Overcommitted and Overwhelmed? The Self-Care Choice: Nourishment Over Obligation

“Ok, wait, give me the dates?” I asked my partner through the phone line as we talked on his work break. He lists out several meeting dates and we discuss a conflict of overlapping meetings. I asked how he was going to choose which meeting to attend and he began listing out other people’s priorities and then described how he could best accommodate them. “Umm yea,” I responded. “But what do you want? What nourishes you?”

This conversation reminded me of a debate I’ve been curiously following in parent blogs and magazines about how much to schedule kids’ activities. Beyond running the parents ragged going from soccer practice to cello practice to home and bed, there’s the outstanding question of time for play. Where is the space in the schedule for kids to use their own resources to entertain themselves? What nourishes kids more, play or structured activities? How do we support what nourishes them the most? I’m waiting to see where this debate goes, but it did make me wonder why we aren’t having this same debate about adults. Maybe not between play and structured activities, that’s another conversation, but maybe just starting with what activities we choose to do. How do we prioritize the time we want to commit to our many issues and relationships? For those of us who work a day job and use evenings and weekends to support activist causes we believe in, how do we go about making these decisions? One place to begin is to examine if what we are doing is nourishing or if we only doing the activity out of obligation.

It can be difficult to figure out when we are doing something out of obligation versus doing something which actually fuels us. Yet, if we can figure out for ourselves obligation from nourishment, then we have the best information to make a choice about our activities. One way to notice between the two is when you find yourself using “shoulds”. When you hear yourself saying, “I should do ____.”When you hear yourself saying this repeatedly (maybe even with a feeling of dread or despair), you are making a decision out of obligation. This is great information to help you understand what you actually want and what might be draining instead of nourishing.

What supports your nourishment?
Nourishment is that which fuels us. Ideally, it leaves us feeling energized and excited. We feel connected to others and ourselves. However, especially in social activist work, what is nourishing isn’t always easy. Sometimes what nourishes us is a commitment that takes time. Sometimes nourishing work can be confusing and uncomfortable, the cost of the birthing change into the world. We may take the results of activity more personally because what is nourishing can sometimes be more challenging than activities we feel obligated to. We may feel more emotionally invested in what fuels us and this can lead to worry and anxiety. Yet, when we participate in nourishing activities, it feels “right”. If it is challenging, it challenges us in a way where we grow. If we are worried, it is a worry that comes from a hope that we can help create change. When we are doing something nourishing, it is often fun and our heart wants to return.

Once we make a choice to honor and do what is nourishing instead of what we feel obligated to, we are left with the question of how to back out of the obligations. (This may sometimes not be possible, some obligations are just part of life, but often we do have a choice in what we commit to with our time.) How does one back out of obligations gracefully, you may ask. Backing out of obligations is always hard. The best tactic is honesty. 

Be honest that you’ve overcommitted yourself. You can apologize if necessary, but be clear that, for example, you are no longer available to make the cookies for the bake sale or present on a panel. The key to backing out of obligations gracefully is the art of still attending to your commitments. Try to give as much time as possible for people to know that you can no longer follow through. Secondly, try to find someone else to take your spot. When you are no longer taking advantage of an opportunity, other people then have a chance to participate. Could you find someone else to bake cookies? Could you open up an opportunity for someone new to present by asking your network, colleagues or friends if anyone is interested in taking your place to present on the panel? After being clear that you are no longer available, describe what you are doing to try and fill the gap and then give a deadline that is respectful as possible. For example, “Hello _____, Unfortunately, I’ve found myself overcommitted and am unable to present on the panel next month. I will ask around to see if I can find a replacement presenter. I’ll let you know either way by next Friday. Thanks again for extending the opportunity to take part on the panel. I’m sure with your knowledge and expertise it will be amazing.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m writing a book on self-care, but I’ve had several people back out of commitments “in the interest of their own self-care”, leaving the response at that. It is a deeply unsatisfying response. It may be truthful that it is in the interest of their self-care that they back out, but this reason doesn’t acknowledge the consequences of the situation. It is important to name that we are backing out of something that we had committed to. Honesty and accountability are important, especially where we want to maintain relationships.
Our primary relationship is with ourselves. If we don’t honor ourselves, then we are left with feeling unsatisfied with how we are spending our time. We start taking out this dissatisfaction on those around us, getting crabby at our friends, partner or kids. We might show up to the obligation with a bad attitude and ruin the time for others. Like it or not, we usually have the signs we need about whether we are committing to obligations instead nourishing activities. We just have to learn to listen and practice honoring the right choice for us.   

