On Being "Souler Powered"

May 2024

Every now and then, a comic strip comes along that is both hilarious and humbling. As someone who has felt trampled by a herd of “shoulds” at times, I feel “seen” in this Pearls Before Swine comic strip. I’m betting that you, like Pig in the comic, have heard advice from a variety of sources claiming that to properly care for yourself you should: sleep at least 8 hours a night; drink at least 6 glasses of water a day; regularly meditate at least 20 minutes; move for at least 60 minutes to get daily exercise; perform at least 10 types of stretches - and the list goes on. Personally, I tack on a desire to practice Spanish at least 30 minutes a day and listen to the 26 hours of insightful podcasts I download every 24 hours. With this magical thinking, I expect myself to do all of that on top of a full-time job and being a partner, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend.

Over the years — and during the pandemic era in particular — I finally realized that setting self-care targets that are impossible to reach is quite literally the opposite of self-care. Further, with how commercialized the very term “self-care” has become, it’s easy to forget that all the bubble bath in the world won’t change the underlying systemic issues fueling burnout in the first place. (To dig through "the Goopification," this conversation between Tressie McMillan Cottom and Dr. Pooja Lakshmin is now a regular resource in our learning communities for new and emerging professionals.) 

As Lance Kramer and I touched on in Stories Change Power’s April webinar, an increasing number of important topics feel controversial at best and divisive at worst lately. Working on these causes every day - as people at mission-driven organizations do - can be fulfilling, but that work can also take a toll. I often hear in talking with fellow advocates, particularly in 1:1 coaching sessions, an urgency to do as much as possible and quickly as possible because the issues at stake are so important. 

I've felt that way myself in my career, most acutely when I worked in human rights litigation. “How dare I rest,” my thinking would go, “when my clients have endured – or are enduring – serious harm?” It’s taken me years to understand I must look after my soul if I want to show up in a way that supports others’ well-being.

That understanding is what fuels Stories Change Power’s eighth right, a people-centered approach. Amidst the foundational elements of advocacy, we seek to be "Souler Powered:" staying strong and stable, claiming our own power, and taming the herd of “shoulds” as we build an effective and rewarding career – and life.

One element of this approach that helps avoid being trampled is corralling the ways we care for ourselves into three categories:

  • Non-negotiable
  • Essential
  • Cream cheese frosting

#1 NON-NEGOTIABLE

We define “non-negotiable” as things we should do every single day no matter what if we are to function. For me, this category contains only three things:

  • Sleep enough;
  • Brush my teeth at least twice and floss once; and
  • Eat something green.

I include the word “should” because, let's be honest, I sometimes negotiate away my non-negotiables even though I know there will be consequences. Have I stayed up ridiculously late after a long day of work to watch an episode of Good Girls? I have, even though failing to temper my curiosity about Rio and Beth meant I wasn’t my strongest self the next day. And did I recently have a day full of croissants, cheesy tater tots, and a massive Philly cheesesteak? I did. And they were a delicious reminder of why I feel better with more vegetables on my plate.

In other words, the term “non-negotiable” is aspirational; we can be disciplined - but also kind. 

#2 ESSENTIAL

The word “essential” comes from the Latin “essentialis,” with “essentia” meaning “the basic nature of a thing.” Consider “essential” anything necessary for you to do to show up not merely as human, but as your basic nature, unclouded by artifice or additives.

Personally, I think my basic nature is supportive, optimistic, open-minded, and kind. I know I demonstrate those four qualities when I'm feeling healthy — and I also know I’ve had moments of feeling precisely none of those four. Those unsupportive, pessimistic, close-minded, and unkind moments occur when I’m neglecting actions in my essential category, which includes exercise, meditation, connecting with close friends, keeping up with the news, and using essential oils (how aptly named!) for aromatherapy.

There are two key differences between “non-negotiables” and “essentials:”

Unlike the non-negotiables, you don’t need to undertake all of your essentials every day. In fact, trying to “do it all” is precisely how to decrease the benefits of self-care and increase the odds of self-flagellation. Instead, think of your essentials like a buffet of options and an opportunity to tune into what your body and mind are telling you. To choose among your essentials, think about what aspects of your life need attention, then mix and match what you need that day. For example, one day I might need a long walk with a friend, while the next I'll need a short yoga session followed by meditation.

Approach essentials with compassion and curiosity. After all, learning to identify what you need is as important — if not more so — as ensuring those needs are met.

Secondly, unlike non-negotiables, if you're like me, you might not recognize the absence of essentials until you’ve slipped too far from your healthiest self. I know that after a night of insufficient sleep I will not be on my A game. But I haven’t figured out how many days of not exercising, not seeing friends, or not writing in a gratitude journal it takes for me to drift a problematic distance from my own 100%. I can stubbornly convince myself “I’m fine” for many days until I “suddenly” find myself at 20% with my personal version of a “low power mode” notification popping up.

There’s much to be said for having a low tolerance for stress, meaning being about to detect a subtle shift from 100% to 95.6% and course correct. A high tolerance can mean buzzing along oblivious to the impact of ignoring our own well-being. With a tolerance for stress that rivals Hemingway’s for scotch, I now try to treat my essential actions as preventative measures. Rather than think “I’m fine,” then realize too late my fuse had become too short, I aim to engage in a combination of essential actions regularly — whether I feel like I need to or not.

I’ve finally learned that essential acts of self-care are like drinking water to stay hydrated: by the time you feel you need them, it’s already too late.

#3 CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

You could think of this category as “joy,” but that would incorrectly imply there isn’t joy in the first two, which there most definitely is. I landed on “cream cheese frosting,” recognizing that no matter how wonderful the carrot cake of life is, a bit of frosting makes it that much better.

Not too long ago, I dropped by a local shop stocked with fair trade chocolates. Does one need chocolate at all? Not really. And did I need a coconut truffle alongside my more practical 95% cacao bars? Nope… but it sure was a treat. 

I think we should add "frosting" to our lives as time and money allow — and savor it when we do, as gratitude makes everything sweeter.

By being intentional about our non-negotiables, essentials, and cream cheese frosting, we can approach the 24 hours we have each day with more balance and stay Souler Powered.

While we dive in more deeply in our group learning sessions, I share this overview with hope the three categories will help anyone who feels pressure to fit everything in every day. Every “should” has a reason behind it, and if we leave “shoulds” unexamined without matching the reason with our own needs, we end up overwhelmed.

Remember that what fits in each category is personal; one person's “cream cheese frosting” may be non-negotiable for you. Once you identify the actions in each category, you can prioritize: non-negotiable beats out the other two, then select what’s best for you within essential and frosting categories as each day needs and allows.

Finally, remember this approach is aspirational. On days when, despite my best intentions, I’m short on sleep, don't move much, and the only green thing I eat is a jalapeño speck in processed cheese sauce, I remember the wise words of Kirk Franklin:

"Now every day ain’t going to be perfect,
But it still don’t mean today don’t have purpose."

- Piper Hendricks, Founder & CEO

Image from Stephan Pastis' Pearls Before Swine comic strip 

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