organization and culture

What Happened When I Couldn’t Complain for 5 Days

My native language is complaining. I’m also fluent in Bitching, Moaning, Whining, and I speak a passable Kvetching.

So, when a boatload of articles about the negative impact of complaining started coming across my path this year, I tuned in. Essentially, every article was some variation on this theme: complaining keeps us in a negative mindset, feeling like victims, and trains us to be hyper alert to noticing the bad in any situation. Complaining may feel good for a moment, but long term it leaves us feeling worse.

Francoise Mathieu, author of The Compassion Fatigue Workbook, refers to bitching, moaning, and whining (the BMWs) as a “fake workout.”

In other words, complaining is the equivalent of sitting on the couch watching someone else workout on TV. At the end, you’re exactly the same as you were before you watched.

Complaining is the same – we feel like we’re doing something because we’re actively talking and discharging energy – but in the end, there are no real results. You may even feel worse.

In many workplaces (and I am mega-guilty of this) complaining becomes the primary way that we communicate with and connect to one another.

Truth is, there’s a lot to complain about in our work and the state of the world. But there’s a difference between taking action to make things better (which includes healthy coping through supportive conversations) and the false sense of action or release that we get from complaining.

One gets results, the other trains us to keep focusing on what’s broken and sucks the life out of us.

Focus on solving or coping with the problem instead.

When complaining is our primary way of experiencing and communicating about the world, it’s like our mind gets stuck tuned into one toxic radio station run by a troll.

Let’s call it WSUXS (thanks for the inspiration Anne Lamott!).

Not too long ago, I went on a 5 day silent meditation retreat. This meant no talking or direct eye contact with other people was allowed. Silent meals, silent meditation, silent everything…except inside your own head. It’s really loud in your own mind.

As if that’s not hard enough, I soon discovered that my room was directly across from the communal bathrooms and I was kept awake half the night by noise coming from across the hall.

That’s when WSUXS started broadcasting loud and clear.

“Why can’t people close the door more quietly?” “Why did I get this crappy room?” “This isn’t fair.” “Is that sewage I smell?”  “I never should have come here.” “Meditation is dumb.” “This SUCKS.”

I found myself physically aching to complain to the woman who was staying in the room next to me, knowing she was likely experiencing the same nightly torture.

For two days I had imaginary conversations in my head with my neighbor about the noise and our stinky rooms. But I wasn’t allowed to talk to her. I couldn’t even make eye contact with her as we walked into our adjoining rooms – no eye roll with a knowing head tilt towards the bathroom.

At night, I found myself having imaginary conversations with my husband and friends. They’d ask me how the retreat went and I’d tell them about the bathrooms! How gross, they’ll say. So disappointing, they’ll commiserate. Vindication!

And then something weird happened. Two days of WSUXS and I couldn’t take it anymore.

Not the bathrooms…

I couldn’t stand my own negative thoughts for one more minute.

I was boring myself. I was making myself miserable.

I didn’t want this unique experience that I was having at the retreat to be defined by my complaints.

So I decided to stop.

Thanks to my mindfulness practices, every time I became aware that WSUXS was coming on in my head, I noticed it, acknowledged it with an inner smile (Hello again you old crank!), and then I turned the volume down by placing my attention on something else, like my breath.

By day three WSUXS was just static in the background. I hardly heard it anymore.

Nothing changed externally. The bathrooms still stunk. I still had a hard time sleeping.

But internally, I was changing the way I was relating to my experience, letting go of what I couldn’t change or fix, so that I could be at peace.

I was able to do this to a large degree because I didn’t speak my complaints out loud. I did not feed the troll.

If I had been able to talk to my neighbor, we would have turned up the dial on WSUXS to 11 and blown the roof off of that place. The complaint, and the negative energy within it, would have grown stronger as we discussed it.

But since we couldn’t talk about it, we didn’t feed energy into and it faded away without sucking us dry.

What I learned in my five days of silence is that where we place our focus – our attention – is also where our energy will go. And that really matters. It shapes our entire lives. If we’re always looking for and talking about what sucks, then that will define our experience.

Our life becomes a WSUXS marathon. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t things worth getting upset about or that we should bottle up our feelings. But there’s constructive talk where you feel upset about an issue, policy, or person’s behavior and then you either take action to address that issue directly with the person who is responsible or you cope with your feelings in a healthy way. And then there’s complaining as a primary way to discharge your discomfort, but which ultimately leads to little change and a whole lot of toxicity.

This is especially true at work. We complain and feed into that negative energy, which only reinforces our focus on what’s going wrong, rather than what we will do to change it, let go of it, or what’s also going well.

