Notes on Self-Care and Environmental Justice
Social workers are no stranger to burnout. Although deeply rewarding, we know social work can be a stressful profession. We are often drawn to work in areas of practice that we care deeply about or have some sort of personal tie to. Some of us even have lived experience in the areas we practice in. These emotional connections help us empathize and build purpose, but it can also leave us at higher risk for burnout.
This is no different for people engaging in environmental justice work. Many of us live in societies marked by competition and division, of short-termism and "temporal exhaustion" (Fisher, 2019; Boulding, 2017). Experiencing gaslighting by oil companies to solve the climate crisis on our own (Carrington, 2020). When it feels like an uphill battle to effect change on the scale you want to see it, the work can be unrelenting and overwhelming.
For these reasons, I wanted to write about the importance of self-care. But you might be sick of hearing about self-care – I know I have been. This is especially true when workplaces and society normalize or reward burnout, or we are left to feel entirely responsible for our own well-being in the context of ineffective systems, as Rupa Marya illustrates perfectly:
When you add this to the layers of crisis people and planet are facing, isolation and disconnection thrives. It's no wonder that short-term self-care interventions aren't cutting it.
Powers and Engstrom (2019) emphasize the importance of "radical self-care", a concept that marries "traditional self-care" with being "part of the solution in reducing the stressors that created their need for self-care in the first place". In actively contributing to the conditions we want to see in the world, while still tending to our need for care and rest, we undermine systems that perpetuate burnout, disconnection, and hopelessness.
Much like a mindfulness practice, it seems important for self-care to be considered as a continual process that we keep coming back to. Over time, we identify the balance of elements that we need to feel more connected to the beings, places, and causes we care about. I have learned so much from the people and works cited in this article, and I am grateful for those who are bravely sharing their experiences for the rest of us to learn from. Here are some of these learnings as possible steps in a process of self-care:
Acknowledging the Problem(s)
Living in the context of multiple intersecting problems in a busy world, we are not encouraged to think about them, let alone feel or accept their presence. We have become too good at adapting and engaging in ways to not think about the crises we face (Roberts, 2020). Whether it is the presence of climate change itself, our emotional reactions to it, concern for our loved ones, or any other number of possibilities, it is important to take time to allow them to be present.
Good Grief Network's 10-step program to "personal resilience and empowerment in a chaotic climate" crucially starts off with accepting the severity of the problem and empathetically maintaining our gaze. Powers and Engstrom (2019) discuss the importance of recognizing and legitimizing our experience of grief and loss in the face of climate change, and Margaret Klein Salamon notes the importance of our feelings as signals that are "telling us something critically important. We ignore it at our own peril” (Bekhoff, 2020).
You might use something like the Emotional Resilience Toolkit for Climate Work which is available to download for free by the Climate Therapy Alliance (2019), or the worksheets in Leslie Davenport's (2017) book Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change to help this reflection.
We know that engaging in activities that nourish you are an important aspect of the self-care process. But the part where we non-judgmentally carve out time and participate in these activities is often the challenging part. As social workers, we may convince ourselves that self-care is necessary primarily to allow us to keep doing the work we do. However, Powers and Engstrom (2019) aptly evoke Audre Lorde's (1988) crucial perspectives on self-care and prompt a different way of thinking about it:
"It is important that social workers understand that self-care is not merely about being better equipped for one’s professional roles and responsibilities, but that each social worker has their own intrinsic value and deserves to be cared for (by self and by others)."
In a similar vein, adrienne maree brown (2017) challenges us to consider our existence as "in and of itself a contribution to the people and place around you", emphasizing the vitalness of nourishment to keep our self going before all else.
For some, nature connection is a vital aspect of the self-care process, not to mention its variety of benefits to mental health (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009; Powers & Engstrom, 2019). This could be done by physically getting outside, but when this is not possible, considering ways to incorporate elements of the natural world in our indoor environments may be the next best thing (Powers & Engstrom, 2019). For ideas about ways to connect with nature in therapeutic ways, check out Andy McGeeny's (2016) book With Nature in Mind: The Ecotherapy Manual for Mental Health Professionals.
Finding a Community
Another important step in Powers and Engstrom's (2019) radical self-care formula is "organizational membership", describing the formal and informal groups we are part of where we can seek support, share resources, and plan for action together. This shared understanding that is held between members promotes safety and commitment to the issues at hand, and the connections then fuel work and solutions (Powers & Engstrom, 2019).
Even though more and more people are waking up to the climate crisis (e.g. this article citing that two-thirds of the world think climate change is an emergency), you still may not feel that you are able to explore your climate change concerns fully with people you already know (Arvin, 2021). This is where connecting with interest and action groups may be helpful, or seeking support from people and organizations that specialize in these issues.
I think a critical part of this is speaking up about our emotional experiences and needs. As we become more comfortable sharing in communities that feel safe, this may become more possible with outside individuals and groups. Our act of self-care then might start to take shape as a form of awareness raising and advocacy, as illustrated in Katherine Wilkinson's (2018) TedWOMEN talk:
"This is a time of great awakening. We need to break the silence around the condition of our planet; move beyond manufactured debates about climate science; share solutions; speak truth with a broken-open heart..."
