Self Leadership Comes First

By Jasmine Irving

Activism, self-care and self leadership in an ever-changing world.

I struggled to breathe, unable to control the sobs and fear after a panic stricken night of sleep paralysis and nightmares during my volunteer trip to a place of political unrest where military patrolled the streets. I’d been adamant that I had to make this trip to see for myself what the media distorts and to make what little difference I could by showing international solidarity. I turned up, did my volunteer work and left full of stories to share at awareness evenings back home and in campaign articles. However I was unprepared for the emotional roller-coaster of human rights work and activism. Perhaps I could have been more useful on the ground if I had been coming from a place of stability within myself.

It was after this trip that I realised, if I wanted to be an activist and to play a role of holding space or working for justice then I had to do it from a different place. I was running on empty with little idea how to take care of myself, yet was rushing around thinking I could take care of others. I didn’t realise how hard it is to pour from an empty cup. I gave it my best shot but was left completely depleted.

Then 8 months after starting to slowly develop an awareness of the importance of taking care of myself, I signed up to the Catalyst course at Embercombe, a centre of leadership and sustainability in Devon. I was drawn to the course for many reasons but one that stands out was the word “leadership” in their description. I wanted to gain the confidence to lead, to launch big projects off the ground. I was extremely motivated but unaware of how ill equipped emotionally I was to do those things. I ignored my anxiety, health problems and unhealed trauma in the push to try and ameliorate some of the many problems I saw in the world.

What I learnt at Catalyst was not what I expected. I didn’t walk out ready to lead big groups of people into ground breaking activist projects. I walked out ready to lead myself, with a deeper understanding of how in order to make real change outside I had to work on taking care of inside first. Three years on and I’m still learning this.

Figuring out how to take care of myself has been a long and arduous journey. But it has been worth it. Starting to develop this has given me a better understanding of how to identify and best use my own gifts, as well as how to make a positive impact without ending up overwhelmed, panicked and hopeless in the face of the world’s injustices. For me, self-leadership is about learning how to take care of my own practical and emotional needs in order to best take care of the needs of community and the environment. Catalyst course leaders call this the ‘twin trail of leadership’ which means doing your own healing, growing and developing AND having positive effect in the world.

Since Catalyst, I’ve been taking small steps daily of self-care, being kind to myself helps me be kind to others. During this time I’ve been involved in various projects like turning the soil ready to plant organic veg from seed shares and delivering workshops on climate injustice to high school students. I’ve volunteered to raise money for a children’s physical rehabilitation centre in India and worked on organic farms/within sustainable communities. I’ve also written a chapter for a campaign book about sexual assault and rape.

There’s been a lot of taking time out too for practicing a consistent form of self-leadership and self-care. Without this time to figure out my own issues I’m not sure how I would have had the energy to put into projects outside of myself. I’m now also a yoga teacher, having studied the ancient practice of yoga originating in India. My intention here is to be able to hold space for others to take that important time out to connect with themselves in order to positively impact the outer world.

Activism is hard. We need community and we need to be able to work well with ourselves in order to survive in a political and social landscape that is threatening the Earth and all living things on it. In a society where huge companies profit from the individual’s self-doubt and insecurity, surely one of the most radical things we can do is learn to be there for ourselves, to develop a loving relationship with ourselves and to be self-leaders. This act enables us to give energy to the projects that need it. We can harness our own resources in order to move beyond the patriarchal capitalist model of exploitation for profit and into a more sustainable, kinder way of living.

Have you attended the Catalyst course? If so, why not come along to this year’s Homecoming event? Held at Embercombe from March 2nd-4th, it’s a great chance to meet friends old and new and build ongoing community in your life. For further information or to book your place please click here.

About the author

I did Catalyst in July 2014 then bought a one way ticket to France where I spent 4 months WWOOFing, learning about organic farming, permaculture and community living. I next lived on Réunion Island for nearly 2 years, working as an English teacher, an au pair and WWOOFer. I have recently returned from a volunteer / study trip to India and am now teaching yoga in my hometown, Newcastle, and writing as well as working in a vegan deli and community city farm cafe.