Radical Self-Care: The Antidote to Mission Burnout

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Creating meaningful change requires imagination, passion, and endurance. Self-care is a key factor to making it work. 

Creating change is never easy. Most often it comes from passionate leaders driving impactful projects at a high pace.

All too often, the result can be burnout.

Just ask Abrah Dresdale and Keith Zaltzberg.

Dresdale created the Farm and Food Systems initiative at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts, where students gain an interdisciplinary understanding of ecological, economic, political, and social systems as they relate to food and farming.

An author and permaculture treacher, Dresdale built the program from scratch and then directed it for four years before exhaustion, exacerbated by a ruptured disc in her neck, forced a “hard stop.”

Zalzberg is an environmental designer and founding principal of Regenerative Design Group.

Concerns over climate change, the loss of global biodiversity, and the contraction of food sovereignty and security led Zaltzberg to devote himself to influencing the way cities, towns, farms, and wild lands are shaped and managed.

He started his company in 2008 with two business partners while also serving on municipal committees on sustainable planning and trees, and as a city councilor.

“I've worked on more than 100 projects and coauthored important ordinances focused on creating productive landscapes and regenerating ecological health,” Zaltzberg said. “Like Abrah, I was laid low by a back injury from overwork. I also had a series of major and painful relationship implosions during those 10 years.”

Self-Care Must Be Part of Any Plan to Create Change

To guard against burnout, one must develop a personal wellspring that not only is nourishing, but also serves as a conduit for inspiration and impact.

Enter radical self-care, a practiced form of personal empowerment that must be designed and then tended to much like a landscape.

“As much as we are all trying to make change, if we don’t actually make change with ourselves and our own worldviews—and in our own practices and patterns—we will necessarily recapitulate the same patterns that we are trying to transform,” says Dresdale, author of the forthcoming Regenerative Design for Change Makers: A Social Permaculture Guidebook.

Dresdale compares self-care with heartwood at the center of a tree.

“If the core, the self at the center, is not healthy and resilient, then none of the concentric circles that we influence are going to be healthy and resilient,” she says.

Create a Flexible Self-Care Plan

To nurture your core, you need a plan. Dresdale suggests asking yourself the following:

  • When do you thrive?
  • What brings you delight?
  • What brings you peace?
  • What recharges your battery?
  • How will your personal life and your change-making projects be different if you decide to spend your evenings watching television or looking at Facebook instead of visiting a river or making dinner with a friend?

Then, determine how often your personally fulfilling actions must be taken each day, each week, each month, and each year in order to be sustaining.

Any self-care plan must be flexible. A regenerative process not only regenerates the capacity of a system to perform its core function, it also needs to be regenerated itself each time it is engaged with.

“You can’t be formulaic,” Zaltzberg says. "A self-care plan has to be responsive and reflective in order to be reviving each time you use it.”

Zaltzberg says it can be easy to go into automatic mode without stopping to review whether, say, a twinge of knee pain might indicate that it’s time to alter or take a break from your morning run.

"In resilience thinking, we talk a lot about the state of the system," he said.

Any system is dynamic. It can have highs and lows and still remain within its basic operating tolerances. The time to step back and reassess is when there is a disturbance that results in a different systems capacity, or when operating tolerances are shifted.

“Through this kind of conscientious responsive and adaptive engagement with ourselves, with the organizations we are a part of, and with the wider world,” Zaltzberg says, “we are able to increase our capacity and create higher performing systems within this holistic framework.”