Give yourself permission

To rest. To rejoice. To do whatever it is you need to do.

Like so many others, I greatly admired Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was brilliant and tenacious, and left behind a legal track record that will be studied for generations to come. She broke countless barriers, fundamentally altered civil rights in the United States, and, miraculously, didn’t take herself too seriously. She wasn’t perfect, but she was an icon. It was an honor to witness her impact on the world.

I didn’t learn about Ginsburg’s death until late on Friday night. I had wrapped up a long week coordinating the Poynter Women’s Leadership Academy, and felt mentally and physically exhausted as a result. That evening, Billy and I had two friends over for a socially distant porch dinner, in hopes of winding down from a busy week and ushering in a relaxing weekend. We talked for hours, and it wasn’t until they left when I looked at my phone and discovered the news.

It feels somewhat shameful to admit this, but I was so tired that I was barely able to react to Ginsburg’s death. I somewhat perfunctorily lit a candle that bore the justice’s image and flipped through my copy of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I scanned social media for a few minutes to read others’ responses to the loss, but quickly felt overwhelmed and logged off. I briefly considered what positive actions I could take in Ginsburg’s honor, but I felt drained by the prospect and came up short.

I didn’t cry or compile my own thoughts. I blew out the candle and went to bed.

Over the past few months, I’ve gotten into a good routine of working on this newsletter over the weekend, instead of hurriedly squeezing it in between other work tasks on Mondays. I jot down ideas as they come to me, take note of related readings, and peck away at my laptop during the quiet mornings. It’s been a rewarding routine, and I think my writing has benefitted as a result.

This Saturday, though, I woke up with a discouraging sense of deja vu and zero desire to write. Just three weeks ago, I wrote about the impact of losing a well-known, well-respected person, and how the loss feels acutely unfair during a year that’s already taken so much. A couple of months before that, I mused about how things are not OK right now—but that we must trust that they will eventually be. And just last week, I wrote that, “It may not seem like much right now, but there is a bit of hope out there.

Now, those words felt empty. I woke up still exhausted from a demanding week and discouraged by the news of Ginsburg’s death and what it meant for the future of the Supreme Court. I didn’t have the energy to find the silver lining this time. I didn’t have words of wisdom to share. I was tired of hearing my own advice to trust that, somehow, things will work out for the better. 

One of the themes of last week’s leadership academy was the importance of taking care of yourself before taking care of others. It’s something we always focus on during these workshops, but this time—in the middle of a pandemic, in a remote setting—that message felt increasingly important and urgent.

By the end of the week, many of the women walk away with the realization that they can’t reach their full potential as leaders if they don’t prioritize their own well being. These hard-working women learn to apply that lesson beyond the office, too. They can be better bosses, partners, mothers, friends, aunts, daughters, and neighbors by putting themselves first. 

This advice has always been true. For some of us, it’s also been a bit tough to follow. And now, it’s never been more important. We are all exhausted from the demands of adjusting to life in a pandemic—something we’ve been doing for the past six months. We have had to realign our lives, routines, and expectations. We’ve had to help others adapt. Amid all of it, we’ve had very few opportunities to pause and take care of ourselves.

That’s why I didn’t try to write this newsletter over the weekend. After a while, I gave up worrying about it. I turned my attention to myself—specifically, to my emotionally and physically depleted state. I called and texted friends. I kicked up my feet and iced my aching back. I cleaned. I watched a bunch of television. I gave myself permission to rest. 

On Sunday afternoon, I read the latest edition of Nisha Chittal’s newsletter, which featured an interview with Anne Helen Petersen, the author of the viral 2019 BuzzFeed article on millennial burnout, and book on the same topic, which was published today. Chittal asked Petersen what she’s doing to stay sane during the pandemic.

Her answer spoke to me: 

I’ve been spending a lot of time in my garden and just giving myself a lot of permission. That doesn't mean permission to be unsafe in any capacity, but giving myself permission to be tired, to take a nap, to not do that thing that you feel like you should do, because there are so many things pressing down on us and our bodies are telling us how they need to recover every day. I’m just trying to be better at listening when my body or my mind is like, nope, we're done with that.

This weekend, both my mind and my body told me, nope. I had no choice but to listen to them.

In Petersen’s case, as in mine, she gave herself permission to rest. But there are plenty of safe things you can give yourself permission to do. Even now, in a fraught time with seemingly limited choices, we can give ourselves the freedom to experience all sorts of things. We can give ourselves permission to celebrate and feel joy. We can give ourselves permission to ignore the news and instead get lost in a work of fiction. We can give ourselves permission to buy a fancy dress that no one may see for a while—just because. We can give ourselves permission to cry.

What we choose to do isn’t important. It’s the act of permission itself that matters. It is a gift that only we can give ourselves, and it is one of the best ways that I know to take care of myself.

I never came up with the right advice or words of comfort about Ginsburg’s death. Thankfully, there are plenty of other people who did. What I am able to offer is permission. Because I focused on myself this weekend, I was able to show up and write this essay today. 

I am writing this from a rejuvenated place. That’s not to say that I’m not sad, or worried about the state of the world, or that my back isn’t aching—all of those things are unfortunately still true. I’m not depleted, though. I took care of myself enough to be able to give back a bit to others.

This is a lesson that all of the women in last week’s academy have to learn as leaders and managers. It’s something we all need to know how to do. It’s something I’m sure I will have to remind myself of many, many times as a mother.

We have to show up for ourselves first. Even when the world feels like it’s falling apart—especially when it feels like it’s falling apart—we have to give ourselves permission to tend to our own well being. If we do that, we’ll be better able to tackle the bigger challenges ahead of us and better care for the people around us.

Take care of yourselves, friends. We need you.




Permission to ...

What’s something you gave yourself permission to do lately? Did you find a reason to feel joyful? Did you take an entire week off of work? Or did you sleep in longer than you have in a long time?

I’d love to hear about your recent moments of permission, and what they gave you room to do as a result. Share your response by replying to this email, leaving a comment, or sending me a message

I’ll compile your replies in Thursday’s subscriber-only newsletter. (And don’t forget! You can receive Thursday newsletters by subscribing for $5/month or $35/year.)

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My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who has given herself permission to spend more time off social media lately. It’s done wonders for her mental health. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

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