self care

Grief, Grad School, and What I Ate

…By choosing food as your drug—sugar highs, or the deep, soporific calm of carbs—you can still make the packed lunches, do the school run, look after the baby, stop in on your parents and then stay up all night with an ill 5-year-old—something that is not an option if you’re regularly climbing into the cupboard under the stairs and knocking back quarts of scotch.

Overeating is the addiction of choice of ‘carers,’ and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It’s a way of screwing yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to. Fat people aren’t indulging in the ‘luxury’ of their addiction, making them useless, chaotic or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone. And that is why it’s so often a woman’s addiction of choice.

I sometimes wonder if the only way we’ll ever get around to properly considering overeating is if it does come to take on the same perverse, rock ‘n’ roll cool of other addictions. Perhaps it’s time for women to finally stop being secretive about their vices and instead start treating them like all other addicts treat their habits. Coming into the office looking frazzled, sighing, ‘Man, I was on the pot roast last night like you wouldn’t believe. I had, like, POTATOES in my EYEBROWS by 10 p.m.’.

– Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman, excerpt from I Know Why the Fat Lady Sings

 

grief and ice cream

 

I gained about 20 pounds this winter.

My cat and my dog died just a few weeks apart from one another.

I was already pretty exhausted from pushing through my final semesters of grad school, including grinding out my capstone (on resilience building for caregivers – oh, the irony), while working and teaching.

Then I fell into an ocean of grief, bringing a cruise ship full of vegan Ben & Jerry’s and ALL THE CARBS with me. 

If you were working with me over the winter, spring, and summer, you probably didn’t notice I was snorkling through pint after pint of PB & Cookies, because, as Moran so astutely points out, you can be fully functional and overeating.

I did good work, I got straight As, I walked the dogs.

In August, I graduated from school. I was able to really rest for the first time in a very long time. The grief began to lift and I started taking better care of myself in all ways, including physically.

Last week I took part in a online photography experience with a group of brave, creative women. Among other things, we dared to share our bodies as they are, so we could reclaim our wrinkles and rolls. It was life-shifting. I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise.

Today I’m feeling good AND I have a big belly.

I’ve been trying to be really kind to this part of my body because it’s a tangible expression of how sad I’ve been and how much I love the family members that I lost this year.

My fat is a physical manifestation of my grief.

I talk to my sad belly sometimes. I tell it I don’t blame it for being here. I don’t hate it or want to punish it away. This is a new approach for me. I usually just beat myself up.

I’m not doing that right now, because:

  1. I’m just glad I made it through a really hard time. If I’m a little fatter for it, oh well.
  2. I’m committed to talking to myself with more kindness. I don’t want to be mean to myself anymore.

But I do want to feel better, stronger, more flexible. And for that reason, sad belly and I are, with deep affection, saying a long, slow goodbye to each other this winter. We’re working out and taking long walks and eating just a little ice cream.

This is what I know about myself: eating is my drug of choice when I am depleted, overwhelmed, and stressed. It’s how I numb out and self-medicate.

As I fill my life back up with fun, friendship, art, and relaxation it’s easier for me to unhook from the freezer aisle.

My personal work is to more consistently nourish myself in ways that are authentically sustaining during these times of intense stress and heartache.

My professional work is helping others do the same, so it always feels a little dicey sharing how I still struggle.

But that’s really the point, isn’t it?

We can know all the things and yet, we’re human. So we’re going to stumble (and if you’re like me, you fall face first into a slab of cake from Silly’s), but we can still reach out to help one another.

Each year that I’m lucky enough to be alive I understand myself better. I meet myself with more kindness and skillful care. It’s a practice.

Whatever we’re struggling with, all we can do is practice as we go.

Maybe for the first time, I feel really okay with who I am and how I make my way through the world. I am doing the best I can, sad belly and all. That’s good enough for me.

 

Friends, tell me: do you have mashed potatoes in your eyebrows too? 

If you do, here is resource that might support you on your journey:

TEND: A Chat with Dr. Deb Thompson from Your Nourished Life – This recorded webinar is specifically geared towards helping professionals (a whole lot of us are overeating). It’s also where I got this quote from and there are worksheets.

with love,

Your Heart is Your Powerhouse

And I bet it’s working overtime these days. So many compassionate people I know, who already work so hard as helping professionals, have recently become even more engaged in service and activism work in a multitude of efforts to protect the people, animals, and environment we hold dear.

