Journey to Self-Care

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Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
-Audre Lorde

Do you need to get serious about self-care? Maybe you’re struggling from stress-related health problems after a lifetime of self-neglect. Or perhaps you’ve gone through a move, divorce, or some other major life transition that’s disrupted your self-care patterns. Or maybe you’ve experienced a developmental shift or illness and your old self-care patterns aren’t enough anymore.

Self-care is easier said than done. It is countercultural in a society that values productivity over profit above all else. Some of us learn to put others’ needs ahead because of lessons we learned in childhood. For some of us, it happens when we become parents or caregivers. Others of us are helping professionals or social justice activists who put self-care on the back burner because of our vocations.

Some of us have never embarked on a self-care journey, while others have tried but been knocked off-course. Either way, it’s time to get on the self-care wagon!

If you’re ready to get serious about self-care, sign up for my 2016 Journey to Self-Care series. You’ll get one email per month with inspirational messages and practical exercises for kicking off, reviving, or enhancing your self-care plan. I’m going to be practicing right along with you, so you’ll get my reflections on what works for me, what doesn’t, and what keeps me going.

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Why Women of Color in Christian Social Justice Need a Retreat, and How Others Can Support

On November 14, 2015, the Christian Community Development Association will host its first (but hopefully not its last) post-conference retreat for Women of Color. A few months ago, I wrote about the need for the retreat. For 24 hours, African-, Asian-, Indigenous-, and Latina-American Christian women who are engaged in social justice, community development, and reconciliation ministry will gather together for fellowship and renewal. For some of us, it will be the first time that women of color gather across racial/ethnic lines to discuss our common needs and interests, as well as the impediments to our solidarity. woman-mixedrace

Many of us spend the vast majority of our days as racial-gender outliers. We are used to being one of few people of color in white-dominant circles, one of few women in male-dominant arenas. And we are almost always the first or only woman of color. We are the marginalized among the marginalized. We are used to walking on eggshells, filtering our words and behaviors so as not to make waves, having our opinions discounted even as people affirm how important it is for us to be present. Being a woman of color in evangelical social justice organizations is akin being a three-dimensional creature trying to live in a two-dimensional world. We’re constantly flattening ourselves. Next week, we get to take a big inhale and puff up again.

There has been some pushback. It has been outweighed, however, by the outpouring of support that we have received from White women and brothers of all races who have supported us. Several have donated scholarship funds to pay for the registration of women who want and need to be at the retreat, but who cannot afford it. Some have volunteered to handle registration and logistics to free the steering committee and women of color on the CCDA staff to attend – rather than work – the retreat. Others have spread the word about the retreat to the women in their ministries and encouraged them to attend.

We still have people asking how they can help. Below are a few suggestions.

Pray for us. Pray that the women who need to be part of this healing, safe space will get the support that they need to attend. Pray for the speakers, worship team, steering committee, and CCDA staff who will be supporting us, even as they are worn out from an already full conference schedule. Pray that the Holy Spirit will show up and do her work, that she will meet each participant where we are and give us what we need to continue.

Provide financial support. There is a waiting list of women who would like to attend but who cannot afford the registration fee ($79) or the additional hotel stay ($149). Many women of color do CCD ministry on a volunteer or part-time basis with organizations who cannot afford to pay for their attendance at the conference or the retreat. You can donate to the retreat online. Be sure to check the box at the bottom stating, “I’m donating to a specific event” and enter “WoC Retreat.” You can also call the CCDA office at 773-475-7370.

Do some self-examination. Examine your own relationships and organizations to determine how they can be more hospitable to women of color’s three-dimensional existence. Reflect upon your vision of indigenous leadership development and how dimensions of race, gender, and power may be at play. Did you think the indigeous leaders would all be male or perhaps assume that the development would be done by Whites?

