Self-care was a recurring theme for many of the Women Side by Side projects, including during the regional learning events that took place as part of our programme. This section explores why self-care is important for women’s mental health and has been written entirely by Thalbir Shokar, who worked on a peer support project and is also a teacher of yoga and other forms of wellbeing activities.
Why prioritise self-care in your women’s peer support group
As a health and wellbeing practitioner alongside working on the Swan Women’s Centre Peer Support project in Liverpool, I noticed how important it is that both facilitators and members of the peer support group understand and prioritise self-care. During the learning events we attended, self-care was highlighted as a priority across all groups and projects. I was also aware, when I attended a Living Peer Support event in London and one of the peer support facilitators mentioned feeling burnt out, of how easily this can happen in peer support.
In this section, we will look at self-care: what it is, tips for practice, and the importance of prioritising it as peer support leaders and facilitators, alongside some examples for sharing with peer support group members.
Self-care has become an increasingly popular topic for discussion. The pace of modern life and the growing demands of work, home and family continue to burgeon, especially for women. This has been especially apparent during the UK lockdowns which were
in place at the time of writing. I have been in contact with many women here who are juggling:
• working from home
• home schooling
• looking after their home
• managing without their usual support structures or as single parents.
This underlines the cultural narrative around women’s role as care takers, homemakers, and nurturers. This can lead to many women feeling pressure to be perfect, putting the needs of others before their own. This often results in a lack of clarity around what self- care actually is, and a perception that it is a luxury not a necessity.
Sometimes the challenges around self-care are as simple as not knowing where to start. It’s also worth noting that it may be misinterpreted as being selfish. This is evident in certain cultural narratives and ethnic groups where there are distinct roles for men and women in their homes. I also see this in my own family coming from a British Indian background. If I encourage my mum to do some self-care practices (for example, go for a massage, or have a bath) she would instead make others and their needs a priority or say, “I haven’t got time.”
We can also see such distinctions along generational lines. We may notice different views on self-care that arise from our own experiences linked to how things were when we were growing up and this might be in a stark contrast with someone else’s experiences. All experiences are valid. I realise the importance of reframing self-care here.
This story from Ines Beare, one of the creators of this toolkit and a peer support facilitator based in Wales, provides some further context:
“In my 20s I wasn’t aware of what self-care was. I used to put everyone else’s needs before my own and didn’t have much time for myself. It wasn’t until I received a mental health diagnosis that I realised that self-care would play a very important part in my recovery and would change my life forever. I discovered that for me, to look after other people, I would have to look after myself first. This meant taking time for myself, to read, to walk or simply doing nothing all.
Initially it was hard to get rid of the guilt that was linked to spending time focussing on myself. Then I realised it was all to do with my own expectations. Before I would have spent a Saturday doing chores all day, now I do 2 or 3 chores and then I reward myself with some self-care activities like having a bath or a mini pamper session.
As a result, I have become a much happier person. This growing awareness of self-care in practice can be a great foundation for quality peer support because I’ve realised if you can’t look after yourself and be well, you can’t help others.”
- Ines Beare
I’ve also learned the importance of naming where we are at from one of my mentors, Claire Zammit. As we begin to name our feelings, this inner acknowledgement provides a powerful foundation for change. Outlined below is the feelings and needs inventory. It is a helpful tool to understand how our feelings arise from our needs being met or not.
As well as practising this for yourself as a peer support facilitator, it is a brilliant exercise to work with in your group to create more understanding.
The feelings wheel
Developed by Dr Gloria Wilcox, this can be used as helpful tool for articulating our feelings and where we are currently at, and it is applicable to both facilitators and peer support group members. You can also explore this further with The Emotion Wheel by Robert Plutchik, which provides some further context for how you might wish to explore and use this as basis for self-awareness, building emotional intelligence, and starting to understand how our emotions and needs are interdependent.
In my experience, I’ve also found a link between low self-esteem and how this impacts our health and wellbeing, and our subsequent lack of self-care. The way we feel affects the way we treat ourselves. We may end up with addictive coping mechanisms such as alcohol dependence, overeating, undereating, over-exercising, etc. which can help us to alleviate painful emotions in the short term but ultimately cause us harm.
In order to make a change, identifying where we’re currently at is important, and the tools above are some of the ways in which you can begin to explore that for yourself and for your women’s peer support group. They can also help us to overcome feelings of shame and guilt by creating a safe space from which to observe and notice.
Self-care for peer leaders and facilitators
It’s easier to give from an overflowing cup. As a peer support leader and facilitator, I’ve experienced how easy it is to get overwhelmed and get stuck in an over-giving loop. This can result in fatigue, overwhelm, and eventually breakdown.