Self-care is more important than ever. Activism, just like animal welfare and care work, is a long game. If you want to keep going, you have to take care of your tools, starting with your heart.

Your heart is a muscle. It’s about the size of your two fists

It beats approximately 100,000 times in one day and about 35 million times in a year. Even at rest, the muscles of your heart are working hard – twice as hard as your leg muscles when you’re sprinting to the ice cream truck. You are so strong!

Figuratively speaking, your heart is just as powerful as your source of empathy, kindness, and compassion. Your role as a caregiver and healer is work of the heart – meaningful, connected, sensitive, and life-affirming. You are so loving!

All of this is to say, your heart is magnificent and essential. Please don’t forget to take care of your powerhouse, as you take care of the world.

Go to the doctor. I know you go to the veterinarian’s office every other day (I see you there!), but now it’s time for your annual physical exam. And while you’re at it, go to the dentist, since gum disease and heart disease are connected. Medical care is self-care.

Move your body. Exercise helps cuts your risk of heart disease, but it also helps you shake off the stress that builds up all day at work. I recently stumbled on this guy and I can’t stop laugh-dancing. That’s a thing, right? I dare you to do this with your co-workers the next time you feel like pulling your hair out.

Ground your work in something bigger than your anger. That’s a complicated one. I know. John Lewis helps me understand this idea of love in action better. And Desiree Adaway reminds me that if, “…we ground our work in joy, support, community, and security we will win.”

Sync your values. I bet most of you would consider compassion to be one of your core values. Many of you work in “humane” societies. But really: how humanely are you treating yourself? How much of that compassionate care are you offering yourself? You deserve and need just as much, if not more, love and care as you give to others.

Here’s some help in that area:

Self Care Flow Chart: for when you don’t know what to do, but you know you need to do something.

Finding Steady Ground: 7 behaviors to strengthen ourselves, so we can keep taking more and more powerful and strategic actions in the world, plus How to Get Out of a Cycle of Outrage.

The Modern Violence of Overwork: a short passage from Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk, and a powerful question from Parker Palmer, to read again and again.

This is What I Believe: Do no harm, take no shit, be real, don’t take it personally, and more brilliant inspiration.

with love,

2017 Word of the Year: Joyful Responsibility

In 2015, I chose: Integrate

In 2016, it was: Full

And in 2017, I’m going with: Joyful Responsibility

 

Technically, that’s two words. I tried to find just one word that sums up the idea of stewardship and service fueled by the joy and satisfaction of choosing to give, to connect, do meaningful work, and care for myself and the world…but no dice.

I’ve heard that the  activist Julia Butterfly-Hill coined the phrase Joyful Responsibility about our commitment to being stewards of the earth and it’s in that spirit that I’m choosing this little phrase to guide me through 2017. I want to feel more joy when I engage in my responsibilities at home, my work, and the world.

The two words – joyful and responsibility – don’t go together easily in my mind. There is so much to be done, both as an interconnected caretaker of this world and as the sole navigator of my one life. It’s easy for me to feel dragged down, overwhelmed, and even defeated by responsibilities.

Sometimes I’m immobilized by the sheer scope of it all and unable to do much of anything except watch an entire season of Insecure while petting my dogs’ ears.

But more often than not, when the world is spinning, I feel much better when I take action. The more I do, the better I feel.

“Action absorbs anxiety.”  – Angeles Arrien

 

The dark side of action, for me at least, is burnout or compassion fatigue.

I’ll start out with good intentions and lots of energy. I have a lot of fun! And then a few months or years down the road, I’ll find myself exhausted and resentful, possibly wearing jeans with the inner thighs rubbed clean apart and a sweatshirt with pizza sauce on it. And I’ll see my responsibilities through a lens clouded by guilt, anger, obligation, and negativity.

This is a pattern I’ve lived over and over again in my life. Each year I get better and better about changing this – it’s a process of setting limits and getting to know and attend to my own needs. But with so much work to do in 2017, I want to be intentional about how I engage going forward. Hence: Joyful Responsibility.