Educate yourself on the needs and experiences of women of color in social justice ministry. Learn how our needs differ from those of white women and men of color. If you’re attending CCDA, go to workshops and plenaries that feature women of color talking about our experiences. There are plenty of opportunities this year, with speakers such as Alexia Salvaterria, Christena Cleveland, Rahiel Tesfamariam, Sonia Stewart, Sandra Van Opostal, Q Nellum, and Catherine Gilliard, among others. There are workshops on women’s leadership development as well as upon issues that disproportionately impact women of color, including domestic violence, human trafficking, and trauma. There is a Wednesday night art and jazz session featuring Shanequa Gay, who uses art to address issues of race, gender, and justice. On Thursday at 1:30pm, I’ll be teaching a workshop on the StrongBlackWoman. Buy and read books by and about women of color. The more you learn, the more you will understand the need for the retreat. If you still don’t understand, it’s because you haven’t learned enough, you haven’t listened enough.

Spread the word. Tell other women of color about the retreat. Ask friends and colleagues to support the retreat. Direct them to this article as well as other blogs by women of color.

Starting Well: Self-Care Amidst the Academic Frenzy

Passion-Planner-1024x689Start semester well. I wrote the three words in the box labeled, “This week’s focus,” in my new Passion Planner. It had been two decades since I had used a paper planner. I was an early adopter of electronic organizers. Before smartphones and WiFi-enabled PDAs, I kept track of my appointments and tasks using my Sony organizer with its flip-up telephone modem. It was a lot easier than writing “Statistics class” in a planner 24 times in one semester. It’s worked for me through two master’s degrees, a doctorate, and my stints as assistant professor in three institutions.

Lately, though, I’ve felt pulled in so many different directions by varying projects, people, and responsibilities (is this post-tenure life?) that I needed something different. I needed some way to help me to keep track of the big picture, to keep focus on my priorities, and to keep me from being over-committed…well, to keep me from being ridiculously over-committed.

If there’s anything that I’ve learned with 20 years of experience in higher education, it’s that the beginning of the semester is a perfect time for losing sight of one’s priorities, especially those that have to do with our well-being and professional development. There is no gradual transition from the slower pace of summer. Fall term starts at full tilt, a two-week frenzy of faculty and committee meetings, workshops, orientation events for new students, convocation, and social gatherings. In this midst of this, there’s the scramble to finalize syllabi, set up course websites, and to prep the first classes. There’s the anxiety of new students who worry about what’s ahead and the anxiety of graduating students who…worry about what’s ahead. And for some unfathomable reason, there is no sabbatical from the planning committees that are ramping up for the fall conference season.

It’s enough to drive any sane person crazy (although it begs the question whether a supposedly smart person who chooses this as a lifestyle is sane). At a minimum, it’s enough to overwhelm typical routines of spiritual disciplines, self-care, and personal development. The struggle to make an early meeting pushes aside the morning devotional; an orientation event overrides writing time; sheer fatigue cancels the afternoon workout. If it were just one week, it might be okay. But for many of us, it’s at least two, which makes recovery harder.

This year, as our classes began, I set my intention for the week: “Start semester well.” Starting well was not about being the perfect professor, the one who finalized and printed her syllabi, set up the Blackboard sites, and prepped her first lectures last week. It was not about being two weeks ahead (or more) of the students in terms of course readings and activities. Starting well was about not losing sight of the big picture. And because I’d just done my first “passion roadmap,” I had a very good idea of what that big picture was: love God; serve God’s people; remaining cancer free; be a good wife and mother; be financially ready for retirement; and be a badass scholar-teacher (well duh…there is a reason I’ve chosen this insanity, after all).

When I drew my passion roadmap, I was surprised at just how few of my lifetime goals were reflected in my daily activities. Being a great scholar-teacher was actually the lowest of my priorities but it probably took up most of my daily energies. I rarely scheduled explicit time toward my other goals. That was about to change.

Starting the semester well meant that in addition to the classes, meetings, and office hours, my schedule would also include time for meditation, chapel, writing, and spending time with my family. It meant that the frenzy of the first two days of the week would be followed by a midweek day of restoration, which included getting a massage and cooking a healthy meal that would get my family through the week’s end. It meant my personal to-do list included exercising at least three times and going to the farmer’s market. It meant showing up for classes without having a perfect plan for the semester (and being upfront with the students about it). It meant letting go.black-woman-meditating-e1325516643421

It was probably the healthiest first week that I’ve had. And it was the very sort of discipleship that I want to exemplify for my students. Because soon, if they don’t already, they will know the pressures of being pulled in multiple directions by ministry. And they will need to know how to start well.