The more we talk about it, the more power we give the complaint and the more we wire our brains to see everything through the lens of WSUXS.

So what can you do?

Mathieu writes in her book Compassion Fatigue Workbook, that she and a couple of friends at work deliberately decided to stop gossiping and complaining about work for 3 months. She reports that the, “…results were striking. We were not necessarily successful at changing our dysfunctional workplace, but we were no longer part of the toxicity and that significantly improved my work experience.”

Lauren Glickman wrote a great article about experimenting with going complaint-free for Animal Sheltering magazine. You can check that out here.

Turning down the dial on complaining is one way you can improve the quality of your life right now, even if things are far from ideal. As Trauma Stewardship author, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, wrote, “Nothing has to change in the world for us to transform our own life experience.”

nothing has to change

 

More on this topic:

How to Complain Less

Why Complaining is Literally Killing You

What It’s Like to Go Without Complaining for a Month

 

Finally, you have the power to make small, but meaningful changes that can improve the quality of your life, no matter what’s going on at work. Really. I know there are so many issues that need to be fixed, policies that need to be changed, people that need to behave differently, and resources that need to be increased! And yet, even if none of those external factors change, you can still transform your own life experience. My online course, Compassion in Balance, is designed to help people who work with animals improve quality of their lives and reduce the impact of compassion fatigue. Join us!

 

Intro to Debriefing: 4 Ways to Manage Compassion Fatigue

The other day I was talking with a friend who has been working in animal sheltering for nearly a decade. I wanted to know how she manages the impact of compassion fatigue on her life and she shared that her connection to others, specifically regular debriefing with her supervisor, has been a big part in staying healthy over the years.

She also mentioned helpful advice she took from Doug Fakkema, a pioneer in compassion fatigue education and humane euthanasia practices, who counsels shelter workers to never let more than 48 hours go by after performing a euthanasia, before talking to someone about what you’ve experienced.

Connection and story sharing are effective tools to help us manage compassion fatigue. As professional helpers, we’re exposed to trauma, loss, and death every single day. Too many of us are carrying around the accumulated stories and emotions of our work days, without a healthy outlet to express, process, and release what we’ve witnessed or experienced.

This is where various kinds of debriefing come in handy.

Here are four ways we can incorporate healthy sharing into our work and personal lives:

 

The Daily Debrief: The goal is immediate reflection to avoid repression of the traumatic content you’ve accumulated all day and to avoid getting stuck in rumination later.

As a pair: Ask someone at work to be your “debrief buddy.” This might be your supervisor, a supportive work friend, or, if you do shift work, the person who is clocking in, as you clock out at the end of your shift. Meet up for ten minutes at the end of work to debrief about what happened that day, as well as what you will do to try to feel ok about it.

Do this every day. Try to use Low Impact Disclosure. This means asking for consent before you share gory details.

Managers: allow them time to purge while they are still on the clock.

On your own: If you don’t have anyone to talk to about your work day, use a journal to process the events and feelings of the day. Record your feelings related to the work day before you punch out (literally or figuratively, if you work at a home-based rescue) or as soon as you get home.

Remember that we may not be able to talk to our friends and family about what we experience at work without traumatizing them as well. So having a work buddy or a journal to do a daily debrief with is a great way to support yourself.

 

The Weekly Debrief: The goal is regular reflection and processing of emotionally challenging experiences you’ve experienced throughout the week and to consider any next steps that may be needed for healthy coping.

As a group: Once a week staff should be given the opportunity to get together for a group debrief with a skilled facilitator. This allows staff to reflect on what they’ve experienced in the course of caring for animals and clients.

Kathleen Ayl, author of When Helping Hurts, recommends that the “facilitator help participants focus on their emotional responses to any losses or traumatic experiences that have occurred, the grief they may be experiencing, and the relationships that they have shared with other during these experiences.”

She goes on to recommend that attendees begin by describing their relationship to the animal and then the particular circumstances at the time of loss or trauma. The facilitator should guide the process by asking open ended questions such as:

  • What was the most difficult part of taking care of this patient?
  • What was the most satisfying part?
  • What have your experiences been like since the trauma or loss occurred?
  • What did you learn from working with this pet?

The facilitator is there to help normalize their feelings, discusses coping techniques, and can share resources and referral to further help, if needed.

Patricia Smith of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project recommends that we select a facilitator who has both education and experience in managing a group. Managing traumatized/compassion fatigued people can be a challenge. A good facilitator will be sure everyone knows the rules, everyone has a voice, and everyone is heard.

