This summer I was selected to participate in the Environmental Fellows Program (EFP) through the University of Michigan and the Environmental Grantmakers Association. It’s been a life-changing experience to be in the presence of so many like-minded, caring, and welcoming groups of people. EFP was literally a breath of fresh air. When I was with the other Fellows, I forgot about my personal struggles and I could focus on positive strategies surrounding the environmental issues of the world. It’s in spaces like these that I am most complete and can fully devote myself toward positively impacting lives. But, what happens when you run out of steam? Or when you aren’t constantly surrounded by people who help you recharge, like the Fellows? This year I was faced with overwhelming struggles: burn out, a redirected life plan, and mental health challenges. Through all of the mess, I developed personal tips that I hope will be useful for others trying to maintaining positive mental energy in green spaces and beyond.
From February to October, my tag-line for 2017 would have been “when it rains, it pours.” The year was full of so many significant personal, professional, academic, and let’s not forget, political challenges. But, it was also full of blessings! I had the tremendous opportunity to work at Earthjustice with real-life super heroes. They don’t wear capes and they won’t be featured in the next Avengers movie, but they fight every single day to protect us and the planet we call home. It was such a rewarding and fulfilling experience. But, if not handled properly, it’s a fast road to burn out (like any real super hero endeavor). At times, I found myself consumed with how deplorable some of the cases were. I remember one late night I ugly cried in my office because a company chose to knowingly poison a community (for decades!) instead of paying more to treat their mess. To make matters worse, the law worked in their favor. Mid-way through the summer, I felt more jaded, discouraged, and helpless than I had ever been. At the same time, my academic career seemed to be falling apart before my eyes and my mental health started to take a hit. I couldn’t figure out how some of the attorneys managed to stay sane after working on some of the biggest atrocities I had ever heard of! Why was I falling apart and everyone else okay?
The first thing I did after hitting a personal brick wall was reevaluate why I was doing the work. The answer was simple. I do the work because I care. It’s hard because the race toward a more equitable and healthy world never stops. And there’s no finish line that I’ll be able to see in my lifetime (issues like climate change and declining biodiversity will likely outlive everyone alive today). But I refuse to throw in the towel. I already know the journey is hard. All I can do is pace myself, rest when I need to, and keep pushing. It’s easier said than done, but here are a few things I live by that help me maintain myself when I get down.
Tips for maintaining self:
- Don’t ever let the work consume you. Sometimes it’s near impossible to pull your emotions away from the Flint’s of the world, but if you want to do the job effectively without going crazy, there needs to be some work-life separation
- Be kind to yourself. If you forget to return a call, accidentally sleep in on a Monday, catch a typo in an email, it’s okay. Breathe and remember to be kind to yourself. Don’t become complacent with mistakes, but know it’s okay to make them.
- Support groups of like-minded people who are also fighting the good fight (like EFP). They recharge me and help remind me why I’m working so hard!
- Rest. Take time for yourself. And take as much time as you need to feel balanced again. There’s no rush when it comes to your mental health. You can’t force a cut to heal faster than your body will let it. The same applies for your mind so be patient.
- Take stock of what you have already accomplished. Problems don’t go away overnight but it is so important to cherish the small victories. Completed a workout? Celebrate! Finally caught up on Game of Thrones? Celebrate (then mourn until 2019 haha)! Updated your resume? Celebrate!
- Hobbies! I have several artistic outlets that keep me sane. Find something that helps your mind relax and if you don’t have a hobby, you can make a hobby out of finding hobbies! Try new things, explore new crafts, travel, pick up a new book, or literally anything else
- Don’t ever compare your journey to someone else’s. People say this all the time but I don’t think we really consider it when we need it the most. There is no such thing as a perfect or painless success story. And we have no idea what struggles each other has or is facing. Appreciate where you are and do your best to prepare for the next steps. No one on Earth is like you. So why would you waste energy and time comparing your story to someone else’s?
ValaRae is a Project Engineer at Wilmot Inc., a sustainability consulting firm located in Nashville, TN. She received her Bachelors and Masters degrees in Environmental Engineering from the University of Georgia and Vanderbilt University, respectively. ValaRae recently worked at the largest non-profit environmental law firm, Earthjustice, as a technical expert. She has also conducted doctoral research on water quality with respect to urban runoff, agriculture, and climate change. Her career objective is to be a bridge between scientists, policymakers, community groups, and businesses to help inform decisions that improve human and environmental welfare. If you’d like to contact ValaRae, please email her at email@example.com.