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Neil Butcher's blog

07 May 2024

Being of Service and the Need for Self-Care

I was privileged to have spent a few days recently working in person with Dena and Margaret, colleagues from Crisis Text Line, a US-based non-profit organization that provides free, 24/7 mental health support via text message. As its ten-year impact report notes, the organization had, by 2023, supported over nine million conversations initiated by people in distress. Extensive research undertaken on these text conversations has demonstrated just how effective those services have been for very many people, as well as how the experience of volunteering has additional social benefits beyond the text-based crisis response service. As such, it is an honour to be able to participate in and contribute to their work.

We spent time together refining a Theory of Change to guide the organization’s future planning and monitoring/evaluation. From that platform, we have also begun planning how to codify the organization’s knowledge about running an effective text-based crisis response and prevention service to guide collaborations with new international affiliates, as well as discussing how to expand the reach of its training products to a wider spectrum of secondary audiences (including teachers). It is exciting work that feels aligned with my own values.

A theme in our discussions was the concept of being of service to others. This is at the heart of the Crisis Text Line support model, which is driven by volunteers who give freely of their time to help people in distress, even though they do not know those people and will never meet them. In my book, Encounters with Life and Death, I explored how various life choices and habits have helped me to understand that identifying meaningful ways to be of service to others is key to finding purpose in life. What has emerged clearly for me, though, is that being of meaningful service to others first requires commitment to taking care of oneself. Self-sacrifice or suppression of one’s own needs is a significant risk in any form of service because of the danger of engaging in acts of ‘service’ as a co-dependent strategy to feed the needs of our wounded selves. This would be a problem in any situation, but especially so in circumstances where the service is being provided to people experiencing distress of the kinds that Crisis Text Line, its staff, and its volunteers encounter daily.

I have persistently grappled with the challenge of prioritizing true service to others over pursuing my personal agenda, very often confusing those two in the process and thereby undermining the value that I have been able to offer. For me, this has typically happened when I have become convinced that I know the answer to other people’s problems and focus more on persuading them that I am right than truly understanding their problems and exploring how I can contribute to solving them. The need to be ‘right’ and to persuade other people that you are right is indubitably a behaviour of the wounded self.

Blurring the lines between providing service to others and fulfilling one’s own needs is a feature of the work landscape within which I move. Since I started working in and alongside the world of non-profit and development organizations, I have met amazing people, most of whom have been dedicated to their work of service to others. But, like human societies more generally, this has also been a world in which many people have sacrificed themselves and their own needs to a more noble agenda. Without fail, where people have done this without self-awareness, the result has been to undermine the service to which they have committed themselves. Very early on, I remember being horrified by how badly South African trade union managers treated their staff, presumably believing that the noble fight for the rights of workers legitimized mistreatment of their own employees. My work world, though, is filled with people who exhibit a ‘saviour complex’, a psychological construct defined as feeling the need to save others, while sacrificing one’s own needs. I’ve seen very few, if any, instances where a person who exhibits these tendencies can be of meaningful service to anyone else, given the co-dependencies that emerge when ‘saving’ other people becomes an integral part of one’s own identity.

These contradictions are rife in the development sector and often difficult to resolve. Key to their resolution is self-awareness; I hope I have become more self-aware over time, but this remains an ongoing work in progress. The more aware one becomes of one’s own behaviour and agendas, the easier it is to identify when one’s own needs are taking precedence over the goal of service to others. Linked to this is commitment to self-care. Until we truly commit to taking care of ourselves (not intellectually but through our daily habits) rather than seeking to have our needs met through others, we will always compromise our ability to serve. In Encounters with Life and Death, I tried to document various ways in which I have learned to prioritize self-care as a prerequisite to showing unconditional love. This commitment is a lifetime journey though. We accumulate many wounded behaviours on our human journey; but learning about them and releasing them is the only pathway to unconditional love (and thus true service to others). Perfection is not attainable, but, without ongoing commitment to that learning journey, I don’t think one can ultimately be of real service to others, whether they be family, friends, work colleagues, or strangers.

In the world of work, this is as much an organizational issue as it is an individual one. Of course, no organization can make one of its employees embark on or sustain their own healing journey, but they do create environments that either make this easier or harder. Sadly, I think most organizations create work environments that actively create co-dependencies and feed individual wounding. I have encountered this, writ large, in my career working with school systems.

Careers in education – teachers, school principals, government education officials – should all, at least in principle, be about giving service to others, most especially to learners. A common theme in everyone’s upbringing will always be that those teachers who had the greatest impact on us will be those who best understood this reality. Yet, the sad truth is that, at both the systemic and the institutional levels, very few school environments do anything to facilitate self-care and most actively undermine it.

This starts at the national level, where schools are governed by bewilderingly complex and disempowering policy environments (we recently wrote a report on this problem). Policy complexity has grown in all the education systems I have worked with around the world and, regardless of how well-intentioned the individual policies may have been, their cumulative effect is to impose more rules that demand greater compliance and accompanying punitive consequences for non-compliance, as well as removing personal agency from employees. Likewise, national school curricula have steadily drifted towards greater granularity imposed from above, defining what can be taught, how it must be taught, and how testing should take place. Underneath this scope creep has been a persistent fear-based agenda outlining the dangers for both teachers and students of failing to meet the requirements of those national curricula. Of course, there are examples of countries that are exceptions to this, but the trend line is very clear globally. These are just two examples of how dehumanizing schooling systems are. I will spend more time in future articles exploring this theme in more depth as I think it is key to finding solutions.

In addition, when I look at how teachers are treated in most public education systems and how little trust there is in the human resource management systems that govern them, I struggle to see how they create any space for self-awareness, let alone helping people to create the personal space to be of true service. Those teachers and principals who manage to find such space (and there are many) are truly extraordinary – but they all manage it despite the system’s rules not because of them. We might hope that ministries of education could take some responsibility for tackling challenges like this, but toxic working conditions at school level simply replicate themselves at higher levels in most school systems with which I have worked. I have worked with many highly dedicated and competent people at this level but expecting them to lead transformation given their working conditions, how overburdened they are, and how badly most are treated is deeply unfair and completely unrealistic.

Wherever, then, we are interested in creating working environments that will enable employees to show up to work every day and truly be of service to others, the conversation can only meaningfully start with discussions about how we create space for self-care and how organizations can support that. I believe that this is where education systems transformation should begin – with how we choose to treat the people who work in them.

Neil Butcher

Neil Butcher

Neil was born and grew up in Johannesburg in South Africa during the final years of apartheid. He began a career in education after university studies and was privileged to work in an education NGO during South Africa’s transition to democracy and beyond. During this time, he founded Neil Butcher & Associates, where he still works today. He is privileged to have been able to travel extensively throughout the world during his career, an opportunity that has provided him unique opportunities to engage with many cultures and appreciate the extraordinary diversity of the world in which we live. 

Neil is passionate about helping governments, development partners, and educational institutions to reform education systems to enable people and societies to achieve their full human potential. Having worked in education in developing countries across the globe for over 30 years, Neil recognizes that there are no simple formulae for educational reform; each context is unique, as are the people who inhabit it. Thus, providing service to initiatives focused on education reform requires willingness to listen and understand what is most important, combined with a patient conviction that transformation, no matter how difficult it may seem, is possible.