By Naomi Ortiz (c) 2014

To the Edge of Discomfort

It feels heavy, persistent and I hear it rumbling deep inside. Like a hunger that I don’t have the time to feed. The rumbling which started softly, rises in volume until it is all I can hear. I want to be too busy with life that I can ignore it, but finally I have to acknowledge it, that I feel upset. My body makes me listen. I can’t focus or be present with other people until I figure out what exactly I’m feeling.

A few weeks ago, I hit that point. It was totally inconvenient and I avoided it as long as I could. Sometimes when I wait this long I lose words altogether and the only way I can access myself is through drawing. I was doodling in my journal, finally conceding to attend to this seething, multi-layered mess, and I drew this sign from Math, a “greater than > less than sign”. A sideways letter “V”, with the open side facing the amount which is worth more in the equation. Never one for math, I always imagined it like Pac Man gorging himself on coins, his mouth always facing the side with more. This “greater than > less than sign” was drawn with a line of chains links. Like if you laid out a chain in a sideways “V,” except I drew in every other link darker, so it looks like a chain at first; but if you looked harder you saw each link was on its own, like individual circles making a “V”. I paused and looked at what I had drawn and felt the lid lift on all of my emotion. 

I deeply desire community. As a Mestiza raised in Latin@ culture, as a Disabled woman who grew up poor, and as someone who is passionate about self-care and traditional shamanistic practices, most of my community interactions require accountability. To participate at all, I am required to hold people accountable. It requires so much energy for me, offerings of energy and effort.

There’s a built up expectation of who belongs in a community. Exclusion affects people on both sides of the “greater than > less than” equation. On one side of the equation, it leaves a person out and alone. On the other the side, it requires someone or a group of people to participate in hurting a person. This is especially true when the excluded person has directly asked to participate or for access, and the person they asked this from refuses to be accountable. It disempowers both people and both people often blame each other for that feeling of disempowerment.

Twitter conversation: #disabilitysolidarity
I decided to join a Twitter conversation discussing the reaction to a solidarity letter that a Disability organization put out for people to sign onto concerning the murder of Michael Brown and the activist response in Ferguson. Unfortunately, this letter centered disability experiences with police brutality versus acknowledging and condemning racism and the devaluing of men of color. In the comments on the Twitter conversation announcement page, it seemed like people seemed to want to discuss how the Disability community could show up in solidarity with activists in Ferguson.  

Instead, when the #disabilitysolidarity conversation started most people began discussing police brutality and the many murders of Disabled people by police officers. People discussed how people of color weren’t included in Disability community. And people wrote about disability access issues, for example, the lack of interpreters at events and the requirement that protesters in Ferguson keep moving at marches. A few people tweeted that these were all valid issues that needed their own space and discussion, but solidarity was more than disability (individual and community) issues.  

I asked, “As people of color what can WE do to be in solidarity within disability community and in solidarity with Ferguson?” People responded to my tweet asking me to be mindful of access, providing access, and not dismissing what people asked for in terms of access accommodations. These tweet responses were some of the most retweeted comments from the whole conversation.

At first, I was confused. Then I realized that they were assuming that I wasn’t disabled, and I felt embarrassed.

In my head, I keep thinking that it’s just a Twitter conversation. People only have 140 characters, and those 140 characters were flying across the screen, mostly people just stating things and hitting “return.” It wasn’t a “real” conversation. Yet, the problem is that even in conversations, this mistake still happens – people assume that if I speak from one community that I must also not be part of their community.

Women of color writing group
I was so excited earlier this summer when an acquaintance invited me to a gathering of women of color to share writing. I met another disability activist at the first meeting who seemed excited to connect with me. I talked about self-care and people seemed interested in that. However, the meeting space was at a woman’s apartment. Because it was a person’s house, I had assumed it wasn’t wheelchair accessible. I used my energy to walk in and then realized upon walking in that there weren’t any chairs. I also discovered I couldn’t use the bathroom. I used more energy to sit on the lone bench that didn’t give me the support I needed to sit comfortably. All of which I did in silence without anyone acknowledging the issue. The next time I went, I brought chairs and I left when I needed to use the restroom. The women were thankful for the chairs and my navigation of the inaccessible space continued unacknowledged by the group.

Most of the people attending this writing group volunteered at a local community garden. They talked about this garden as a safe space. It was located in a diverse neighborhood and they described this safe space as a space where they didn’t have to conform to dominant culture norms. They were discussing community events that were to be located there and so I asked if it was accessible. They didn’t think it was. I offered to help give tips on accessibility, to even go and check it out to help make a plan for access.  I got a smile and the agreeable sounding, “yeah...” response. I know that response. It’s the nice dismissal. I dropped it.