Anxiety and the StrongBlackWoman

I’m anxious. There, I said it. Ironically, saying it publicly is not as freeing as I’d hoped it would be. In fact, it’s somewhat anxiety-producing. Perhaps I should stop writing now, delete this line, and move on.

No, it must be said. It is part of my recovery as a StrongBlackWoman. You see, a SBW isn’t supposed to be anxious. At least, most people think she’s not supposed to be. A SBW is supposed to be…well, strong. Impervious to fear, worry, and anxiety. She’s supposed to have everything – especially her emotions – under control. Her strong religious faith (a SBW is usually religious) is a prophylactic against worry. She stands on platitudes such as “God won’t give me more than I can bear” and “If God brought me to it, He’ll bring me through it.” And if she is an especially good Christian, she can quote or paraphrase off actual Biblical verses such as the one about lilies and sparrows (cf. Matthew 6:25-34). And if those don’t work, she is simply to immerse herself in more busyness and keep her feelings to herself.

That’s precisely what I’ve done for most of my life – kept my fears and anxiety to myself. About ten years ago, I realized that I probably have a strong biological predisposition to anxiety. A lot of people in my family have a lot of fears: dogs, scary movies, lightning, New York cabbies. Some of my relatives (who shall remain nameless) practically jump out of their skin at the least provocation. Some of us are pretty open about our fears, prompting the rest of us to label them “scary,” as in “Chile, you kno’ she ain’t goin’ to that movie. She so scary.” Others suffer silently. Since I’m a clinical psychologist, some of my relatives have come to me over the years to talk about these issues – the panic attacks, obsessions and compulsions, the prescriptions. And all the while, I’ve thought that it was strange that I didn’t have an anxiety disorder given my familial predisposition and my personal history of trauma.

Somehow, I overlooked a lot of symptoms – the nightmares and insomnia that started by my sixth birthday, my fear of the dark, my refusal to walk alone in my suburban neighborhood during the day because it seemed too deserted, my self-consciousness, and my chronic mental multi-tasking. The symptoms have appeared – and disappeared – at different stages in my life. And most of the time, they’ve been subclinical, meaning that they were not severe enough to require professional intervention. Mindfulness-based activities such as yoga and meditation, along with good nutrition and exercise, were sufficient to keep the symptoms in check.

Then came parenthood. The hypervigilance required of parents during the first few years of a child’s life is enough to trigger any subclinical anxiety problems into a full-scale clinical syndrome. Next came a one-year period of tremendous loss, trauma, and change, the cumulative effects of which created multiple cracks in the dam of strength that I’d built over the years. Finally, two months ago, I came home to discover that someone had broken into our house, just the right trauma to unleash a Katrina-like flood of anxiety over my already weakened defenses.

The typical SBW reaction would have been to act as if all were okay. If I were operating in full SBW mode, in response to queries about how I was feeling, I would have offered some heroically faithful retort like, “God is my fortress and my shield!” But I haven’t been in full SBW mode for a long time. In fact, I have been in recovery for almost ten years. Granted, there have been a few relapses, but at this point in my journey, I have no interested in being a myth. I am committed to discovering and embracing my authentic, fully human self, including my needs and vulnerabilities. So I told the truth: I’m not okay. I’ve had problems with anxiety for a long time and this just puts me over the edge. I am afraid, more afraid than I can tolerate on my own.

For the first time, rather than suppressing my fears, I owned them. Instead of trying to deny my anxiety (to myself and others), I decided to make sure that my anxious self received the care that I needed. I continued my weekly therapy sessions, made sure that I exercised and ate well, and went for a massage. But when, after a few weeks, my anxiety level remained sufficiently high enough to jeopardize my sleep and my blood pressure, I took another step: anti-anxiety medication.

As a psychologist, I tend to favor “talk” therapy over medication. And in this case, I knew that my symptoms would eventually decrease and return to their normal levels. Yet I also agreed with my therapist who, as both a licensed counselor and priest, reminded me that God does not require us to suffer needlessly. Suffering anxiety was not doing me, or anyone else, any good. In fact, with every day of elevated blood pressure increasing my risk of eventual stroke, a few months of untreated anxiety could have a much worse long-term impact.

