The day I decided to write and explore the benefits and challenges of practicing self-care was the day my temperature spiked nearly five degrees. I took two extra strength Tylenol and exhausted my to-do list. I felt fine otherwise, and assumed the 101.4 fever would go away in a day. It didn’t. The higher it rose, the more I pushed myself to function at the level I’d grown accustomed to functioning. Nothing stopped—not conference calls, not research, not caring for family and friends, and certainly not my rising temperature. If not for chills in the middle of the night days later, sudden fear seeing 104.5 flash across the thermometer and a doctor demanding I rest, it’s possible caring for myself would have remained at the bottom of my to-do list.

Ever since I was a child I believed there was something honorable about pushing ourselves beyond perceived limits to accomplish something great and contribute to causes bigger than ourselves. Yet, is there anything honorable in caring for others at the cost of completely neglecting ourselves? Furthermore, what message does it send to the young people we serve who depend on and look to us as leaders for guidance on how to show up in the world. Self-care is as much about me as it is about modeling for generations after me that there is indeed dignity and reward in slowing down, pausing and stopping completely to nurse our wounds and catch our breath.

Five months ago, NN4Y hosted our annual Strategic Planning Fall Retreat for our National Youth Advisory Council (NYAC) in San Francisco, CA. Last year’s retreat had two themes: leadership and self-care. It’s a practice we are striving to embrace organizationally and something we hoped to cultivate in our amazing young leaders. During the retreat, we started each day with guided meditations, infused positive affirmations into the agenda, ate healthy meals, encouraged exercise and becoming one with the sun while taking nature walks and getting enough rest each night so we could bring our best selves to the table each morning. We even surprised the team with a spa day and access to massages, whirlpools, steam rooms and saunas. We believe in self-care, but honestly, making time to practice it daily is challenging.

Many barely had time to practice self-care before, so now that we are in the middle of a global pandemic where time and resources are even more stretched, it’s not always a priority among the insane to-do lists that grow from week to week. A few days ago, I asked young leaders to share why they don’t practice self-care daily. This is what they said:

  • Prioritizing other people’s needs before my own
  • Low motivation. 
  • When I relax, it feels too good to be true and makes me anxious. 
  • I think I should be doing something even more productive with this time.
  • Biggest barrier is that life never really stops. Even when we take a moment of stillness and peace, the hectic world is still there.
  • Lack of knowledge of reliable practices
  • It wasn’t something I saw during my upbringing. My father was always restless and stressing, and he never did anything for himself because he was too busy providing for his children.
  • No excuse not to, I just don’t.
  • I am a nurturer, so naturally my goal is to help others before I even consider helping myself. Even if that means allowing my mental health to slip. This has proven to be a toxic trait I need to gain control over.

I also asked young leaders why they believe leaders serving youth experiencing homelessness need to model it. Here’s what they said:

  • It’s important for providers to model self-care because youth are already ultra-perceptive, so filling those curious minds with positive skills can be the difference when things get tough in their life. Modeling self-care may also be an introduction to a concept that youth may have never experienced.
  • Leaders need to model self-care because there are so many young people who don’t even understand what self-care is, or the benefits. Some young people who have suffered trauma or are currently living through trauma have no idea that self-care could literally mean life or death for them. Suicide has plagued the lives of youth in our nation. Not only do leaders need to promote and model self-care, they need to create the safe spaces for the young people to practice.

The young people our organizations work so hard to uplift will not benefit in the end if we are physically unfit, mentally unwell, emotionally unstable and intellectually unconscious of missed opportunities to be more caring, loving and kind toward ourselves each day. When we as adults and leaders fail to practice self-care for ourselves and cultivate an organizational culture of self-care for the next generation watching our every move, we are failing the people we claim to serve. Young people don’t merely need us to care about them, but to also care about ourselves. They don’t merely need us to be good at our jobs, they need us to be good to ourselves. How can we care for and serve others if we do not prioritize caring for and serving ourselves? We can’t!

So, how are you taking care of yourself today?