The Work of Real Self-Care: Holding Pain and Hope Together

Post Author: Alison V. Philip

“The work of real self-care is to hold pain and hope together.”
-Pooja Lakshmin

Back in December at a pastors’ gathering, my local denominational body used a polling app to ask the group a series of questions about stress and burnout. The consensus was clear: this was a group of people reporting high amounts of stress and significant burnout. Clergy attributed the burnout to a variety of elements related to leading our churches following the pandemic. At the top of the list of stressors were financial strain, political division, and declines in worship attendance. In response, the local denomination has started naming clergy burnout as a problem and making it a priority to encourage pastors to care for themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. 

Similar refrains show up in the fields of education, medicine, social work, and the service industry. Apart from magazine and blog articles, just take a look at the many social media ads, and it’s clear that the push to engage in self-care is everywhere. However, sometimes it comes with a silent and subtle accusation that burnout is each person’s individual responsibility. To experience burnout becomes a personal flaw of not doing enough self-care. It means you haven’t tried hard enough or balanced your commitments well enough. It can take on the quality of a moral failing, yet another source of shame for those experiencing it.

I’m not alone in sensing this subtle accusation. I was deeply grateful to discover Pooja Lakshmin’s Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program for Redefining Wellness (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included), a book published this March which explores the topic with needed nuance. Lakshmin describes the temptation to buy into what she calls “faux self-care.” “Faux self-care” refers to items you can purchase or experiences you can pay for to attempt to relieve some of the pressures and burdens of life and work in 2023. “Just buy this relaxing spa treatment to melt your stress away.” “Come on this weekend retreat and experience total restoration.” “Try this new yoga class and you’ll finally feel at peace.” These things can be part of caring well for yourself, but they alone are not enough. 

Lakshmin knows these pressures well. She shares her personal journey of leaving her MD residency to join a group of feminists promising well-being, only to discover later that she was part of a cult. Her journey led her back to medicine, but this time it pointed her in a new direction: toward helping women discover their values and claim their power in a system that is set up to work against them. Faux self-care addresses the surface of a much deeper systemic problem. It is alluring because it offers seemingly simple solutions to stresses embedded within the structures of patriarchy and white supremacy. 

Instead, Lakshmin invites readers to acknowledge that their burnout is part of a bigger picture that is not their fault. Burnout isn’t a personal failure but a systemic one. That said, she encourages each of us to recognize the power we have to define our boundaries, identify our values, and use the agency we have to change the systems of which we’re a part. This work is not easy, yet it creates needed spaces of hope. Hope is not toxic positivity or naïve optimism. Hope is honest about reality yet helps us envision new possibilities based on our deeply held values.

To bring it back to my work as pastor, burnout in clergy is also a systemic problem. In the tide of decline in religious participation in the West, our churches and denominations are experiencing widespread anxiety. Pastors as a group tend toward empathy, sensitivity, and caregiving. These traits are gifts, yet they also make it easy to soak up and take on the anxiety around us. Part of the spiritual work of pastoring is attending to ourselves so we can see more clearly what we have taken on that is not ours. It is recognizing that self-care is not just an individual pursuit but something we can lead our communities to do together. It is holding together the reality that we are part of systems that may not always support us with the reality that God equips us to focus on what we can control, including how we tend to ourselves and those around us and how we use the power we have.

A decorative illustration of a tree with full branches on blooming group against a white background. The tree trunk, leaves, and the ground are made of bright squiggles and hearts.

We are not solitary but distinct parts of interconnected systems.

To return to Lakshmin’s words, “The work of real self-care is to hold pain and hope together.” We do that as we give voice to the struggles and possibilities in our congregations and communities. We do that as we connect our stories and the stories of our people to God’s Story in Scripture. We do that as we proclaim the good news of Jesus, who took on the pain of the world, made impossible hope possible, brought life where there was death, and lifted up the truth that love is the strongest force there is. 


May you soak in this good news, whether you are burned out or thriving or anywhere in between.
May you cling to the love that is your source and destination.
May it guide you in your care for yourself, your family, and your communities.
May God bring hope to and through you.

Alison lives and pastors in Westfield, NJ. She has completed a certificate in congregational & family systems, and she’s continuing to study marriage & family therapy alongside pastoring. She also gardens and soaks up time with her husband and daughters.

Image by: Pixabay
Used with permission
1 reply
  1. Ali VK says:

    I had a mentor once who would say that life just is hard and contains suffering and doesn’t require some sort of offset – like when self-indulgence is presented as self-care. He also used the metaphor of preparing for a marathon and said some of the work may be trying to increase our capacity for love and holding the pain of others rather than avoiding pain. Thank you for your reflection on self-care, Alison. I appreciate this perspective.


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