I wish that more of my SBW sisters would recognize their problems with anxiety and seek treatment, whether it be counseling (with a properly trained and licensed therapist), medication, or both. Despite the myths about our mental and spiritual fortitude, SBW are actually quite anxious. Epidemiological research consistently demonstrates that Black women in the U.S. have a relatively high rate of anxiety disorders. Nearly 1 in 5 Black women has a diagnosable phobia, higher than any other racial-ethnic group. Black women also have significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than Black men or women of other racial/ethnic groups. It turns out that hidden behind the myth of strength is a lot of unnecessary suffering.

The first step in releasing our fears is to admit them. Huh, this is starting to feel liberating, after all.

Relinquishing Selflessness: A Lenten Journey


I’m giving up selflessness for Lent. That may seem counterproductive to the Lenten focus on denying self. I should probably do something more…spiritual. Like committing to fast. Or getting up before dawn to spend an hour in prayer. Or giving up Facebook, Twitter, and television so that I can spend more time reading Scripture. Even something seemingly as mundane as giving up chocolate might be more high-minded than giving up selflessness.


Trust me, I tried to think of something else. I was really thinking about giving up social media. That’d be a tough one for me. I will try to curtail my compulsions to check Facebook. But that’s not my Lenten discipline.


Nope, my discipline is being less selfless. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines selfless as “concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s owns.” The chief antonym for selflessness: unselfish. New Oxford has nothing positive to say about selfishness.


That’s problematic. It would seem that a certain level of selfishness, or self-centeredness, is necessary for the preservation of the self. By the way, New Oxford seems to approve of the idea of having a self, “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, esp. considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.”


But what about Scripture and Christian tradition? Scripture is a pretty strong advocate for self-denial. In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus tells his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them” (Luke 9:23-24, see also Matthew 16:24-25, Mark 8:34-37). A whole host of monastic movements and practices of asceticism have been based, in part, on such teachings.


However, denial is not the final word that Scripture has to say about the self. Embedded in the Great Commandment is an often overlooked element: Christ’s assumption – in fact, his command – that we love ourselves. In response to the legal expert who asks which commandment is the most important, Jesus responds: “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12: 28-31). It turns out that Jesus thinks that loving oneself is connected to loving one’s neighbor.


For Christians, then, self-love and self-denial live in an

dynamic interplay. It’s a tension, to be sure. Straying too far into self-love can lead to all manner of sin, not the least of which is idolatry. But excessive self-denial is just as problematic and can also be a form of idolatry. For some of us, self-denial comes easily precisely because we don’t have a strong sense of self to begin with. That’s often the case for women and girls, who are often taught to put others before themselves. The helping professions (including ministry) also tend to attract people who are good at putting the needs of others before themselves.


So being a woman in the helping professions (both a psychologist and minister), self-denial comes easy to me. To make matters worse, I’m the eldest child of a single mother. By the age of twelve, i was a full-fledged parentified child, taking care of my younger brother while my mother worked long hours, often on the night shift. My mother, coincidentally, was the eldest of eight children. And her father had to drop out of elementary school so that he could take care of his younger siblings while his parents worked on a sharecropper’s farm in Mississippi. That’s at least three generations of training in self-denial culminating in one package…me.


I’m always looking out for the needs of other people, whether they be family, friends, or strangers. I don’t even wait for people to express a need; I anticipate it. I’m the person who sees a problem, develops a solution, and assumes the responsibility for implementing it so as not to add a burden to anyone else. Even when I’m driving, I look out for the needs and feelings of others. If my turn approaches too quickly and I’m in the wrong lane, I’ll miss the turn rather than cause other drivers to slow down momentarily. For some reason, one of my chief driving rules is that it’s wrong to inconvenience other drivers. I have no idea where I got that from, but it’s paradigmatic of my life.


Selflessness has gotten me in trouble health-wise. About ten years ago, my body sent a not-so-subtle message: “You’re doing too much for other people and you need to take better care of yourself.” I listened, at least until I went to seminary, where the workload and content taught me that good Christians (and good students) take up their cross by pulling all-nighters, living off caffeine, and putting off health until they graduate. Moreover, they should do this without uttering a complaint, otherwise their professors might accuse them of having the wrong priorities.