A free poetry festival was happening in the town I lived in and a woman of color poet I really wanted to see was reading. It turned out one of the people attending the writing group was on the organizing board for the poetry festival. I talked to them about the location of the event, a hotel/bar downtown. It was historic had made minimal ADA upgrades. There were stairs in the middle of the performance space and only one ADA compliant bathroom, which could only be accessed from one specific entrance. I suggested options for making the space more accessible, hoping that this person could act as an ally to create a disability access change at the venue. I gave them my email and offered to help in whatever way they needed. I didn’t hear from them and when I arrived at the event, there didn’t appear to be any access changes. One of the workers, noting that I, a wheelchair user, was there put down a noncompliant ramp over the stairs. I tried to push up frontwards, and nearly tipped over backwards. Then I turned around to try and go up backwards, and nearly slid forward out of my wheelchair. While I was making my effort to get up the ramp, my partner blocked strangers from grabbing my chair to force me up the ramp. (I’m always amazed that someone grabbing a wheelchair, taking control of a disabled person’s body is still socially acceptable and not viewed as assault.) I couldn’t get up the ramp. By now, I was frustrated and told the person from the writing group that I was leaving. They then advocated and got the venue to open up an emergency exit for me to get in on the performance floor level. They gave me a complimentary drink coupon and an apology. However, the drink coupon remained unused because there was no way I could get back out, to go around the building to get to the bathroom. After the reading, the person apologized and I tried to affirm that they did the best they could in the moment. Yet, a poetry series that this same person from the writing group MC’s monthly at a downtown coffee shop, which was also inaccessible, continues to be located there.

In addition to the energy and work I expended to make this community event even minimally accessible, I lost the opportunity to make a friend. It sucks on both sides of the “greater than > less than” equation. Now, every time they see me, they look at me defensively, perhaps remembering the advocacy and accountability I asked for, and not that I’m a fun person who loves poetry. And every time I see them, I now think about how they never followed up with me and about how I felt excluded and emotional, despairing of any change. One side has the privilege to ignore what exclusion means – that for example, disabled people like me are not treated as human beings with full rights and dignity. On the other side, the excluded person knows that ultimately they can’t do anything but advocate the best they can and deal with being excluded.

            And even though all of this is true, I’m still unclear on why I’m so emotional. There is a lack of clarity to the clear picture and it is fuzzy. There shards of truth – solidarity – accountability – exclusion – greater than > less than dynamic…

What is?

I desire community. I want to bring all of the worlds I live in into the worlds I interact with. Yet, “community” that exists is often singular – Disability community, Mujeres community, shamanistic community. Most of me is excluded as I attempt to participate in one of these non-intersectional communities. I try to figure how to leave pieces of myself behind. Yet, when in one of these communities if I try to squeeze my disabled self out, then I literally I can’t physically function. If when I interact with people I try to exclude my Mestiza self then I can’t socially function. In shamanistic communities, I am often perceived as needing to receive “limpias” (cleansings/balancings) versus having the capacity to perform them; because “healing justice” means practitioners are supposed to look like the representative of “health”, agile and non-disabled.

I am light-skinned, raised on the border immersed in one of my cultures (Mexican), where the privilege of “passing” also has a backlash of anger at not matching up with white cultural assumptions that I should understand and interact within white cultural norms. This is not to say that I don’t benefit from light-skinned privilege. Every time I pass through border patrol checkpoints and am just waved through, every time I am invited into an opportunity where someone is less threatened because I “look like them”, and every time I look at cop in the face and just see them register boredom, I am receiving privilege. And I admit I use this privilege. I participate in disability community, treading on my light skin and try to just not talk. It, at least, lets me get that far. With people of color and shamanistic communities, I have less ability to even get in the door because I need disability access to get in. 

In Disability community space, cultural interactions are in dominant culture format. It reflects who has power in the community (primarily white, straight men and women with physical disabilities). You are supposed to talk quietly; use no slang, (which I could agree with if it’s for access reasons); to disagree is to be impolite; and how to live like a privileged, dominant culture, nondisabled person is supposed to be centralized in the conversation. This means discussing things like; working, travel, accessing stuff like the movies, and living alone in an apartment or house in the city. Sometimes it means also talking about relationships, yet almost never sex. Mostly, we talk about the blatant discrimination when it comes to “access” and “choice”. However, we discuss it with the assumption that you’d choose to live like a privileged, dominant culture, nondisabled person if given the chance. It is important to discuss choice, access and disabled people. Yet, Disability organizations and leadership create an agenda that does not challenge the status quo. We are always asking how we can fit into the system versus practicing Disability Justice, re-envisioning what inclusion means, and demanding an expectation of difference. 
When we come together in community, there’s such an intense desire to have “safe space” in order to discuss our common oppression, safe space meaning everyone feels comfortable. Yet, in reality, for those of us trying to bring in our many worlds into the space, comfort isn’t possible. For example, when I can’t access where the event is (or relieve my bladder), safe space isn’t happening for me. We can’t pretend that because we share oppression that we will then be the same culture/identity/class outside of that experience. We must be aware that if we want the opportunity to connect through a common culture, then we must also be willing to be uncomfortable. I define safe space, and feel like I’m in it, when there are ways to deal with being uncomfortable that everyone has agreed on.  