As a pair: If a group isn’t possible or is not ideal, supervisors or other skilled staff members should schedule a weekly debrief session with each staff member where similar questions as above are addressed.

In the book Trauma Stewardship, Deadria Boyland, manager of a domestic violence agency, shared this about her role as a supervisor, “I make myself available…but they also know I’m going to hold them accountable. I’m going to say to them, ‘This is what I notice; let me know what’s going on so I can help you. It’s not going to get better unless we talk about it. I can’t fix it, only you can fix it, but I can support you.’…then I can help them navigate a plan that works…my thought is that if they don’t have a plan on how to deal with their trauma, they can’t do their work.”

If you’re not sure how to conduct debriefings for your staff, a Veterinary Social Worker may be able to help you gain competence in this area or can be hired to work with your staff directly. These 20-30 minute sessions (longer, if needed) should be confidential and staff should feel safe sharing with you without fear of penalty.

friends sharing

 

The Monthly Debrief: The goal is reflection and processing of emotionally challenging experiences you’ve experienced throughout the month and to build a network of support and accountability.

As a group: Form a support group that meets monthly. You can do this online with peers in your field or at work with coworkers. Consider bringing in a counselor to facilitate one or more sessions to help you get started. Your health insurance or Employee Assistance Program may be able to help arrange for a counselor to facilitate the groups at low or no charge or you may be able to find a mental health professional who will donate or discount their services.

Groups like this are not therapy, so you can run them with peers only, but if possible, see if you can work with a skilled facilitator who understands grief, trauma, and the challenges of the job to help get the group going.

The idea is to connect with peers who can bear witness and help you process both the details, but even more importantly, your feelings about your work. Knowing that you have a monthly meeting to connect with others and share your stories on regular basis can be a tremendous relief. In addition this type of group offers social support and can help us stay accountable to ourselves as we work to make positive changes.

Here’s some advice on creating a peer support group.

As a pair: Eric Gentry, PhD of Compassion Unlimited recommends writing down the full “narrative” of what you’ve experienced in the past few weeks or days, then meeting with a peer on regular basis so that you can share this narrative with them. For 20 minutes or so, you share what happened and how you feel, while they listen. Then it’s their turn to share their narrative with you, so that it’s a mutual support system. If you wish to get advice after you have shared, you can ask for it, but the job of the listener is just that: to listen. They can also help us stay accountable.

This is a more formal, longer “buddy session” than the quick daily debrief. Gentry recommends having a few people that you can do this with, so that if one person is not available to listen, then you have other options. He describes this process of sharing narratives as if we are a locomotive, towing many train cars behind us. As we tell our stories, we “unhook” the long line of train cars behind us and lighten our loads. In other words, we let go!

 

Critical Incident Debrief (as needed): The goal is provide an immediate framework for the people involved in a traumatic incident to talk about what they experienced or witnessed, decide the next steps, and then receive referrals for additional support as needed.

This is a group process immediately after a major crisis. A “critical incident” is any event that has significant emotional power to overwhelm our usual coping methods. These include a sudden death, serious injury, a physical or psychological threat to the safety or well-being of an individual or community. An example of this might be an Animal Control Officer being shot in the field or a shelter volunteer being seriously attacked by a dog in the kennels.

A critical incident can involve any situation or events that causes a distressing, dramatic or profound change or disruption in our physical (physiological) or psychological functioning. There are unusually strong emotions attached to the event which have the potential to interfere with our ability to function either at the crisis scene or away from it. Think: PTSD.

When something this traumatic occurs, we may need outside help with Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD). CISD is a formalized, structured method where the group reviews the stressful experience. CISD was developed to assist first responders, such as fire and police personnel, and is never intended as a substitute for therapy.

It was designed to be delivered in a group format and while it never hurts to have a crisis management or mental health professional run these groups, it is possible for a skilled layperson to facilitate since the goal is not to open up and explore the trauma, as you would in therapy, but instead to provide a framework for the people involved to talk about what they experienced or witnessed, decide the next steps, and then receive referrals for additional support as needed. This allow then to process and release some of what they have absorbed in the traumatic incident, rather than allowing it to build up and potentially lead to something more serious.

Here are two resources that explain how this process takes places, what the ground rules are, which questions to ask, etc.

Practical Suggestions for Crisis Debriefing for Schools

Critical Incident Debriefing

 

A good question to ask yourself and your leadership team before a crisis takes place:

How do we know when we need a professional team from outside our organization to help us through at traumatic situation?