There have been plenty of reinforcements for the message that I should focus less upon myself than upon others. The devotional that I use, with its heavy emphasis upon social justice, instructs me to direct my prayers toward others. Save for the Lord’s Prayer, there is no space within its daily liturgy to bring my own needs before God.


And sometimes churches add fuel to the fire. One night during a church committee meeting, I tearfully shared my struggles with balancing my teaching position, being a new parent, and serving the church. Several committee members responded by telling me that I needed to get better childcare so that I could do more for the church!


It turns out that my body’s early signals of physical distress were roadside signs warning me of the all-out roadblock up ahead. I now find myself living with a chronic illness that could possibly have been prevented if I had put more focus upon myself than upon others. Fortunately, or perhaps not, the condition can be managed if I finally learn to do what I’ve been so horrible at doing: loving myself. Hence, my Lenten discipline.


It’s not the easiest discipline to observe. There is no clear checklist or set of rules that I must follow on a daily basis. Right now, I’m beginning with something simple: praying for myself. Each morning, I pray the Psalms. After I read the Psalm through once, I pray it through, putting myself in place of the petitioner, even altering the words to reflect my situation. It makes me feel less guilty to pray for myself if I’m following a Biblical precedent.


So kudos to those of you who are practicing some form of self-denial this Lenten season. As for me, I’m practicing self-love.

Time to Unplug

Two weeks ago I discovered a writer’s haven – an internet café at a public library. It’s got tables, plenty of power outlets, restrooms, vending machines, and even a microwave. Walled off from the rest of the library by glass doors, it opens into a private courtyard, with benches, picnic tables, and yes, more power outlets! It’s been a great spot to work. Armed with a thermos full of coffee, a lunchbox, and a laptop, I can work there all day – without spending any money!


This morning, though, my haven keeps getting interrupted. Every few minutes, a young man dressed in a sports store uniform, pops in with his cell phone to his ear. A longtime lover of library silence, I’m impressed that he is respectful enough of the patrons in the main space to take his phone conversations elsewhere. I just wish that “elsewhere” was somewhere else. Doesn’t he see me working?!


Cell phone conversations are loud, even when people think they’re speaking quietly. So it didn’t take long for me to get a sense of what was going on. He was being called repeatedly by his job. More than three hours before his shift was supposed to start (like I said, cell phone conversations are loud), his co-workers were tracking him down, asking him when he was coming to the store. By the fifth call, he walked straight through the café to the courtyard. Even with the doors closed, I could hear him giving instructions to someone. By that point, my frustration with the noise had turned into sympathy for this man, who couldn’t enjoy his morning off without constant interruptions.


I couldn’t help but think of a few of my friends in ministry. I have been to a few ministry retreats and conferences this year where I’ve watched colleagues who could not get away from issues back home. Every few minutes, they got a call, text, or email from someone who ostensibly needed their help. And every few minutes, they were responding. It was nearly impossible to have conversations with them without them pausing to take a call or answer a text. “Hold on, I need to respond to this” was the frequent refrain. Their busyness took on a manic element as they rushed from task to task.


If it were just conversations with me that were being interrupted, I wouldn’t be bothered. But I knew that their addiction to busyness was all-encompassing. It impacted their health and their relationships. Is it ironic that it happened most, actually always, with African American men and women? Probably not. My guess is that it’s the StrongBlackWoman/StrongBlackMan thing rearing its head. Layer that with Christianity’s emphasis upon “bearing the cross” and you’ve got a full-scale case of ministry overload and eventual burnout.


A few months ago, my husband and I imposed a blackout period on electronic devices in our household, a two-hour evening time slot in which we would not utilize our cell phones or computers. Miraculously, it was doable. The world didn’t come to an end. Our lives did not turn upside down. Instead, we had two hours each evening when we read, talked, or played games rather than checking Facebook and playing Angry Birds. Over the past few weeks, though, there’s been a gradual erosion in our observance of the blackout. It probably began around the time of a deadline when I “just had” to work on something for a few hours. It’s a slippery slope. I better scramble back up before I fall too far. I encourage you to do the same. Make a commitment to “unplug” for part of your day – even if it’s only one hour. And for that hour, be present to the world in other ways. Spend time with your partner. Play with your kids. Read a book. Take a long, hot soak in the tub. And trust that God is in control of everything else.