Sanah Jivani, a member of the #GenGeo community, wrote this post.
Cultivating a practice of self-care can be a powerful tool for youth leaders to stay grounded in their work. What better time to start than now, during Mental Health Awareness Month?
I learned the importance of self-care beginning in middle school, when my hair fell out suddenly and I was diagnosed with alopecia universalis, a condition in which the immune system mistakes hair follicles as foreign and attacks them.
Losing my hair upended my life. I bought a wig and spent hours trying to position it correctly. Still I was bullied for my appearance, and I lost self-confidence. I remember Googling “seventh-grade student bald alopecia” and not finding many stories similar to mine. Fast-forward a decade, and I am now leading my own nonprofit, the Love Your Natural Self Foundation, and other people have replicated my old Google search and reached out to me.
My story is unique, but the value of self-care is universal. Here are 10 tips informed by my experience:
- Self-care is not a one-size-fits-all practice. Find a method that works for you. If you appreciate your space being clean, taking a few minutes to make your bed and make sure your desk is organized at the beginning and end of each day can be a huge act of self-care. Similarly, if you value time to yourself, taking a mindful 10-minute walk without your phone could be really helpful. If you don’t get to do something kind for yourself very often, then yes, even taking a bubble bath or going window shopping can be a meaningful act of self-care.
- Stick with it. Unbuilding old habits and building up new ones takes time. I made the decision a while back to go without my wig. While I made that choice in the moment, I spent years afterward learning to embrace it. A valuable approach for me was repeating words of affirmation to myself, like “I am strong” and “I am beautiful” and “I am amazing.” These mantras hung in the air, and even though I didn’t believe them initially, it felt powerful to hear something kind about myself.
- Recognize that self-care needn’t be glamorous or fun. It can take the form of budgeting, tracking your health, or exercising in the morning even though you’re feeling lazy. It’s often beneficial to strike a balance between self-care activities that feel easy and natural and those that require you to push yourself.
- Make the time, even when it’s not easy or convenient. After starting my nonprofit, it became harder to carve out time for self-care. I noticed, though, that if I didn’t take time for myself between speaking engagements, I would spiral later on. It took me a while to realize how recounting the trauma of bullying was triggering me. Now, I try to arrive at every in-person event I do a little early so I can write down some positive mantras or go to the bathroom and recite a few in the mirror.
- Once you hit on a good approach, be intentional about integrating it into your routine. For me, this means looking at my schedule for the next few days and deciding where I can spend 20 minutes on self-preservation and self-care. It’s as important to me as taking time to eat or ensuring my materials are prepared before speaking to a school assembly.
- Treat mental health as seriously as you do physical health. Just as eating healthy and sleeping well can support youth leaders’ physical health, practicing self-care can bolster our mental health.
- Hold yourself to a realistic standard. Leadership does not demand perfection, and admitting to vulnerability and shortcomings can be an act of service to others. If other young people see you as perfect, your success may seem unattainable and leadership uninviting. Being human and honest can therefore be really powerful. Having a growth mindset and a willingness to put new ideas out there, even if they’re not perfect, has helped me find an inner peace.
- A professional can often help you work through any struggles you may be experiencing. If you’re interested in therapy but didn’t have a great experience initially, it may be worth trying again. Many therapists specialize in serving certain communities, such as women of color. If cost is a barrier, ask potential therapists if they offer pro bono or sliding scale services.
- Find your community. I took a youth leadership course with National Geographic and Mentora Institute last fall, and what I enjoyed most about it was the community it fostered. I looked around and realized: we have a lot in common. We’re all still learning, we face similar challenges, and we benefit from being part of a community. Knowing to ask for help and lean on one’s community in times of loneliness or need is a valuable lesson to learn.
- Remember to love yourself like you love your friends. When one of my friends is going through a rough patch, my instinct isn’t to stop loving them; it’s to love them harder! In fact, that friend needs my support now more than ever. You deserve that same compassion when you’re having a bad day.
When I started the Love Your Natural Self Foundation I felt immense pressure to be perfect. I was preaching self-care to large groups, but I was still young myself and still working through my own mental health issues. At times I felt like the wrong person to be delivering my message. That started to change when I opened up to a few students about the pressure I felt.
How they responded surprised me. They said, “It’s funny. You think we look up to you because you have it all together, but that’s not it at all. It’s the resilience you show in the moments of imperfection that is so beautiful.” After some reflection, I realized no one’s ever going to have it all together and that it’s important to be kind, patient, and compassionate with yourself, even — and especially — during the hard moments.
Sanah Jivani graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in December 2020 with a master’s degree in nonprofit leadership and education, culture, and society. She is the founder of the Love Your Natural Self Foundation and the community engagement manager at Generation Hope.
How do you take time for self-care while changemaking? Join the conversation with other young leaders by following the growing #GenGeo community.
Photos courtesy of Sanah Jivani