 

Let’s recap. Here’s how you might use these debriefings:

At the end of each day, talk with a buddy or write in your journal for 10 minutes. Once a week, get together with your staff to talk about cases that have had an impact on them. Once a month, write out a complete narrative of what you’ve experienced, how compassion fatigue may be impacting you, and how you feel, then share it with a buddy. Or get together with your peers for a support group. “Unhook your train cars.” Finally, have a plan for when a crisis erupts. Consider how your organization will debrief if there is a critical incident.

It would be great if you could do all of these things, but doing just one of them on regular basis will help, so pick one and get started!

Remember you don’t have to do this on your own. Talking with a mental health professional in on-on-one counseling is an excellent way to build your support system. And don’t hesitate to look to the professionals – such as veterinary social workers – to help your organization facilitate regular debriefings.

Sharing our stories and processing our experiences is an important part of reducing and managing compassion fatigue and trauma. By creating supportive, safe connections that enable us to share regularly, we become more resilient to the challenges of the work that we do.

 

Download the PDF of this blog: Introduction to Debriefing

 

you got this,

7 Ways We Can Support Mental Health in the Animal Welfare Community

“Look how involved we all are just under the surface, and let’s try to help each other.” 

– Jennifer Michael Hecht

 

Doing animal welfare work is intense emotional labor. It takes a toll on every single one of us working to meet the needs of animals and people who are suffering, traumatized, and in need of our ongoing compassionate care.

We can and must take daily actions to care for ourselves as we engage in this challenging work. Only we can take care of ourselves. No one else can do that for us.

But we also need each other. We need the support and understanding that only people who do this unique work can offer one another. We can’t thrive in isolation. Connection is critical to our health.

The quality of that connection matters. For example, research reveals that having coworkers who are supportive and collaborative can increase our compassion satisfaction levels, which helps to lower compassion fatigue.

The flip side of that coin is to acknowledge that we are also capable of, and often do, cause each other as much pain as the work itself does.

Rather than feed into an environment of horizontal violence, we can instead choose to create a culture that supports well-being and where our values of compassion towards animals extends to the human animals around us as well. Even when we disagree with each other, we can choose to reduce the amount of harm we inflict on ourselves and those around us.

Here are just a few ideas for supporting mental health in our community:

1. Stop bullying. The hateful comments attacking individuals and organizations that are being posted on Facebook and beyond aren’t benign or helpful. They are causing extreme suffering in our community.

Our actions can create painful conditions for others which may have a serious impact on their mental health. Let me put it this way: Suicide is often the result of multiple risk factors and while there is no particular set risk factors that accurately predicts imminent danger of suicide, there are a number of stressful situations or events that may increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt or death, such as: a previous suicide attempt, extreme loss, harassment, an active suicide cluster in a community, mental illness, bullying, isolation, and severe stress.

While we can’t control if someone has a mental illness, we can control our own actions and make the choice not to bully or harass others, no matter how much we disagree with them.

Before you post a nasty comment do this: Pause. Take a deep breath. Direct your awareness inward. What are you feeling right now? Pain? Sadness? Anger? Hopelessness? When we lash out it’s often an attempt to numb and avoid our own difficult emotions. What kind of pain is the bullying and trolling temporarily soothing for you?

Feel your emotions instead. Be sad. Be angry. Have compassion for your own suffering. You will do less harm to yourself and others if you process your emotions. Then use your energy to make concrete positive changes for animals in your corner of the world.

 

2. Organize peer support groups. We need to talk about what we experience at work on a regular basis, so that we can process and let go of what we see and do in a healthy and constructive way. We understand each other’s trauma and sorrow. Friends, family, and others may be traumatized or have a hard time understanding our work. We can’t expect them to be the only source of support for us or be able to listen to our stories each day.

Form a support group that meets weekly or monthly. You can do it online with peers in your field or at work (managers, make sure there is time for this). Bring in a counselor to facilitate one or more sessions to help you get started. Connect with professionals, mentors, managers, and peers who can bear witness and help you process both the details, but even more importantly, your feelings about your work.

Learn four different ways to debrief, including what managers need to know about having a critical incident debriefing plan.

Here’s some advice on creating a peer support group.

Also of note: In Defense of Animals has a free support hotline for animal rights activists.

 

animal welfare mental health

 

3. Help create healthy boundaries. Can’t stop thinking about work even when you’re off the clock? We can help ourselves and others by creating a ritual to download and decompress before we leave work.

Here’s one way to do that: Jackie Burke, clinical director of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia recommends meeting with your boss, a supportive work peer who is still on the clock, or a notebook to talk or write about the upsetting things that happened that day and what you will do to try to feel ok about it, before you go home.

