical approach to attracting supportive people and forming your own circle of support.

One of the Conversation participants from Antioch University notes that she enhances her confidence as a leader by “surrounding myself with people who care and who are supportive.”  A participant from Uganda notes, “Interaction with peers through experience sharing and having people who can listen is a form of support.”

Identifying supportive people is where we begin to amplify personal power.  These may be family members, trusted friends or professional colleagues – but they must be people who are able to support you.  They must be willing to encourage, challenge, and provide helpful feedback.  Take leadership here and invite this small group to gather.  Be clear about what you want from this group.  Share your goal or vision and ask for their commitment to meet with you on a regular basis to listen, question, encourage.  It is especially powerful when this group provides mutual support.  A small group of women who are committed to supporting one another is a powerful force!

Create Your Own Circle of Support

Participants have seen how the creating and nurturing of Conversation Circles has helped them give ongoing support to one another as they pursue their individual or collective visions. Action Circles, Circles of Discernment, and Trust Circles are further described at this link:

Identifying and connecting with trusted advisors, sometimes called mentors, enables you to build on the knowledge, experience and wisdom of others.  Often, these are older individuals whose life experience allows them to nurture others and to provide referrals to others who are important in achieving a given vision.  (More information about mentoring is in the Tools and Processes section under Practical Management).

You can practice your own leadership by reaching out to an individual identified as a potential supporter.  Briefly describe your vision or goal and ask this person if you can talk with her or him to get that person’s perspective on a specific aspect of your vision or goal.  Realize that your experiences, strengths, values and perspectives have much to contribute to this conversation as well.  Become familiar with the interests and contributions of this person and consider what you can share with her or him that could be useful.  Know that simply by sharing your vision, you may be inspiring.  People like to help others who are helping themselves.

It may be that the Support Circle will become a group of peer mentors.  Peer mentors are small groups that meet regularly to support each other’s goals and personal leadership development.  Through the accumulated knowledge, wisdom and relationships of the members of the Circle, you may serve as mentors to one another.


Self care is the first responsibility of a leader.  With it we grow in our personal power and do not become burned out, resentful or exhausted.  There are many ways to approach self care, but it is helpful to begin by looking inward, nurturing our inner strength through self-love, centering and grounding and identifying personal strengths and values. Opening oneself to curiosity and to learning from and gaining the support of helpful people are also key elements of self care.