I’ve spent some time thinking about how I want to feel while I attend to the responsibilities of my home, community, and country in this coming year(s):

How will I keep my hope and compassion alive, even when faced with cruelty and darkness? How will I give my time and energy in a way that helps others, without causing harm to myself? How will I stay grounded in equanimity – the wisdom to understand and accept that many things might not turn out the way I want them to – and keep doing the work, regardless of the outcome?

How will I focus less on the end results and more on the process? How will I shift my attention and energy away from relentlessly working towards a (mythical) finish line and more on the quality of my daily experiences of being a caretaker of my life and corner of the planet? 

I’m committed to considering these questions over and over in 2017, to keep myself connected to my intention of experiencing more Joyful Responsibility.

Doing this is a way to keep myself clear on this truth: There will never be (and never was) a time when there are no more problems, injustices, cruelty, crimes, or heartaches that need to be fixed, attended to, fought, understood, or accepted.

I can push against this truth and be miserable as I try to get to the “end” of the hard stuff or I can accept that the responsibilities are always ongoing and change my perspective, so I can enjoy and pace myself more along the way.

This is not my unique struggle. Being good stewards of our world and of ourselves, especially in difficult times, is the complicated work of being a human. Our responsibilities as caretakers aren’t something we’ll ever permanently get around.

 

So, the main question I’m going to ask myself throughout in 2017 is, “How will I engage with my responsibilities in ways that I feel more freedom, satisfaction, and joy?”

 

 

A few things I’m leaving behind in 2016 to create space for Joyful Responsibility:

Confusing martyrdom with compassion

Wanting to have all the answers

Thinking I’m responsible for everything

Resentment

All or nothing thinking

Cynicism as a world view

Productivity as a way to earn my place on the planet

Busyness as a measure of my value

Exhaustion as a badge of honor

Dieting. Really. I’m done.

Feeling like I’m not enough

Feeling like I’m too much

Not honoring my boundaries to gain the approval of others

Complaining (less at least!)

Apologizing for who I am

 

A few things I’m welcoming in 2017 to create the conditions for more Joyful Responsibility:

Enjoying being of service, because I do enjoy it!

Accepting and asking for help

Not knowing the answers

Saying no, honoring boundaries, respecting my limits

Hopefulness as a world view

Savoring small pleasures

Engaging in meaningful action, regardless of outcome

Laughter with others while we do hard things

Allowing myself to do something small, instead of nothing or everything

Pausing. Just pausing as much as possible – in speech, in action, for hugs, to take it all in – pausing in every way

Not taking other people’s behavior personally

Letting go of what I can’t control (over and over and over again)

Creating new connections with others who inspire me through their compassionate badassery

Re-investing in old friendships

Feeling good enough

Mindful eating (less sauce on my hoodie, more delight in my mouth)

Self-care, early and often, duh

Celebrating anniversaries, graduations, birthdays

Acknowledging my achievements and hard work instead of brushing it off

Cultivating awareness and gratitude of what I am doing and what I have in the present moment, so that I don’t miss out on appreciating my own life and the opportunities I have to help and be helped.

 

What about you? Do you have a word for 2017? What does Joyful Responsibility mean to you? What do you want to leave behind or welcome this year?

 

p.s. Want to learn more about Joyful Responsibility? I found this lovely sermon from the UU church in Portland, ME about this very topic. It spoke right to me.

 

Happy New Year Friends!

Are You Thinking About Suicide? And Other Questions We’re Afraid To Ask

If so, call: 1-800-273-TALK

 
Please make the call.

Thoughts of suicide are often associated with a treatable mental disorder. These thoughts are common (you’re far, far from being alone) and do not have to be acted on. If you call the crisis hotline number above, you’ll speak with a trained counselor who can help connect you to local resources and professionals who want to help. It’s free, 24/7, and confidential. Please call. There’s only one of you in this world and we want you to stick around.

Talking about suicide can be hard. I’m wondering what all of you are feeling right now, as you read this, and it makes my chest tight. So many of us are suffering.

Let me ask you all something: How prepared are you to offer help to someone in emotional distress?

I think it’s safe to assume that many of us feel less than competent in this area. How often does that stop us from reaching out when someone needs us?

On the flip side, I’m totally incompetent when it comes to helping people with physical medical problems, but if I saw someone on the street having a heart attack or a friend accidentally cut themselves, I would still offer assistance even though I really wasn’t sure what to do.