Do this every day. Record your feelings related to the work day before you punch out (literally or figuratively, if you work at a home-based rescue). The goal is immediate reflection to avoid repression of the traumatic content you’ve accumulated all day and to avoid getting stuck in rumination later.

 

4. Be #StigmaFree. Help break down the misinformation and stigma around mental illness and seeking mental health help. Mental illnesses, such as depression and PTSD, are not the result of personal weakness.

1 in 5 adults in America lives with a mental health condition and suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. So many of us are suffering. No one should feel alone, shamed, or stigmatized.

Mental health, just like physical health, exists on a continuum. At one time or another, due to many factors, all of us will need a doctor’s help to maintain or treat our physical body. It’s the same with our mental health! Many of us would benefit from having some outside help from a professional to support our emotional well-being. There’s no shame in that, just like there’s no shame in having strep throat and seeing your physician for treatment.

We can break down stigmas by sharing our own experiences and resources. If you have a great therapist that understands your work with animals, let your coworkers and friends know that you are receiving help in this way and share your counselor’s number. Make sure your staff knows about their mental health benefits and if they don’t have any, see what you can do to fix that. Let those around you know that you understand what they’re going through, that they’re not alone, and that help is available.

Learn how to be a light in the darkness.

 

5. Get proactive about your own mental health. This work is so tough. Although compassion fatigue is a normal consequence of the work we do – it is not a mental illness – many of us would benefit from some extra support at one time or another.

Do some research and get help now, before you are in crisis. It’s smart and courageous to get yourself into therapy or reach out to a pastor or counselor while you are still pretty much OK. You can start by investigating what your insurance does or doesn’t cover and researching therapists in your area that have experience with secondary traumatic stress or the human-animal bond.

Set yourself up with support today, which will not only help you stay well, but if the poop does hit the fan in the future, you’ll already have someone competent in your corner. Be aware that you may not find the right therapist the first go around. It’s a relationship and you may need to meet a few people before you find the right match for yourself.

Get your mental health plan in place now.

Here are some resources for getting help:

Look up therapists on PsychologyToday.com or GoodTherapy.org

A Beginner’s Guide to Therapy

 

6. Create a martyr-free zone. Suffering is not a competitive sport. Animal welfare doesn’t need any more self-sacrificing heroes. The people I admire most are the ones who recognize their limits and commit to taking care of themselves, so that they can perform ethical, effective work for the long haul.

Instead of bragging about not sleeping or being too busy to care for ourselves, let’s encourage each other and our staff to take bathroom and lunch breaks, vacations, and make regular visits to the doctor or the gym. No guilt trips or unnecessary interruptions when others are off the clock or need to say “no.” We can can celebrate limits, rest, and renewal, knowing that this investment in ourselves is what allows us to show up and do great work for many years to come.

 

Let’s put an end to praising and promoting poor quality of life. We can be well and do good. In fact, we must do both. We’ll save more lives (including our own) that way…

 

7. Increase understanding of suicide prevention. Many people are uncomfortable with the topic of suicide. But too many of us are taking our own lives, so we must talk about it openly. If it’s left hidden in secrecy, then we can’t implement effective prevention. Let’s commit to dispelling the myths around suicide, understanding the risk factors, and increasing our competency in helping to prevent suicides.

Get familiar with the warning signs, know how to take action, and always remember that connection – knowing that someone out there sees and cares about us – makes a major difference.

Going back to #1: your actions matter. Suicide prevention is up to all of us.

Resources for prevention training:

QPR Institute

A state by state guide to suicide prevention trainings and resources

A comprehensive list of gaterkeeper programs

Important numbers to know if you or someone you know is having suicidal ideations:

911: call if an attempt has been made, a weapon is present, and/or the person is out of control.

800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 24-7 help that’s anonymous, connecting you to local resources that can help if you or someone you know is in crisis.

State crisis hotlines: Research your local hotline numbers. For example, there is Maine Crisis Hotline answered 24-7 with crisis workers who are mobile and can go to any site that is safe.

 

These are all steps that we can take to increase positive conditions and support mental health in our community.

We all need to make an effort to shift to a more healthy and positive workplace culture, which includes characteristics such as: providing support for one another, offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling, avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes, and treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.

Let’s make a commitment to one another to help create a culture, within the larger animal welfare community and in our daily work, that promotes health, wellness, and respect for each other. Because we’re all in this together.

What else can we do? Tell me in the comments.

in gratitude for your service,