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Step Up, Step Back

For me, becoming an advocate and part of leading a community is learning to prioritize visibility, support, and self-care while balancing or navigating dynamics for people to be empowered and hold space for others.

Balancing leadership and self-care

These lessons sometimes have been learned in a workshop where group agreements are set, and often times it's learned through trial-and-error. The key part to that is the beautiful and complex dance of stepping up and stepping back.

Stepping up and stepping back

Stepping up and taking up space is great in lending my voice to a collective and amplifying a message, pushing forward a cause, or pressing into challenging injustice.

Stepping back is recognizing the talents, skills, and expertise of others, embracing how they complement mine and how we all have inherent value to contribute our power and energy to advocacy from our unique and beautifully lived experiences.

It's ok to accept help

It’s a process that hasn’t come overnight for me and has been a bit of a process that I’ve had to repeat in readjusting to life during COVID-19.

Learning that this was even a process I needed was such a challenge. It triggered cycles of depression, uncertainty, insecurities, avoidance, compulsive work-a-holic tendencies, and eventually burnout.

"You can rest."

It was from women leaders that I look up to, admire, love, and aspire to be like that had to pull me aside at a conference one year when I was visibly anxious and stressed. It was the closing plenary, folks were hugging and saying their goodbyes; some had gathered for photos and dancing, laughing and making plans for the next conference.

I felt arms wrap around me as one woman turned me towards her, looked me square in the eye, and asked me “How are you?”. That tender, direct intentional ask shattered me. She listened and two other of my beloved mentors had gathered at this point, listening.

The second one simply smiled with a knowing glimmer in her eye and said, “You can rest. You need to and it’s ok.” That affirming, gentle nudge to be human and release myself from the pressure was what I needed to wrap me in this blanket of solidarity.

It's OK to prioritize self

To have the community see you, get it, and give you grace is probably one of the life-saving things that are just as vital as our ARTs and oxygen in this world.

I strongly feel that I am a part of a society that has contributed to my conditioning to thrive off of the busy, grind, hustle culture and view rest, naps, or moments of pause as a luxury or leisure that I can’t afford. COVID-19 has helped put a healthier lens on that in the scope of mental health, but it’s something that I still find myself asking for permission for - balance.

It's okay to take care of myself

One of my favorite quotes to help me through this is, "You don't have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm." That's what my mentors gave me space to learn and hold onto.

We learn this on flights all the time: the simple concept of putting on your oxygen mask first before you help someone else get theirs on in an emergency. This is a safety strategy that shouldn't just be applied to life or death emergencies, but to the overall maintenance of how we serve, lead, and support others.

Tips for a healthy balance in leadership

Ways I've truly learned to maintain a healthy balance in leadership:

  • Ask for help, mentorship, support, a second set of eyes; whatever I need.
  • Opt-out of webinars or meetings that are not interactive.
  • Leave my camera off if I am not presenting or leading a virtual meeting space unless I am speaking.
  • Speak up when I need clarity instead of going with the flow.
  • Create my own schedule to work on tasks and flag if I need more time on a deadline.
  • Reprioritize what is actually a time-sensitive priority or an inspired priority of someone else.
  • Give myself the same grace I give others.
  • Schedule naps and/or utilize bedtime routine.
  • Don't go a day without gratitude, laughter, and music.

Take inventory

And if I forget these things, I try to not beat myself up but take inventory of what may have contributed to me not making these tips a priority over the task. Is it my relationship with others on the project I'm working on? Is it my interest level in the project? Is there someone else better suited to complete this?

I try not to overanalyze, but I definitely acknowledge challenges I may have so that I don't get into a cycle of imposter syndrome, procrastination, or defeat.

You don't need permission to rest

I’ve always been a “yes” person. I often tell people as I’ve learned how to balance boundaries around my eagerness that if I respond to an ask with a “No”, please know that I will do what I can to offer an alternative option or resolve my decline in some way. It’s a tricky balance. It’s taken trial-and-error.

I honestly believe I wouldn’t have recognized the need to balance that as well if it weren’t for being an HIV advocate trying to balance life and advocacy, grief and joy, stigma and courage, and being a Black woman and a woman living with HIV. Having all of these identities and not being able to compartmentalize who I am because showing up as my whole self is the best and only authentic way I can be.

I don’t need to ask for permission to be myself. I don’t need to ask for permission to be whole. I know what I need to be in my full amazing self and I give myself permission to do whatever it takes to balance that, shed the limitations society puts on me, and set healthy boundaries to lean into, sit with and fully embrace all that I am.

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