spiritual self-care for expat aid workers in international development (www.expatbackup.com)

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This is the last article in a four-part series about Expat Self-Care. You can read the previous articles on physical, emotional and mental health, or skip right ahead to this one.

I’m not religious, so to me, spiritual self-care didn’t seem like an important issue until I headed straight for burn-out.

Then, I didn’t have the luxury of separating my personal and my professional lives, or the good sense that maybe my burn-out was about something deeper than just feeling frustrated and reacting to my story of how things were.

It took me awhile to find myself again, and Expat Backup was born of the lessons I learned and the new self-awareness and deeper purpose that began to infuse my work and my dreams. I call it “spiritual” for lack of a better word, but when I got in touch with my heart’s deepest desire to be of service to the world and started looking after my spiritual self-care, my situation immediately started to improve.

For those of us raised under religions we have chosen not to follow, “spiritual” can be a loaded word.

When I talk about spiritual self-care, I’m not talking about religious practices or beliefs, or even an acknowledgment of a Higher Power. I’m talking about the care of your own spirit, your deepest vision and dreams, the part of you that feels like your essence, your wild and perfect heart, your soul. Call it what you like, but it needs tending.

Remember when you decided you wanted to be of service to the world, to make things better for those most in need? You likely had experiences, realizations and strong feelings around the decision and felt motivated by something other than the “rational self-interest” that according to neo-libralism is our primary driver. You wanted to help people, to change the world, to alleviate suffering, and to make a difference. You did, and you still do: you want the world to be a better place because you are in it.

Don’t worry. It will be.

Spiritual self-care honors the deepest dreams you have for your life, no matter how far away they seem from your expat aid worker existence now. If you are to excel at the art of radical self-care and maintain your resilience in some of the world’s most challenging places, attending to your spiritual self-care is the next part of your journey.

If you’ve been following the other articles in the series, you’ll know that self-care starts with how you take care of your body. Once you’re keeping physically healthy, you’re ready to focus on your emotional self-care, including setting good boundaries and expressing your feelings in a healthy and productive way.

This might sound a bit obvious, but it’s amazing what we can know in our heads and not put into practice.

After physical and emotional self-care comes safeguarding and supporting your mental health. Creating good routines and practices that support the healthy coping and handling of stress is paramount, especially in the modern world where we’re always traveling, up late and over-working on something.

Spiritual self-care is being connected to your deeper purpose as you go about your day-to-day. It helps you to embody the values you care about and create a more beautiful world.

Think I’m a dreamer? Staying connected to your heart is practical if you want to thrive and create true transformation in the world. The more we are lead by our deepest desires to heal and alleviate suffering, the more we can open to the adventure that our life becomes.

Disconnect and tell yourself that your dreams are rubbish, and you’ll start to feel like rubbish. You will dismiss your deepest dreams and wildest inclinations as impossible, and the creative and alive part of you will slowly fade and die. But all is not lost! No matter how jaded and cynical you are, you can turn things around. You never, ever lose your essence.

To bring sunshine and sustenance back to your dreams, you need to practice good spiritual self-care. In the aid world, it’s what separates the high-level bureaucratic burnout from the ones with hearts wide open who dare to lead.

How to Defend Your Dreams in the Aid World (a.k.a. Spiritual Self-Care)

1. Know what you stand for.

Staying connected to and clear about your dreams of changing the world is what keeps you grounded and focused as you move through the challenges of aid work. Your values are your compass, and part of stepping up to do this work is knowing where you stand on social justice and other important issues.

My social justice values have become increasingly important to me as I see how much strong leadership and clear vision is needed in the expat aid world.

2. Honor your practice and your process.

Yes, you knew this was coming. I’m going to ask you to create a short spiritual practice that you can drop into daily, something that helps you to center and focus on what’s important to you.

One of the simplest spiritual practices is mindfulness, which you can practice while sitting quietly in meditation, walking or doing any number of things. Mindfulness is just like it sounds, gently allowing yourself to become aware of yourself, your breathing, the sensations in your body, the environment around you. It is a tool you can use to center and balance yourself at any time.

Sitting in silent meditation is one way to practice, although there are many other approaches to grounding and centering if sitting quietly doesn’t work for you. Dancing, chanting and singing can be forms of spiritual practice, as can tai chi and other forms of physical movement centered around being fully present in the now.

Be creative! You don’t need permission to experiment to find what works best for you. Keep in mind that your spiritual practice, like you, is always evolving and changing, so give yourself permission to explore and do only what you enjoy and what interests you.

3. Ground.

If you’ve ever been to yoga class (and if you haven’t, you should go), that part at the end called “savasana” when you relax your body and lie down on the floor is grounding. When I teach yoga, I like to encourage my students to visualize their bodies as relaxing into and being fully support by the Earth. From an awareness of connection to the planet, you become anchored and feel more stable and secure.

Any practice that connects you and your body to the Earth is grounding — it can be movement, thought, intention or breath. Touch can be very grounding, especially from someone you love. I like to push my feet into the floor, when I’m out or at a party and need a bit of grounding for a moment. It helps to imagine yourself surrounded by golden light, take a deep breath in, and then breathe your tension out through your feet. In one grounding breath, entire possibilities open us for us to relax and be truly present.


We hope that you have enjoyed this series on expat aid worker self-care and that you are inspired to put these ideas into practice in your own life. Cultivating self-care makes for health and happiness, no matter how stressful your external circumstances may be.

We’d love to hear what you think of this series and about the challenges you face as an expat aid worker. Our mission is to help you live healthy and happy in the world’s most challenging places, so if you’re feeling it, please do get in touch (elie@expatbackup.com).

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