I want to be involved. I’m writing a book for people who live in multiple worlds and work on social justice. Yet, ironically, I’ve connected to people like me and am in safe space only through informal connections. I have a few disabled people of color friends who grew up poor and identify as female. So rare is it that I get to participate in a community where I can even get to the point of bringing up identifying as a woman, which is often part of gender-binary privilege, or where I can bring up being raised poor, which involves multilayered experiences like going to the poor people clinic to get disability medical care. Because I can bring in all of these pieces of my experience, these informal connections are lasting. Even though the ability to be my full self happens through the development of relationships, based on what we have in common, the real safety happens in how we navigate when we make each other uncomfortable, triggered, or angry. When our differences clash, the cleansing of mutual respect, patience and the risk of love lets us return to each other again and again.

Self-care in community starts with doing our own work to make our spaces safer. This work requires us to bring ourselves to the edge of discomfort and to ask for specific agreed upon ways to handle conflict. Perhaps the group could agree to let go of controlling the outcome, trusting that people will return, leaving truth on the table and returning to it, even if people continue to disagree.

Discomfort is different from emotional pain. The only way we learn about discomfort is to risk putting aside our defensiveness and trying to go to our discomfort’s edge.  We can go to that edge and sometimes when we sit there, maybe with no answers at all, we find we can go further. Being uncomfortable together, not relying on one person to continually push us there or hold us accountable, is one of the best ways to demonstrate a commitment to safe space. It is a commitment we can all choose to make.  

Poem: Disability is the embodiment of living multiple truths at once

Part of self-care is examining the gifts we receive in the experience of who we are. Even with parts that we may not have to choice claim, that are thrust upon us, we learn these gifts as we go. Have you ever written a letter to a part of yourself that you’re not sure you understand? Have you ever written a poem about a part that you have had to grow in relationship with?

This morning this poem came. An expression of a part of myself, Disability, which I have long been in relationship with and yet, my understanding of continues to evolve.

Disability is the embodiment of living multiple truths at once.


It is the description of the ever-changing direction of the wind                                    
Nimble focus to which way one screams the loudest

It is both under-stimulation and overstimulation,
Not being touched for years and being touched too often without permission

It is the identity that in other’s eyes, overrules all of our other identities, even being poor.
Welcome to the equal playing field of the fear of vulnerability

It is living in everyone’s expectation that if they try; at access, at niceness, then that trying, for us, should be enough

Slivers of doubt become trusted tools
Can I do this? Will they be there? Is there space for the tides change of my shifting needs?

Be        prepared     for      anything.       Be        prepared      for      anything.

Unclenching my hyper-vigilance allows me to unfold my resting blanket of empathy
Many people rest here for a time
There is safety with the one who doesn’t belong
What they don’t realize is there is so much power in discovering how to not need to belong
It is a gift to understand that you can never fit in
And a gift to name for others that universal feeling of never fitting in


Disability is a forced exploration of every system Man has created to help those who can’t function in the Capitalist system
Or who need medical access, or who need help in their home, or for whom being in love is deemed inappropriate

Systematic excavation
We learn secret ways through concealed tunnels
We learn to be silent and take what we can find 


Disability is living multiple levels at once
Awareness, vulnerability, empathy, humor, anger, focus, creativity
It takes planning for me to be here

Embracing “sustainable”, instead of “healthy”, as the label of betterment
It is a harder task, asking what will keep one going, in a way that keeps giving


I don’t count on anyone being comfortable around me
Except maybe other Disabled people, and then only sometimes
We’ve convinced ourselves that disability is something we should peel off
Keep hidden in a box, even those who have no hope of hiding

We are taught that to acknowledge our complexity, is to ask to be excluded
It takes years to learn that this is their biggest mistake
That in our complexity lies our greatest strength
Claiming it can revolutionize the world

Weaving Disability as part of the revolutionary fabric
Of being a more human, human being,
It is a spherical bridge to everyone alive
 © 2014  Naomi Ortiz

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