Self-care is not just a hot topic. It’s something that is of the utmost importance for working women. I’ve chosen Lisa Brooks to write our Girl’s Guide this month because of her very personal journey from burnout to self-care, as well as her professional background as a clinical social worker. I think you’ll find Lisa refreshing, authentic, and inspiring — I sure do!
I have a long history with burnout that goes back as far as I can remember. As a little girl, I really wanted to fit in and be noticed, and bought into the belief that who I was, how I looked, and what I achieved were the solutions to any problems I faced. I have always been wired for the emotional deep end. I am intuitive, introspective, and feel my feelings strongly. I am also highly sensitive when it comes to picking up on non-verbal communication and energy. As a teenager, I was constantly overachieving, on a quest for bigger and better opportunities, and wanted to live a big life. This led to the development of some controlling, judgmental, co-dependent, and perfectionistic behavior. I completely burnt out by 21 and it took a couple of years for me to recover and find a new path.
Becoming a therapist allowed me to channel the deep emotion and natural empathy I was born with into helping other people, and I stayed in a pretty good zone for a long time. Working as a forensic interviewer and trauma specialist became a huge part of my identity, and in some ways I started to over-identify with this role. As I grew professionally, the cases I saw became more complex and intense, and it was harder for me to separate myself from my work. I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility for outcomes that were beyond my control, and a lot of my “try harder, win, and control” tendencies that I struggled with as a teenager returned.
As a woman, mom, and wife, I could feel myself losing touch with my values, and I was struggling to show up at home and in my relationships. The personal and professional stress manifested in physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual symptoms that were compromising my overall wellness, and I knew I had to make some radical changes. It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life to deconstruct my lifestyle and start rebuilding. I turned my life inside out, unlearned a whole lot of baggage, did a ton of work, and now as I approach the two-year mark in December, I feel more at home in my skin than ever before.
Resentment, avoidance, judgement, numbing, apathy, irritability, lack of productivity, depression/anxiety, and exhaustion are some pretty strong signs that someone may be dealing with burnout. The signs are different for everyone, but when I hear these, I know the person in front of me is overwhelmed, the kind of tired that sleep doesn’t fix, and has likely lost her connection to herself. All of these symptoms can arise when we say “yes” when we want to say “no,” when we are constantly trying to manage other people’s perceptions, when we are separated from our values, living in other people’s business, blaming other people for our outcomes, not taking responsibility for our actions, spending time in toxic environments and relationships, and not communicating congruently.
Boundaries help us see that the only person we can control is ourselves. When we focus on what works for us and practice letting the rest go, we start to unlearn the patterns that have kept our behavior on repeat. Boundaries guide us away from comparison, absorbing other people’s emotions, and obsessing over things we cannot control, while preventing us from engaging in relationships that are not good for us. It’s important to acknowledge that boundaries take practice and courage. It is a lot easier to pour a glass of Pinot Grigio and complain to a friend than it is to have a vulnerable conversation with someone and not put their needs ahead of your own.
Boundaries are my all-time favorite self-care strategy and they are completely free. They are also my biggest struggle. I am a recovering people pleaser and I can still get dysregulated when I sense a lack of belonging, know I have disappointed someone, or feel left out. I have a long history of reacting poorly when I don’t feel in control of other people’s perceptions of me and when fear holds me back from being true to myself. I have said a lot of “yeses” when I wanted to say “no,” and I have definitely put on some wonderful performances trying to serve someone else’s needs while completely ignoring my own. This has led to a lot of smiling on the outside while screaming and waging wars on the inside. It has also turned me into a pretty big liar from time to time. Because authenticity is such an important value for me, I lived a lot of my life completely disconnected from my truth. When I finally faced the toll my lack of boundaries was taking on me and my relationships, I committed to finding a new way of living and loving people.
