How we treat ourselves

A guest post by Mary Ann Clements

I wonder how I got here. I’m the Director of a small nonprofit and I am absolutely exhausted. Close to burnt out. It started with a deep commitment to creating positive change in the world, but if I’m brutally honest, I don’t know how long I can continue to feel this way and live this way. It’s like I’ve got no resources left.

I was a nonprofit director at 26. It goes without saying I am someone who takes action and makes things happen.

But after nearly 7 years of trying to hold everything on my shoulders – the fundraising, the partner relationships, the financial crises, the deep desire to make things function better, the board battles and the staffing challenges, I was completely exhausted.

Image from “Partnership Matters: A Reflective Guide” by Mary Ann Clements. To download, see:

How we do global development work mattered to me and I was fiercely committed to making our partner relationships better, to improving the way the organisation related to others.

But what I didn’t see then, but I know now, is that how we treat ourselves matters very much as well.

When our relationship to ourselves is one of constant burdening and pushing, when we feel we must always be giving and doing more, we are doing ourselves – in subtle ways – the very same disservice we are so committed to preventing for others. We are neglecting our basic human needs.

It might sound extreme. But this really is how I have come to think of it.

When we choose not to take care of ourselves, when we lead organisations in the mode of work, work, work we are also contributing to a broken model of success – drawn largely from the corporate world – and replicating it. We are subscribing to the idea that only busyness and toil can save and mend our broken world.

So much of what is wrong with our world is rooted in broken exploitative relationships that I have come to believe that we cannot possible ‘fix’ any of that when we are in an effectively ‘broken’ relationship with ourselves.

Instead this world changing is a complex game, one in which we have to learn how to live our values and that includes the need not to neglect and exploit ourselves.

To do this we often need to face the shadow part of us. The part of us that is effectively addicted to ever harder work. The part of us that may be assuming we become valuable because of the extent of the toil we do for others. That part of us that may even believe that this toil can go some way to assuage our guilt about the circumstances we find ourselves in, which seem better than those of the people we are trying to support.

But here is the irony. We actually have to value ourselves first to be healthy change agents. And that starts with committing to making a habit out of taking good care of ourselves. That is the way that I believe we can become our most powerful and resilient in service of the greater good. When we do things this way we will ensure that we are not acting unconsciously from our places of lack and deficient and instead start to actually challenge the patriarchal, discriminatory, and colonial attitudes that still plague much social change and nonprofit work.

Make no mistake. My self-care crusade doesn’t start and stop with bubble baths and meditations. It goes much much further. But it starts with us because when we act out of our own guilt and frustration, we tend to make bad decisions, forget or neglect our values and exhaust ourselves along the way.

Taking simple actions, regularly, to replenish ourselves is the gateway to a better understanding of and resourcing of ourselves so that we can begin to really live our values as change makers, as people committed to doing our bit to unstick this stuck and broken world.

For too long the international aid and philanthropy sector has maintained a strangely colonial sense of fixing the other while completely neglecting our need to take care of ourselves. And I believe the solution will start with honouring shared humanity in the every day practice of our work. Like the people whose lives we may be trying to impact, we need rest. We need replenishment. We need space and nurturing to cultivate our desire for a different world and only when we give ourselves these things are we truly able to demand them for others.

Mary Ann Clements (Mhina) has twenty years experience in the international development sector both as a leader and a consultant. In 2012 she created as a resource for improving international partnerships. Recently she launched Jijaze, a global community for women in the INGO and charity/nonprofit sectors and that challenges a working culture that leaves so many women exhausted and burnt out. She is also a co-host of the Podcast Change Making Women, which you can listen to at: in touch at: maryann (at)


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One Comment

  1. So true! We need to treat ourselves with as much respect and care as we reserve for our programme participants/target communities and other partners. Walking the self care path is complicated and sometimes I am surprised by feelings of guilt (I should not be saying no to this work/I can stretch myself and do this meeting on a holiday)! But it is another journey that must be made so that we can go further with our vision and realising it!

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