Imagining & Contributing to Your Better Future
Although it may feel otherwise at times, the future is not set in stone. In fact, futures thinker Marina Gorbis (2016) says "The most wondrous of things is that there are no facts about the future". Christiana Figueres's (2020) Ted Countdown talk about "Stubborn Optimism" may be inspiring here, as she notes the importance of "envisioning our desired future and then actively pulling it closer" in shifting our mindsets "from despair to determination".
Similarly, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone's (2012) concept of "Active Hope" challenges us to embrace our curiosity, strength, and bravery to participate in engaged action that tackles the problems concerning us. In this way, we move on from passively "waiting for someone else to take-on the task" and acknowledge that action is required to imagine and participate in the future we want to see (Macy & Johnstone, 2012; Hayes et al., 2018). (If you have time, watch this powerful talk by Joanna Macy which explores finding strength in dark times.)
Working with your support system and/or community to identify the elements of your better future, your unique skills, and coming up with a plan to start putting them into action could be the most important act of self-care. For inspiration, you might read Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine Wilkinson's (2020) collection of works by women on the frontlines of the environmental movement titled All We Can Save. Leslie Davenport's (2017) worksheets in Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change may also be helpful here. As Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) says:
"Do what you can do, and do it well – everyone has their own individual role to play, and making sure you’re coming from it from your individual talents, skills, and on a local level in your community."
Thank you for reading! As always, let us know your thoughts, feedback, and any topics you are interested in hearing more about.
We are proud to announce our 2021 Virtual Environmental Justice Social Work Conference titled "Earth to Social Work" on April 28. We would love for you to join us!
Also, The ISWEJ is now on Twitter @theISWEJ! We look forward to connecting with you!
Arvin, J. (2021, January 28). Two-thirds of the world’s population think climate change is an emergency. Retrived from: https://www.vox.com/22254779/climate-change-un-emergency-world.
Bekhoff, M. (2020, August 6). The Emotional Toll of the Climate Emergency: An interview with psychologist and climate warrior Margaret Klein Salamon. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/animal-emotions/202008/the-emotional-toll-the-climate-emergency.
Boulding, J. R. (2017). The Dynamics of Imaging Futures (1978). In Elise Boulding: Writings on Peace Research, Peacemaking, and the Future (pp. 159-171). Springer, Cham.
Brown, A. M. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press.
Buzzell, L., & Chalquist, C. (2009). Psyche and nature in a circle of healing. Ecotherapy: Healing with nature in mind, 17-21.
Carrington, D. (2020, November 3). Shell’s climate poll on Twitter backfires spectacularly. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/nov/03/shells-climate-poll-on-twitter-backfires-spectacularly.
Climate Therapy Alliance. (2019, October 4). Emotional Resilience Toolkit for Climate Work. Retrieved from: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5c50ca089f87700f60a1b56d/t/5d96d9c4a6b84676db50ffc2/1570167236794/Emotional+Resilience+Toolkit+for+Climate+Work+%28v1.5%29+04Oct19.pdf.
Davenport, L. (2017). Emotional resiliency in the era of climate change: A clinician's guide. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Figueres, C. (October 2020). The case for stubborn optimism on climate. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/christiana_figueres_the_case_for_stubborn_optimism_on_climate?language=en
Fisher, R. (2019, January 9). The perils of short-termism: Civilisation’s greatest threat. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190109-the-perils-of-short-termism-civilisations-greatest-threat.
Gorbis, M. (2016, July 14). The Future as a Way of Life: Alvin Toffler’s Unfinished Business. Retrieved from: https://mgorbis.medium.com/the-future-as-a-way-of-life-4bc314ec97de.
Hayes, K., Blashki, G., Wiseman, J., Burke, S., & Reifels, L. (2018). Climate change and mental health: Risks, impacts and priority actions. International journal of mental health systems, 12(1), 1-12.
Johnson, A. E., & Wilkinson, K. K. (2020). All we can save: Truth, courage, and solutions for the climate crisis. New York: One World.
Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions.
Lorde, A. (1988). A burst of light: Living with cancer. A burst of light: Essays, 49-134.
McGeeney, A. (2016). With nature in mind: The ecotherapy manual for mental health professionals. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Macy, J., & Johnstone, C. (2012). Active hope: How to face the mess we're in without going crazy. New World Library.
Powers, M. C., & Engstrom, S. (2020). Radical Self-Care for Social Workers in the Global Climate Crisis. Social work, 65(1), 29-37.
Roberts, D. (2020, December 4). The scariest thing about global warming (and Covid-19). Retrieved from: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/7/7/21311027/covid-19-climate-change-global-warming-shifting-baselines.
Wilkinson, K. (November 2018). How empowering women and girls can help stop global warming. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/katharine_wilkinson_how_empowering_women_and_girls_can_help_stop_global_warming/transcript?language=en#t-768507.