Section 17: You Are Important—Take Care of Yourself

These are stressful and uncertain times for us all. Even in the best of times, being a nonprofit executive director can be hectic and demanding. Living with these daily challenges makes it particularly important to show yourself compassion, kindness, and patience. Self-care is vital for your health and well-being.

If you are a person with a disability or health condition, you may experience even more stressors in your role as the ED of a CIL. Dealing with your own personal needs, as well as overseeing the services and challenges of your community’s citizens with significant disabilities, may mean that you are dealing with disability “issues” 24/7—access, housing, transportation, health care, prejudice and discrimination, etc.

In any event, if you don’t pay attention to your own needs, you won’t be able to provide quality support to others. Improving your own mental and physical health can increase self-esteem, adjust your mood, and enhance productivity. You will also be modeling good work-life balance for your staff. The following tips can help you cultivate a calm, healthy, balanced demeanor.

General Tips

  • Do not make yourself indispensable. Some EDs fall into the trap of thinking that no decisions can be made without them, or that they have to do everything because they can do it better. You have selected your team, trained them, involved them in planning, and they can quote the CIL vision and mission in their sleep. Now trust them to handle things while you take a few days of vacation. Trust them to know when they really do need to call you.
  • Reduce the amount of news you consume. Be selective about how much time you spend watching, reading, or listening to the news, including online media. Be mindful of how you feel while accessing the news. Avoid watching any news an hour or two before bedtime.  
  • Be deliberate about what you watch. Strive to listen to balanced and accurate sources. Provide your staff with the most accurate information from highly reliable sources.
  • Limit screen time or put your phone away before bed. If possible, make your bedroom cool, quiet, and dark. It may help to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, with no more than one-hour difference on the weekends. Staying on the same schedule strengthens your body's sleep-wake cycle.
  • Try meditation. A number of meditation apps are available, many of them free. Many communities offer classes on meditation and other spiritual practices. See the Resources section for some suggestions.
  • Eat a variety of nutrient-packed foods. The more colorful your plate, the more likely you are to get the vitamins, minerals, and fiber your body needs to be healthy. Eat less food high in saturated solid fats, added sugars, and salt. Eliminate or limit sugary drinks and replace them with water. Focus on the foods that you can eat and make your meals appealing. 
  • Choose the type of exercise or movement that you enjoy and try to make it a habit. If strength exercises, stretching, changing position, or moving about to discharge energy are part of your disability routine, don’t allow a heavy work schedule to derail your wellbeing.
  • Pay attention to and be mindful of your feelings and anxiety levels. As a new ED, being anxious may feel like part of the job. You have complex responsibilities and may have a steep learning curve.
  • When you feel stressed or worried, take at least three slow deep breaths and try to let go of your negative emotions and thoughts. Close your eyes and visualize that you are in one of your favorite peaceful places, such as an ocean beach, wildflower meadow, or forest waterfall. You can also connect with your source of spiritual comfort, meditate, or take a break to briefly stretch, move around, or do something else.
  • Practice letting go of negative thoughts about yourself and change them into positive ones. Don’t say something to yourself that you wouldn’t say to another person. If you’ve made a mistake, think of it as a learning opportunity. It may help to repeat short positive affirmations, such as, “I am calm and at peace. I can do hard things. I am loved and needed. My work is valued and appreciated. I am worthy. I am enough.”
  • Practice gratitude by thinking about what you feel thankful for. It may help to start and/or end everyday with reflecting on the people, places, and things that you are grateful for. Express your appreciation for your family, friends, staff, board, and volunteers.
  • Connect with significant people in your life. Intentionally connecting through phone or video is almost as good as an in-person connection. Schedule quality time and deepen your relationships.
  • Engage in and savor the activities you enjoy every day. These can be small things, such as writing in a journal, reading a book, listening to music, playing an instrument, soaking in a tub, playing with a pet, gardening, creating art, taking or organizing photos, taking an online class, etc. The possibilities are endless for you to explore.

We tell our staff and consumers to take care of themselves and to ask for help if they need it, but often we ignore our own advice. If you are feeling overwhelmed, seek out a counselor, mentor, or medical professional. Show by example that there is no stigma attached to talking with a mental health professional, someone outside of the situation who can bring a different perspective.

Speaking of getting another perspective, remember that technical assistance and peer support are available to you from the IL-NET National Training and Technical Assistance Center for Independent Living. You don’t have to wait until you’re overwhelmed. Contact Paula McElwee at, and introduce yourself if you haven’t already met her. Paula works with a team of technical assistance consultants who are there to help you.