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Self-Care for Leaders: What You Can Do to Stay Energized

Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC
From LEAVEN, Vol 43 No. 4, October-November-December 2007, pp. 75-77

When you think about your work as a La Leche League Leader, are you energized and inspired? Or are you weary and resentful, wondering why you ever got involved? If you are feeling weary and frustrated, you may be suffering from Leader burnout. In this article, I'll address burnout: why it happens and, more importantly, what you can do about it.

Acknowledging Feelings

Burnout is a state of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion brought on by unrelenting stress. It's when we get to the point where we seriously wonder whether what we are doing makes any difference at all. We may feel cynical, angry, resentful, and frustrated. These emotions happen to all of us from time to time. When you start to experience them on a regular basis, however, it may be burnout.

What Are the Effects?

I believe that we all have a stake in preventing burnout in ourselves and in our fellow Leaders. When we are burned out, we are less effective, and more prone to being unkind with each other. To understand the implications of Leader burnout, consider for a moment whether you would like to be treated by a burned out health care provider, or have one of your beloved children taught by a burned out teacher. Unfortunately, we have the potential to perpetuate burnout at every level of our organization, which is why it's important to address.

I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at a number of Area Conferences while in the final stages of editing the second edition of my book, The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood. At one Conference, a participant asked about the new information I had included in the second edition. I shared several things that I had updated or changed. One that really seemed to strike a chord was when I mentioned how peer pressure perpetuates our stressed out lifestyles. We had some lively discussion around that topic. It's important for us as mothers to recognize that peer pressure can cause us to pack too many responsibilities into our days, as we race to tell each other how "busy" we are.

Peer pressure can also cause burnout in Leaders. I've seen it happen. Here is how it works. Let's say, hypothetically, we know a Leader named Kathy. Kathy (usually) has too many activities on her plate. She has a hard time saying "no" to any request and setting reasonable limits on her time. Her family sometimes resents all the time she spends on her activities, so her schedule also causes occasional friction in her family. That's bad enough for her. But suppose she expects the same level of time commitment from her co-Leaders or others on her Area team. What if she directly, or indirectly via example, pressures others in her circle to also take on too many commitments? We might find that one by one, these Leaders decide to quit, demonstrating that burnout can be contagious.

What Are the Causes?

Peer pressure is only one cause of burnout. Burnout can also be caused by a combination of too much work, unrealistic expectations of yourself and others, disillusionment with the organization, and little or no support. This quartet can start a cycle of anger, resentment, and depression that spirals downward to burnout. The self-help organization, (2007), describes burnout as being likely in the following work situations. Jobs most likely lead to burnout were those where employees felt:

  • Overworked
  • Underappreciated
  • Confused about expectations and priorities
  • Given responsibilities not commensurate with pay
  • Over-committed with work and home responsibilities

These could apply to our work as Leaders. Only two characteristics -- being insecure about layoffs and not getting paid -- does not apply.

Who Is Most Vulnerable?

Why do some women cross the line into too much involvement and eventual burnout? There seem to be a variety of risk factors, and many of these are what make for a good La Leche League Leader. For example, idealism can lead to discouragement and disillusion. Passion for a cause can lead to taking on too many tasks. Helping others can cross the line into codependency. Often, women with history of abuse or other type of family dysfunction don't know how to balance caring for the needs of others with caring for themselves. These women may have always been caregivers for others in their circle of relationships and can be particularly prone to burnout in relationships and in volunteer work. But none of us is immune.

What You Can Do

If you are burned out, or realize that you could become that way, there is plenty you can do to reverse that state and live a more balanced lifestyle. Being burned out doesn't mean that you have failed or are a bad person. In fact, it's often the people who care the most who are most susceptible to burnout. Fortunately, there are some positive steps you can take.

Practice Radical, Yet Responsible Self-Care

Taking care of ourselves is often very difficult for mothers. Many confuse self-care with being "selfish." Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to care effectively for others, you must make sure that you take some time to refresh and restore yourself. Otherwise, you will have nothing to pour into the lives of others.