I bet a lot of you are the same. Even if we couldn’t remember how to do CPR or how to dress a wound, most of us would still reach out to someone having a physical medical emergency. We might offer a reassuring word, bust out the first aid kit, or call 911.

But what about when our friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers are suffering from a mental health emergency or are in emotional distress? A lot of us just keep our heads down. Not because we’re bad people, but because we don’t understand mental health issues. We don’t know what to do. We might worry that we’ll make things worse than they already are.

Luckily, there’s something we can do about this. This winter I earned my certificate in Mental Health First Aid through NAMI Maine. The full day training, developed by the National Council for Behavioral Health is offered internationally and helps everyday people learn how to effectively respond to individuals who are in psychological distress.

This is a training we should all take, no matter what we do for a living.

Consider this:

  • One in five Americans experience a mental disorder in any one year.
  • More than half of all adults in America will experience a mental disorder in their lifetime.

It’s highly likely that we will encounter someone (ourselves included) in need of mental health help at some point. So why not ditch the shame, clear up the confusion, and shed the stigma that surrounds mental health? Let’s get informed. We can learn the risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns, strategies for how to help someone in both crisis and non-crisis situations, and where to turn for help.

Working in a helping profession requires intense emotional labor. All of us are impacted, in varying degrees, by the stress, trauma, and suffering we bear witness to every day. Sometimes it’s really serious:

1 in 6 veterinary professionals have considered suicide.

If you suspect someone may be at risk for suicide, it’s important to ask directly about suicidal thoughts.

DON’T avoid using the word “suicide.” You’re not planting the idea in their mind if you do.
DO ask the question without dread and without expressing a negative judgement.
DO be direct:

Are you having thoughts of suicide?
Are you thinking about killing yourself?

Letting people know that you care and want to help can make a major difference. Be sure to have information and resources available if they need assistance.

In the First Aid course, we learned a handy acronym to help guide us through the process of reaching out to anyone in distress (which includes panic attacks, addiction, depression, and self harm):

mental health action plan

In order to move towards the last 3 steps, we need to get educated. Here are some ways to learn more right now:

Learn the signs, what you can do to help, and more myths about suicide.

More on suicide prevention here.

Always have this number nearby: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

You can also watch the free VetGirl webinar: Suicide in Veterinary Medicine

I highly recommend this Mental Health First Aid training for all of us, but especially for people in management and leadership roles. Your staff and the public you work with (who are also in distress some of the time) need you to know this kind of basic first aid for a variety of common mental health problems.

If you would like to get trained in Mental Heath First Aid, please visit this page.

 

New Session of Compassion in Balance Starts June 6th!

CiB, my compassion fatigue course for people who work with animals, begins on June 6th, 2016!

 

I hope you’ll join us this summer as we tackle compassion fatigue in animal welfare work.

But first let’s be honest: there is no magic pill or quick fix for compassion fatigue. There are, however, a number of strategies, tools, resources, and new ways of thinking about the work that will help you transform how compassion fatigue is impacting your life.

You can learn how to take care of yourself, while you care for the world.

 

compassion in balance online class photo

 

 

Students from my past classes have shared that the course helped them to feel empowered to set limits, better prioritize their tasks, let go of work at the end of a shift, make more time for themselves and their personal lives, become more aware of their own emotions, mental states, and stress triggers, create healthier boundaries for themselves at work and at home, and much more.

Heather, a volunteer with a rescue, recently wrote to tell me how CiB has changed her life:

“The class helped so much! I learned so many simple, helpful things and decided to form small new habits that have ended up making a huge impact on my mental state. Now I take breaks to breathe, eat, walk and play with my dogs. No matter what is going on, I take breaks now. And I am learning to say NO without feeling terrible (sometimes I say “no” and I feel joy welling up as I say it!) and I feel proud of myself afterward. I’ve also stopped working until 3am because I need boundaries and sleep! These are just a handful of the ways the class has helped me. There are many more!”

 

And guess what? Heather didn’t even finish the whole class! She got that out of doing about half of the course modules. Pretty neat, huh?

nothing has to change

 

Metis, founder and volunteer of a 501c3 animal welfare non-profit had this to say about her experience with CiB this past fall:

“Compassion in Balance is the first compassion fatigue class I really “got”. I have taken workshops and seminars about the topic before, but Jessica’s experience in animal welfare and her easy going, humorous writing style really helped me understand compassion fatigue and how to address it in my life.

