Be Kind to Yourself

Kinder campuses may be altruistic, but save a little of that kindness for yourself, writes Maria Shine Stewart. There are times you need to be your own best colleague.

August 31, 2012

“A Kinder Campus” explores workplace morale, civility and collegiality – often with an eye to helping others and the social dimensions of our careers.

At this busy time of the semester, the column’s focus is going to tilt inward for a change. This AKC is going to focus on kindness to self. Don’t worry: That’s not  a recipe for narcissism or an elixir of self-indulgence. The buzzword “self-care” should not be reserved only for the large-scale crises of our lives. The abrupt shifts of responsibilities in fall semester also bring twists and turns, and our bodies and beings may still be in another, slower rhythm fashioned over summer.

I have been back on my campuses for only a few days and have seen and heard about enough mini-crises – and a few crises -- to fill a column. I won’t detail those, as you have your own. Instead, I will share kind-to-self tips that you can consider. If you are so moved, add your own at the end.

Breathe. Teaching for the first time? Asked to make a thorny decision? Just got a manuscript rejected? Before you notice it, you may be locked into a pattern of shallow breathing as your mind and emotions shift into overdrive. You may run around all day constricted. And, for some, days might stretch into weeks. Exercisers and singers know the critical act of breathing. Stretching into a metaphor, we are all athletes and artists, in a sense, enduring academia’s obstacles and leaving creative marks on the world. Don’t forget to breathe at a depth and pace that helps you work at your best – and to take the needed pauses. A meditation teacher once said that if meditating for minutes is out of the question, take one or two conscious breaths a day. It may not seem like much, but that is one way to be kind to yourself.

A small indulgence is O.K. On a busy day, I noted the chocolate chip cookies for visitors to one library. Food is not the answer to every woe, but that gesture of hospitality for any person entering indeed offers a mental lift. “Revving up” to get everything done, and the predictable pushback from overworked copiers, printers, even staff and superiors, leaves us vulnerable to overload. And if a small lift alone does not help, gather likeminded colleagues. A prayer group sat outside in a circle over one lunch break, taking time from necessary work tasks to reground itself in faith in the middle of the day. Breathe, pray, snack, smile … whatever suits you.

Avoid the endless drone. A contact shared that she avoids a certain spot on her campus where faculty have a tendency to gossip. It’s not just that she worries that something she might say may waft over to the wrong person’s ears – she is a person who genuinely eschews gossip. If you are a good listener but on extrovert-overload, gently steer clear of some who might drain your battery. There is plenty of time by mid-semester for those who want to vent creatively. You do not have to extend your ears in this way if that stresses you.

Don’t start with an energy deficit. It may already have happened: You are beginning the fall term having faced a stressful situation you did not expect, and now you are tired. And readers sending children off to school or college or who are caring for elderly loved ones know how often minutes, hours, even days may pass with little time to attend to one’s own needs. Take small steps to stop this. If you skip meals, pack at least one. If you skimp on sleep, commit to allowing your body a chance to fulfill this universal human need. Don’t pretend you are not tired.

Mistkaes (or was that Mistakes) … If you see a typo and 80 copies of the syllabus are finished, forgive yourself. Use the discovery as a teachable moment.

Create a space on your desk or in your car that can function as a recharge spot. As an adjunct, rearranging my papers on the passenger seat -- or the various wheeled luggage pieces in the hatchback  – is sometimes the only way I can seize control of my movable workplace. In the classroom, I likewise strive to make the small ledges of space organized even as I move around. In the whirlwind of responsibilities, make sure that momentary disorganization that might lead to an avalanche on the floor of your office or a twister of papers out the window of your car on a windy day is averted. Add a small personal object in your daily stack if that helps you return to your baseline of calm. I carry small pictures, usually of nature scenes, for example.

Self-talk. Ruminating self-scolding can be a bad habit. It might even show hints of burnout or depression. A student after class once, unprompted, told me that she has a hard time stopping an inner, brooding voice, berating herself for things undone or wrong decisions made. Creating another internal melody is not a snap-your-fingers kind of thing, nor it is a retreat into a cultlike chant of your own invincibility. Note your self-talk under stress. Tilt it slightly to the more encouraging if you can.

Icy or hotheaded campus cultures … may pose a special challenge when you are under stress. You may need time to get support from others, but there may be few able to defrost themselves or turn down the volatility of their own emotions to meet you where you are. Find support off-campus.

Spot your limitations. If you have you have too much on your plate, it’s O.K. to delegate or pass some of it on.

Find positive colleagues. Panic and anxiety are contagious. Griping and venting may serve a purpose, but if you have worries of your own, worries which you may be keeping to yourself, you do not have to be a sounding board for anyone walking by.

This, too, shall pass. Don’t deny being under stress – and don’t work yourself up, comparing your accomplishments with what others have done or what they have. That is really not kind to yourself. Wait until a period of reflection -- when you might have a chance to control more variables and then take stock of the direction of your career.

Wishing you a kind semester!


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