Why We Need to Talk About Spiritual Self-Care in UX

design дек. 18, 2019

This story is part of Self-Care Is for UX, a series on the personal risks of working in design.

I was 22 years old when the doctor told me I was dying and might only have the next 15 years to live.

I was told that a rare, incurable kidney disease was what had kicked me from normal kidney function to kidney failure within a matter of days. My partner at the time and I briefly wept together in the hospital room, then spent the next six days in silence watching Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows over and over and over again. The only way I could reconcile with the grim news I had just received, that I was actually going to die sooner rather than later, was complete and utter avoidance.

Around day six, I finally began to process through some questions that I imagined myself pondering much later in life:

What matters to me the most, and does the way I live my life currently reflect that?

How, if at all, do my spiritual beliefs and values help me make sense of this pain?

When I die, what will my family and friends say about me? What will my life represent; what will they say I stood for?

What and/or who plays a role in providing meaning in my life, and can I still find meaning in my life if I know I am going to die?

As I began to ponder these questions and ultimately come to a place of acceptance of the idea of an early death, I found myself being more intentional with reaching out to people I really cared about. I found the strength to begin the process of forgiving my biological father, I prayed for peace and strength, I meditated on the words of Viktor Frankl and others who had overcome tremendous suffering and found meaning despite it. I found joy in my best friend asking me what I was excited to do once I was feeling better and her promise that we’d do it together. I found gratitude for things like modern medicine and the ability to walk.

About a month after I had received the news about my kidneys, I was in the doctor’s office for what I thought was an appointment meant to kick-start the dialysis registration process and conversations about finding an organ donor.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Vivianne,” the doctor slowly said as he shook his head in a state of perplexity. “But according to your recent labs, your kidneys have healed themselves by at least 50%. I legally can’t even place on you on the donor list because you’re no longer in end-stage renal failure, and you don’t need to be put on dialysis anymore.”

Today, my kidneys are at normal function and I’ve been told that I no longer need to worry about only having 15 years to live. I’m truly a walking, living, and breathing miracle.


I didn’t recognize this at the time, but being confronted with the reality of my own mortality and the fragility of my body forced me to engage with and acknowledge my non-material needs, or spiritual needs, which include the need to feel connected to something purposeful, the need to feel valued, and the need to feel capable, especially in the midst of stressful situations that remind me that I only have control over my own reactions.

More importantly, it reminded me of my need for spiritual self-care, a need I find myself leaning more and more into since I made a career switch into the UX industry.

No one warned me how important spiritual self-care would be for UX professionals.

Defining spiritual self-care

Whether because of an assumption that spirituality must be tethered to religion, or a harmful and painful experience you had with people who professed to believe in a higher power, I’m well aware that some of you may already be skeptical of the idea of spiritual self-care. However, spiritual self-care doesn’t have to be synonymous with religion:

“Spiritual self-care revolves around engaging in activities that turn our attention inward and reconnect us with ourselves.

Spiritual self-care helps us cultivate a deeper sense of clarity about what matters most to us and what we believe in. We take care of our spiritual needs by taking time away from the daily grind to get quiet and tune in to our own inner wisdom.

It involves connecting to something that is larger than ourselves, like worshiping in a faith community, spending time in nature, seeking guidance through prayer or meditation, practicing yoga, journaling, or spending time in personal reflection.

Tending to our spiritual self-care is less about believing in a higher power, and more about recognizing that we exist and have needs beyond the physical and material realm.”

— Dr. Robyn L. Gobin

“Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.”

— Dr. Brené Brown

Contrary to the “move fast and break things” mentality that our profession often encourages, spiritual self-care asks us to slow down, to sense and respond to the spiritual values that bring “a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose” to our lives. More often than not, our spiritual values act as filters when we’re in the midst of challenging, painful, or difficult situations in the workplace or in our personal lives, and help us determine what makes us feel fulfilled in life beyond what can be gained materially.

Spiritual values shape your ethics

In “The Emotional Toll of Working in UX,” I share how interesting it is to see ethics recently becoming a buzzword in our industry, as if we’re collectively realizing for the first time that things that interact with people… affect… people. But the conversation of ethics needs to address more than the relationship between UX professionals and the rest of the world; it needs to address the relationship UX professionals have with themselves.

“Spiritual self-care helps us cultivate a deeper sense of clarity about what matters most to us and what we believe in.”

— Dr. Robyn L. Gobin

What matters most to us often determines the extent of our line of inquiry, and what we believe in often determines our commitment to upholding it.

From an ethical standpoint, your line of inquiry into the hefty problems we have to face in our work designing products (homophobia, white supremacy, how someone could weaponize your product, what-have-you) is in part determined by your spiritual values. These values that bring “a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose” to our lives also bias our understanding of ethics, some for the better, some for the worse. Examples of spiritual values and the impact they have on one’s ethics include but aren’t limited to:

  • Belonging: You’re designing the onboarding experience to a product that helps people understand their fitness lifestyles by customizing a program to help them become healthier. When the experience requires the user to identify their current fitness routines, you ensure that the options consider folks coming from all economic demographics and not just those who can afford attending Pure Barre or CrossFit classes.
  • Integrity: You’re asked to do research or design work for a client whose mission and behavior toward others violates your beliefs around how nonprofits should treat people. You share your concerns with your manager and ask to be removed from the project.
  • Power: You’ve recently been promoted to manager and are giving feedback to one of your direct reports during a mid-year review. They start asking questions to gain more clarity on their feedback, and this starts to fluster you, as now you’re not going to have enough time to get through all the feedback you have for them during this scheduled time. Agitated, you remind them that they need to be a team player, to not be defensive when receiving feedback, and that you’ve been at the company longer, so you know what’s best. Your direct report becomes quiet and you get through the review with no more questions or comments from them.

We’ll get more into this in the Self-Care Is for UX Challenge down below.

Spiritual self-care is a reflection of how you understand ‘being human-centered’

When we survey the discussions across our industry around “being human-centered” and the approaches we implement in order to achieve this in our research and design practices, how often do we discuss how to have a human-centered approach to ourselves? A holistic human-centered approach that acknowledges spiritual needs, along with our physical, mental, and emotional needs?

How often do we discuss the immaterial or spiritual needs of our customers and users and the correlation to how we understand our immaterial and spiritual needs?

What opportunities, if any, are there to understand and design for people’s spiritual values, and what could those opportunities look like for us in our personal and professional lives?

Spiritual self-care…

“… involves connecting to something that is larger than ourselves, like worshiping in a faith community, spending time in nature, seeking guidance through prayer or meditation, practicing yoga, journaling, or spending time in personal reflection.

Tending to our spiritual self-care is less about believing in a higher power, and more about recognizing that we exist and have needs beyond the physical and material realm.”

— Dr. Robyn L. Gobin

If we aren’t able to recognize the existence of our own needs beyond the physical and material realm, how can we recognize the existence of our customers’ and users’ needs beyond the physical and material realm?

It’s time for UX professionals to start challenging preconceived notions around spirituality and recognize its place in the complexity, messiness, and beauty of what it means to be human.

Failing to do so not only perpetuates a truncated understanding of human-centeredness, but also deprioritizes the need for something that can help UX professionals understand it: spiritual self-care.


Self-care is for UX challenge

Mindful moment: “At any moment, you have a choice, that either leads you closer to your spirit or further away from it.” — Thích Nhất Hạnh

Challenge: Take some time to identify your spiritual values, what behaviors and activities support those values, and how they impact your work as a UX professional.

Download: Challenge — Identifying Your Spiritual Values (PDF)