“Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on this earth to offer to others. Any time we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.” Parker Palmer
“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” Michelangelo
“I will no longer act on the outside in a way that contradicts the truth that I hold deeply on the inside. I will no longer act as if I were less than the whole person I know myself inwardly to be.” Rosa Parks
We are approaching a time of year that can generate happy anticipation and stressful anxiety at the same time. Six weeks of holiday festivities usually mean lots of interaction and extended time with family. The rush to conclusion of an academic term means final assignments, exams, and grades. Both experiences bring high expectations and lots to do, with successful outcomes hanging in the balance.
Self-care (or lack thereof) has a lot to do with how successfully we negotiate these times of anticipation and stress, what kind of experiences we have, what kind of outcomes we achieve, and what we contribute – for better or worse – to the experience and success of others.
In both personal and professional aspects of our lives, there can be a tendency to focus on expectations, outcomes, and activities without thinking about the conditions and qualities of being that, when we uncover and express them, produce the best outcomes and the most enjoyment. We also tend to neglect the investment of time and effort necessary to uncover and express our true selfhood and experience the delight that comes with unfettered self-expression.
Woody Allen said that eighty percent of success is just showing up. I have a quibble with that observation. Just showing up for personal and professional engagements without attention to how we show up, how much effort we put into preparing to show up expressing the best of ourselves – for ourselves and others – is bound to produce disappointment, frustration, conflict, and other negative outcomes. Hmmm… maybe that’s why Woody portrays characters who, while they may be funny and entertaining (and occasionally irritating), are usually anxious, insecure, self-absorbed, and often in conflict with others.
Warren Bennis has noted that “full, free self-expression is the essence of leadership.” I submit that “full, free self-expression” is the essence of a life well-lived. To achieve such a state requires, like Michelangelo, the intentional effort to see “the lovely apparition” within and hew away the stress, anxiety, fear, and doubt that otherwise cloud our vision and constrain our life-experience.
Similarly, Peter Senge writes about the discipline of personal mastery, a practice essential to individual wellbeing and effective leadership. He defines personal mastery in part as the effort to clarify our personal vision about what really matters to us – informed by our ideals, values, and highest aspirations. It means having the capacity to hold to that vision in spite of the uncertainty, ambiguity, and chaos that exist in daily life.
Personal mastery enables us to resist succumbing to what he calls “emotional tension,” created by anxiety, discouragement, and hopelessness. When we do succumb, we find ourselves pulled away from what really matters to us. We give in to self-doubt. We compromise. We lower our vision and limit our possibilities. We harden our hearts.
Senge says that high levels of personal mastery are characterized by the courage to stand for one’s vision, the capacity for perseverance and patience, the ability to recognize and resist habits of thought that would drag us down, and the ability to be present: to be open, to listen deeply, cultivate stillness, and trust the process of intuitive unfoldment.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton said “there is in all visible things… a hidden wholeness.” Parker Palmer borrowed the term “hidden wholeness” and crafted a wonderful book by that name, A Hidden Wholeness, the Journey Toward an Undivided Life. He describes the all too common condition of people living divided lives, essentially giving in to emotional tension. The main message of the book is that we have the ability to uncover our own hidden wholeness and live divided no more. We can discern Michelangelo’s “lovely apparition” within, and experience the power that flows from nurturing it into full fruition.
These concepts that are so important to everyday living are every bit as important to our practice as leaders. Robert K. Greenleaf developed the concept of Servant Leadership. In part, he describes a servant leader this way: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”
Implicit in the nature of a servant leader is a deep well of awareness of one’s own talents and capacity for full and free self-expression. As Greenleaf puts it, servant leaders are people who ‘by the quality of their inner life that is manifest in their presence, lift others up and make the journey possible.’
Finally, here are ten practices of self-care that“hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition.” Brene Brown calls them “guideposts for wholehearted living” in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
1. Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think
2. Cultivating Self?Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism
3. Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness
4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
5. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty
6. Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison
7. Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self?Worth
8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle
9. Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self?Doubt and “Supposed To”
10. Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control”
Brown stresses the need for the “courage to be vulnerable.” This aspect of self-discovery seems really hard to do in our society, especially when we consider the “letting go of” list above. She writes “instead of developing skills of vulnerability, we too frequently develop armoring techniques.” A habit of thought we must have the courage to discern and change.
Parker Palmer makes a similar point. He writes: “There is a great gulf between the way my ego wants to identify me, with its protective masks and self-serving fictions, and my true self.” The remedy, he says, is about “breaking the human heart,” not in destruction, but “breaking it open” so that it can feel, and discern, and express.
The work of self-care, self-discovery, “full and free self-expression,” is not just for ourselves and those closest to us. It can transform the world, which is the whole point of the sustainability movement.
As we open our hearts and the understanding and expression of our own wholeness grows, so grows our capacity as leaders. Palmer explains this point in sharing the message of Vaclav Havel, the great and courageous leader, humanitarian, and former president of the Czech Republic. “The power for authentic leadership, Havel tells us, is found… in the human heart. Authentic leaders in every setting… aim at liberating the heart, their own and others’, so that its powers can heal the world.”
Bennis, Senge, Palmer, Greenleaf, Brown, Havel, and many other thoughtful people are in their own unique ways sharing an open secret: that the most selfless and at the same time fulfilling thing we can do is to practice the discipline of self-discovery and self-expression, an adventure that reveals the richness of individual being and frees our greatest capacities to make a difference. Let’s enjoy the journey together.