Welcome to the 2nd part in my “Self-Care Strategies for Expat Aid Workers” series. You can read the first article, about physical health, here.
In this article, I’m going to explore how we can optimize our emotional self-care so that we can be healthier and happier aid workers. The idea is to express our emotions in an open, healthy way so that we feel balanced and at peace.
Emotional health is an unspoken aspect of aid worker health. When we go in for physicals, we might be asked whether we are sleeping well, or whether we feel anxious, but the questions rarely go beyond the cursory. If we’re depressed or even experiencing grief, chances are we keep our private life out of the public view. Expat communities are small, after all, and your private life does affect your professional good standing.
Unless we are experiencing large-scale stress or trauma, most of us don’t pay much attention to maintaining emotional health. I think that’s a big mistake, and in the industry there are signs that this is changing.
Emotional health builds on the bedrock of good physical self-care.
When we’re taking care of our body’s needs and feeling physically healthy, we’re then able to focus our energy on our emotional self-care.
Most of us don’t realize how much our physical body influences our emotional landscape. When we’re hungry or tired, we’re more likely to be cranky. When we’re overworked and stressed out by the demands of the workplace, we’re more likely to lose our temper.
Likewise, cultivating physical practices that relax your body positively affects your emotions. I do yoga every morning, and I feel more relaxed and at ease in my body throughout the day. When I stay hydrated and rested, I am more emotionally balanced and resourced. Having a strong, healthy body in which to experience the world is a wonderful gift, and I find that keeping myself healthy makes me happy.
Emotional health is the bedrock of “resilience,” an aid worker concept we’ve all heard lots about by now. But personal resilience, in this business, is important. Without strong personal self-care of your emotional health, you burn out, you burn bridges, or both.
To cultivate healthy emotions, we have to start listening and responding to our deepest selves. We are called to listen to our heartfelt desires and express them with love. We are also made aware of where our boundaries lie, and we learn to respect them. Part of cultivating emotional health is learning to say “no” when you mean “no,” not just when it’s socially comfortable to say it.
Our emotions offer us a guidance system as we navigate life. By listening to our emotions as they come up and honoring our personal process we are able to move through challenges and transform them into opportunities.
Once we are aware of and attentive to our emotions, we are ready to use them as precious tools for our own self-care. Rather than letting your emotions respond to the external environment, you can create an emotional state for yourself that positively affects every part of your being.
For example, let’s say you’re feeling stressed because you have a performance review coming up, there are budget cuts coming up, and your boss doesn’t like you. When you think about sitting down at the review meeting, you likely feel stressed.
Your shoulders tense up, your stomach clenches, your heartbeat speeds up and, for a few seconds, you might even stop breathing. This is a natural physical stress response, in which adrenaline and cortisol are released from your adrenal glands above your kidneys into your bloodstream to flood your system.
What I’m telling you is that you can take power of this situation by using your emotions to affect your physical state. When cultivating a feeling of peace and well-being, your body produces different hormones that counter the stress response. Pleasurable endorphins course through the body as you breathe deeply, imagining yourself radiant with light and love.
Now, when you imagine the meeting, you feel yourself relax in acknowledgement of all the good you bring to the organization, and look forward to exploring all the ways you can continue to create and serve.
Taking care of your emotional health gives you better resources to deal with any situation.
Here, I’m going to share the 3 Basic Elements of Expat Emotional Health.
They’re not definitive, but these are the basics that I’ve learned in more than three decades of expat aid worker life.
3 Basic Elements of Expat Emotional Health
1. Practice forgiveness and compassion.
This is a big one: showing yourself compassion and self-forgiveness comes first. As you become more loving to yourself, you will notice places where you are not practicing self-love.
When you hit these self-care potholes, you will feel it emotionally, like a jolt. The awareness will surface and you have, at that moment, an opportunity to choose kindness and to be gentle with yourself.
Practicing emotional mindfulness is all that is required for this step. That, and a willingness to choose love, again and again, and to be kind. Love is a superpower, and I find this a powerful practice.
2. Hold strong boundaries in your relationships.
Emotional health requires clear and well-maintained boundaries. Quite simply, your personal and professional relationships need to nurture and support you. This means different things for different people, but in general your encounters should leave you energized and refreshed, and not feeling drained and tired.
Of course, there will always be difficult relationships to navigate that are particularly triggering. Dealing successfully with these using your compassion kung-fu is part of the challenge of healing the world through service and love. Triggering relationships are especially in need of good boundaries, especially if they’re with your partner or your boss.
In small expatriate communities and challenging environments, it can be easy to forget your boundaries in personal and professional relationships. This is a mistake, as it opens you up to unhealthy agreements that put unnecessary stress on you.
For example, bad boundaries with a boss means you’re likely working late and on weekends, sacrificing your personal relaxation and social time to people-please and make someone else happy. Healthy boundaries in this regard mean that you have plenty of time for vital relaxation activities while still getting the job done.
If you just said, “Impossible,” to that, you’re burnt out and need better boundaries more than anymore.
This is my favorite emotional health strategy, and the one that’s definitely the most fun. Play, and the pleasure that comes with, are an essential part of feeling healthy and happy, wherever you are. Play encourages us to take joy in the moment and express ourselves.
My favorite play activities are in nature, but everyone is different. I encourage you to explore and discover what play means to you.
The more grown-up and responsible you are and feel, the more important play is to your everyday routine. Make time in your day for physical activity that feels like play — maybe dancing, walking, tree-climbing or martial arts. Learn something new with your body that feels like play – preferably something outside in nature or with other people.
Giving yourself time to play allows you to relax and release stress and tension, and you’ll see how play contributes to greater health and well-being.
Self-care isn’t difficult to learn, but it does take practice. Did you know that new behaviors only take four weeks of solid practice to learn? Add your new habits to your daily routine, one at a time, and watch the benefits of your improved self-care affect the rest of your life for the better.
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If this information would resonate with someone you know, please share it with them. So many of us keep our emotions to ourselves and suffer loneliness when we don’t have to.
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