What this means, in practical terms, is that you must have some downtime (even 20 minutes) every day. You also need to participate in activities that build you up and allow you to connect with others. Being a Leader can fulfill many of these needs. But it can also become a drain if you feel you have no control over your workload, are doing more work than you can handle, or feel that you have no support.

As important as self-care is, however, it's important that you practice self-care in a responsible way. Self-care, or "Me Time" sometimes gets a bad reputation because it's badly handled. For example, when you agree to a responsibility and do not fulfill it, that causes stress for others. The responsible way to handle too much is to tell others that you need to step back from some responsibilities and give them enough time to find someone else. By communicating clearly about what you need, you give others the chance to find a replacement or decide whether they want to continue providing the service.

Be Proactive

One very common risk factor for burnout is disillusionment. This is particularly challenging when an organization has an idealistic purpose, and the day-to-day realities inevitably don't match its idealistic vision. For example, you expect colleagues to always be kind, and these same people treat you badly. Or when leadership in the organization makes decisions you don't agree with. Or when you just get tired of the bickering. I've been in several organizations, including a couple of churches, where discouragement and disillusionment were serious problems that caused many people to burn out and leave.

Fortunately, there is something you can do to counter disillusionment. In Stephen Covey's classic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Habit 1 is "Be Proactive." I've found that this is an incredibly powerful way to prevent or reverse burnout. No matter how discouraging a situation, where you may feel blocked at every turn, you can always ask, "What can I do?"

Once you have this mind set, it opens you up to a whole range of new possibilities. This is not to say that you pretend that the negatives don't exist. In fact, I think it's helpful if we are realistic about what we can or should expect from others. We need to know that fallible human beings will sometimes let us down. Rather than just brush these problems away, being proactive means always asking what you can do to make the situation better. Solutions may include finding other ways to help mothers and babies, or distancing yourself from consistently negative people, or even seeking a leadership position at the Area, Division, Affiliate, or International level to make changes in things you don't like. Being proactive allows you to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, and is a great antidote to discouragement -- the downfall of many fine organizations.

As helpful as a proactive approach generally is, there are times when it is not enough. That's when it's time to ask others for help. Administrators at the Area or Division levels can be excellent resources for you, who would much rather help you work through a difficult situation than have you become burned out. When feelings are running high, a neutral third-party within LLL can be an important source of support. And sometimes, just taking a break from a difficult situation for a month or two can provide a different perspective.

Be Accountable to Yourself and Each Other

One more thing. I'd like to encourage you all to be accountable to yourselves and your fellow Leaders. When you see someone taking on too much, gently suggest that she reconsider. And be open to this type of feedback yourself. It's often much easier to see over-commitment in others rather than ourselves. I'm grateful that I have women in my life who will speak up when I'm overloaded -- and I try to do the same for them.

It can also be helpful if we are realistic in terms of what we can do. Sometimes, we need to take stock of our lives and consider whether we really can do everything that we have volunteered to do. And if LLL responsibilities are getting to be too much, we need to talk with our co-Leaders, District Advisor, or Area Coordinator of Leaders about that. Know that there may be times in your life when you cannot do everything. You have some latitude in terms of the types of activities you participate in, while still being an active Leader. You might decide to lead meetings, but not take phone calls. Or you could only take phone calls, but not lead meetings. Stepping away from some of your responsibilities makes sense and can be the right thing to do during certain times in your life. And it's so much better if you have an honest discussion about your need to do this with others that will be affected. That way, you can take a break on a positive note.

I've had some experience with this in another organization. Sometimes, women in the New Hampshire Breastfeeding Task Force need to step away from their work with us. It could be that their husbands or children are sick. Or they've taken a new job. Or their responsibilities on their jobs have increased. I remind them that the work will get done one way or the other, and that their families' needs come first. And they are always welcome to come back. Volunteer work is only one part of our lives. It can be a rich and rewarding part, but it needs to be seen in the perspective of our whole lives.

In summary, burnout can be a problem for both new and experienced Leaders. It's important for us to recognize it, gently encourage each other to say "no" to too much, and try to live balanced lives. When we do that, the joy we have in working with mothers and babies will be restored and our organization will flourish.

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