Brené Brown’s research shows that the kindest, most compassionate people in the world have the strongest boundaries. They know who they are and who they are not and are not confused about it. They are sovereign over themselves. They do what is right for them even when it’s not popular and could result in isolation from the “group.” They cannot bear the tension of sitting with the discomfort of being someone they are not. Their ability to unapologetically take care of themselves and to communicate clearly and congruently allows them to be of utmost service to other people. They are able to consider the opinions of others but are not identified by them. They belong to themselves. This is an imperfect practice, but so worthwhile and a total game changer. I live by the mantra “stay in your story.” There is your story, other people’s stories, and God’s story. It is empowering and liberating to know the difference.
Self-care feels selfish until it doesn’t. We are surrounded with conditioning, modeling, and a lot of stories about what it means to be a good wife, employee, leader, mother, friend, daughter, and partner. Our culture loves to categorize everything into “good” and “bad,” and many of us have learned to put ourselves last because the last thing we want to be called is “selfish.” I love a massage, I take bubble baths every night, I love a great girls’ night, and I am crazy about traveling, a nice glass of wine, chasing sunsets, and working out. What I know for sure is that none of these things were ever the answer to my ongoing struggles with burnout.
Self-care is an inside-out job and one I had to give myself permission to invest in regardless of how anyone else felt about it. When I started to view self-care as an attitude and a practice — and not another expensive, time-sucking thing to fit into my schedule — my life began to change. I had to unlearn so much of what I had been taught about who I was and instead experience the discomfort of discovering what was true for me.
Everyone’s path to this is different. Self-care can look like learning to trust our wisdom, exploring new possibilities, feeling our way through the chaos of change, not numbing to avoid feelings, setting boundaries, slowing down, and standing courageous when we want to run. It is hard, imperfect work. There is no road map or gold stars.
Every single thing that worked to liberate me from myself was free and seemed simple. The reality was that it felt like I was walking around without my skin on and was totally exposed. With practice, I noticed I began taking better care of myself and others, and became much more intentional. I was clearer about who I was and was more concerned with being true to myself. I was less willing to engage in anything that was not right for me. I was open to learning new ways and pushing my comfort zone. It all became an extension of myself and had nothing to do with anyone’s approval but my own.
I am far from perfect, and even though I write and talk about these topics all the time, I still have seasons that are difficult and challenging. I want to inspire and encourage women, but I never want to present an image of having it all together. The old me held herself to super high standards and was quite judgmental of herself, which bled into some of my experiences with other people. My self-talk could be pretty terrible, and while I had a lot of compassion, empathy, and acceptance for others (especially at work), I reserved very little for myself. What you saw on the outside was often incongruent with what was true on the inside.
Today I practice meeting myself where I am. I am much more intentional and prefer simplicity over everything. I still care about what people think, but I’m not defined by it. I speak generously and compassionately to the little girl inside me that fought so desperately to protect herself from rejection and disconnection. She and I have done a lot of work to repair our relationship, and when she needs my attention, I don’t fight with her. I am learning to hold space for her feelings and reassure her she is okay, human, and worthy even in her imperfections. I am clear about who I belong to and what I am here for. I just want to be as true to myself as possible and encourage other people like crazy. I take that very seriously.
I actually don’t believe in work-life balance at all. I think it is another myth that was created to keep women feeling guilty, discontent, striving, and in constant comparison. There will always be personal and professional things that take priority over others and those things will not always be within our control. We have such a tendency to look at other women and believe they are successfully doing it all. My response to that is usually, “They aren’t or they won’t be for long,” and I say that with the utmost respect.
When I see a woman running 100 miles an hour, I feel for her because I have been there. I really encourage women to examine the stories they are telling themselves, get clear about the origin of their beliefs, and create boundaries between work and home that are consistent with their values. We must relearn how to be still, trust what we know, and do our own work. We know what we need better than anyone else. We just have to be courageous enough to claim it and not compare it. This is how we discover what works for us and our people. This is how we find our way home.
We couldn’t have said it any better ourselves… and you can see why we asked our member, conference speaker, and friend, Lisa Brooks, to share her wisdom. Find out more about her work with Wilmington Thrive Tribes here.