Self-Love Isn’t Selfish: Mental Health in the Peace Corps

Peace Corps prides itself as being “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” But I didn’t expect that the toughest hardships I would have to face would be dealing with the mental and emotional challenges of services: loneliness, isolation, feeling of inadequacy, and dealing with culture shock, to name a few.

I won’t go into Peace Corps’ fine-tooth comb method of analyzing your medical history (including mental health) prior to being cleared for service, but I will say that, obviously, the discourse around mental health is very stigmatized! Since May is Mental Health Month, I’ve decided to open a discussion in regards to mental health. Mental health affects us all, but is often overlooked. So if we were to normalize it by talking and accepting that it’s okay to be vulnerable, maybe it wouldn’t be such a taboo topic to discuss. Taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body!

I often find myself feeling guilty. “Peace Corps is a time of SERVICE, but what are you doing for anyone?” “Are you really making an impact here?” “I have to be ‘on’ 24/7.” “No, you shouldn’t watch anymore TV shows and should go talk to people.” “Wow, I’m not doing as much as __ is at his/her site.” “Everyone here hates me.” “My language skills are horrible compared to __.  etc. etc.


So what happens when I feel like I’m giving too much? What happens when I’m not putting in the same amount of energy, love, compassion, time, and resources that I give?

I found out my answer the hard way a few months ago: For a whole day, I didn’t leave my house, didn’t talk to anyone, ate too much food, cried in the shower, and watched TV shows and read a book as much as I wanted.

And the next day when I woke up, I felt relieved, but also guilty that I didn’t get anything done that day!

I believe this guilt is one of the reasons why “self-love” frequently pops up in my journaling. These past few months in Sāmoa have been a huge time for personal growth and now I’m coming to terms with the idea that you can’t give from an empty cup. I’m constantly trying to think about ways in which I give and share my energy and ways I can give it back to myself — the true concept of self-love WITHOUT the nagging guilt hovering over me. Here are some of the ways I’ve found that help sustain my self-love:

  1. Learning to Say ‘No’ — Saying no can be hard, especially for a volunteer trying to integrate into a community. Being more consciously aware of certain activities or commitments that are physically, emotionally and spiritually draining has helped me in placing firm boundaries around them. For example, my host family knows that I will go to Sunday morning church service with them, but ONLY Sunday morning service (with the exception of holidays). In a village where there can be up to 4 services each week, I found that one was enough for me. Also, now, my colleagues at school know that I won’t make copies for them!
  2. Practicing Self-Care — Looking after your physical needs is probably the most obvious self-love practice, but it’s so important to listen to your body in regards to eating, sleeping, exercising, having supportive friendships, and managing stress. I’ve learned to slow down when I need to, always buy extra coconut oil, and since dealing with dietary adjustments at first made me very stressed, now, it’s just forced me to be more creative with what resources I find available and has led to a creative outlet for me. I’m always on the hunt for new, simple things that make me feel GOOD.
  3. Ignoring my Inner-Critic — She is so powerful because sometimes all I hear is her pointing out my imperfections and everything I’m doing wrong. My inner-critic thrives when I’m making comparisons between my service and another volunteer’s. Nothing is ever good enough for her and I am never good enough. This is one of the toughest issues I’ve had to deal with. In order to stop being so hard on myself, I’ve started to physically stop what I’m doing when I am criticizing myself and I try to immediately replace the negative thought with a positive one. I’m hoping this will train my brain to always celebrate me and my uniqueness.
  4. Living With Intention —This basically comes down to knowing the kind of life I want to live. I want to love myself 100% so that I can “be” 100% for others. This means that every day, when I’m journaling, I take a moment to write down something that I’m grateful for that happened that day. This entire experience is a struggle, but I am in it for the long haul. It’s helping me not only serve the world, but serve myself.

“Practicing self-love means learning how to trust ourselves, to treat ourselves with respect, and to be kind and affectionate toward ourselves.”– Brené Brown

There is a HUGE distinction between self-love and selfishness.

Our bodies hear everything our minds say and do, and ultimately to feel good and DO good in the world, we must put good into ourselves. This is not something we should feel guilty for. Instead of viewing it in a negative light, we should encourage ourselves and others to practice self-love. Loving ourselves allows us to love others. Respecting ourselves allows us to respect others. If we all, collectively, start to shift into practicing self-love and selfcare, the more love, care, and compassion we can share to others. The easier it would be to sustain this beautiful cycle.

I’d love to hear what self-love practices you are going to incorporate into your life. Share them with me in the comments!

Much love,

Lena

At the top of Mt. Vaea, where Robert Louis Stevenson is buried.

Next week is also the start of the Holy Month of Ramadan, inshAllah. It will be tough to celebrate the Holy Month away from my family and friends, but inshAllah I will be celebrating Eid with the small Islamic community here in Sāmoa. To all, whether you are fasting or not, I hope this month is an enlightening celebration for all. Ramadan Kareem!

Also, when I was initially clearing out my school’s library in January, I found this book in the midst of textbooks from the 80s:

I believe it’s another sign I’m where I’m supposed to be. Elhamdolilah! I can’t wait to use it to share with my students!


On another personal note:

Let’s also de-stigmatize lice while we’re at it. I’ve caught them twice in the last month and after initially freaking out and my host sisters laughing at me, I’ve come to realize that here, it’s normal. I had to take a second to step-back and self-reflect on that.

One thought on “Self-Love Isn’t Selfish: Mental Health in the Peace Corps

  1. Beautiful Lena! Just read this post and loved it! I’m struggling with several internal demons myself and learning to love me and be happy with my company is top of the list. This was very helpful to me and I’ll read it again. Keep being your beautiful self! Much love! Mama B

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s