It is essential to our wellbeing, and to the success of the peer support group, to ensure that we have clarity around our role and responsibilities as peer leaders and facilitators. In practice, I have found that creating healthy boundaries and learning when to say no
as well as yes is invaluable. Self-care is an essential practice and an ever-evolving skill in developing sustainability and avoiding overworking and overgiving - a tendency I’ve noticed many women struggle with. I have a saying that I often share with my groups and fellow facilitators: “The more we relax, the easier it is,” which I know might be easier said than done. It’s necessary to have structures in place to support you as part of this. These could include:
Having regular meetings with a colleague about your experiences in the group.
Booking in for a supervision session regularly and when needed.
Connecting with other peer support leaders. In my experience, having access to the Women Side by Side learning hubs was invaluable as a place where we got to meet and network with other peer facilitators and leaders.
Journalling around your experiences in the peer support group and discovering areas that might you need support with.
Sometimes, as peer leaders and facilitators, we can have a mindset of having to do it alone. It can be both vulnerable and uncomfortable to ask for support, especially when we need it most. It can be helpful to become aware of these thoughts, which may have been linked to previous experiences of not feeling supported.
I’m aware of how this was holding some of my peers back from asking for support when they most needed it. I found it helpful to remember that, as a facilitator, there’s a two-way process of giving and receiving. I have found that allowing myself to be imperfect and human can help free me up from my own criticism and inner judgements.
Create a self-check in practice before and after your group sessions. For example, take a few minutes ahead of each session to centre yourself, breathe into your belly, feel your feet on the ground, and ask yourself: how am I feeling here and now? What is it I would most like to share with the group today?
Recognise and acknowledge your own support needs and identify any ‘blocks’ that may prevent you from asking for support.
Ask for support, especially when you need it and even if it feels uncomfortable.
Make a list of places, people, and resources where you can access support.
Network with other peer support leaders and facilitators. This was one of my favourite experiences during Women Side by Side: attending the quarterly learning events with other peer leaders and facilitators.
Have clear boundaries around your role and responsibilities as a peer support leader and facilitator.
Partner with another facilitator where possible. I found this an invaluable resource during my time working at Swan Women’s Centre, Liverpool Women Side by Side project. It was great to have a colleague to share ideas with and to be able to support one another through the experience.
Delegate and share responsibilities with members of your peer support group where possible and appropriate, e.g. making refreshments, bringing the whiteboard, etc.
Be kind to yourself. Notice if self-judgement and criticism are creeping in.
Celebrate your successes with your group and/or your colleagues, and focus on what is working well.
Let go of perfection; have fun.
Promoting self-care to your peer support group
When I practice self-care regularly, I notice that I feel better: more energised, relaxed, and able to cope with the demands placed upon me. I’m aware of how essential self- care actually is for our health and wellbeing. It helps us to build strong and sturdy foundations amongst the winds of change.
It is also a key pillar that helps to build resilience and set ourselves up for success, sustainability, and resourcefulness. In our group at Swan Women’s Centre, we ran an exercise in one of the groups to spark discussions around what self-care is and what activities they might enjoy doing. One of the group members then created a mind map (similar to some of things mentioned in the self-care wheel below) which we placed in our meeting room to refer back to when needed.
This Self-Care Wheel was adapted from “Self-Care Assessment Worksheet” from Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization by Saakvitne, Pearlman & Staff of TSI/CAAP (Norton, 1996). Created by Olga Phoenix Project: Healing for Social Change (2013).
Self-care suggestions for everyone
So what does self-care look like? Where do I start? What can I practice? Here are some activities that came up from our peer support group discussions at Swan Women’s Centre:
Have a relaxing bath or self-pamper session.
Read a book you enjoy.
‘Deep Belly Breathing’ technique – take a few moments to sit comfortably or lie down, take a deep breath out. Place hands on your belly, allow yourself to breathe through your nose into your navel centre, and exhale deeply through the nose or mouth. Repeat this a few times. You may well notice a shift in where your attention is and how you are feeling as you ground your energy and bring awareness into the here and now.
Practise Yoga Nidra – this is a popular relaxation technique where you guided to relax various parts of the body starting either at the crown of the head or feet.
Spend time in nature.
Go for a walk.
Dance to your favourite song.
A self-care movement practice. This may include some gentle stretching, deep breaths, and flowing movement
Self-care is a practice and a necessity. The more we do it, the easier it gets. By establishing some simple techniques that work for us, we can create a powerful foundation for sustainability, change, and having a positive impact.