I suggest this course to anyone and everyone in a caring profession who wants to sustain a long and healthy career. Compassion fatigue might not seem like an issue to you yet – if not, consider the class preventative. If your feeling burned out, spend some time learning coping skills and strategies that will help you learn how to be happy while doing the work you love.”

If that sounds good to you, then I hope you’ll give yourself this class as a gift. Think of CiB as an investment in yourself.  You can enroll here. 

I know how busy and tired you are. This summer may not be the perfect time to add something else to your schedule, but let’s be honest: Nothing will change unless you change it.

You don’t have to be a victim to the circumstances you find yourself in at work. You can make simple, yet powerful changes in your life that will allow you to be well, while you do good in the world. Compassion in Balance can help you do that.

You can read more about the class and what other students had to say about it over here. 

I hope you’ll join us this summer!

with love,

The Good Enough Club

A few of the alums from my Compassion in Balance course have been doing a 30 Days of Yoga practice together this past month. Since New Year’s Day, we’ve been following a series of free yoga videos and checking in online every day to help each other stay accountable to our commitment to take care of ourselves in 2016.

External accountability is the bees knees.

One of the booby-traps that we’re being mindful of as we practice is all or nothing thinking.

It’s been really interesting to see how we mess with ourselves. Some of us miss a few days in a row and think we can’t show up again. Some of us feel weird about doing the daily practices out of order or one day behind everyone else. Others have trouble when they need to adjust their schedule.

We all want everything to be perfectly on point, so when it doesn’t go that way (spoiler: it never does), we start thinking we should just stop. Try again some other day when that stuff won’t happen.

A lot of us struggle with this common mind trap in our work and personal lives. We absolutely do this in our work as helping professionals. We set very high, unrealistic standards that we can save them all, then we feel like constant failures that we only saved some. All of our good work gets negated by not being able to get that impossibly perfect score.

The sense of never being good enough, of always falling short of your goals, is so defeating and depressing. It’s a fast-track to Burnoutville.

good enough


But just for now, let’s take a look at how it messes with our self-care in particular, because that’s one way we can start to navigate this mind trap more skillfully. With practice we can take it into all aspects of our lives.

It goes something like this:

I missed 2 days/weeks/months of yoga class because things got crazy and now I’m so far behind, it’s all ruined. I blew it. Maybe I’ll try again some other time when life won’t get in the way.

I was going to do yoga/run/eat only three cookies a day/go to bed earlier, but now is such a bad time! I’ll wait until work isn’t so busy to start my new routine and then I’ll be able to do it right.

I tried to do an hour yoga class/run 5 miles/write a book/swim 30 laps/eat anything but cookies, but I failed. I can never do those things. I suck at self-care.

You see the problem with this way of thinking right?

First, we’re tricking ourselves into thinking there will be this magical time when our to-do list is 100% done (second spoiler alert: that magical time never happens).

Then we fool ourselves into thinking that as soon as that happens, we’ll have tons of free time and the ability to finally exercise/eat/meditate/sleep perfectly.

Last, we set the bar super high for ourselves which almost always guarantees that we’ll fail. Then we think: why even bother?

This all or nothing thinking winds up being yet another excuse for not taking care of ourselves. Either we do it all perfectly (which is totally subjective, by the way) or we don’t do it at all.

Our little yoga group is pushing back on this defeating, distorted thought pattern. If you missed a day or three of yoga. No problem. Come on back. If you didn’t start on January 1st with the rest of us, make today your Day One. If you can’t do the whole practice yet, lower the bar and do what you are able to do now.

As our BFF Voltaire would say: We are not allowing perfect to be the enemy of the good. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Instead we’ve become what I’m affectionately calling The Good Enough Club.

Here are our club rules when it comes to self-care:

  • We believe doing something is better than nothing (unless that nothing is meditating in which case, rock on with your being-not-doing self).
  • A slip up or a lapse isn’t a failure. In fact, there are no “failures” – big or small – that will keep us from showing up to try again.
  • Instead of harsh criticism and judgement, we offer ourselves self-compassion and kindness.
  • Instead of rigidity and perfectionism, we stay flexible to accommodate the wackiness that is life.
  • We commit to taking care of ourselves, even though we can’t do it perfectly.

 

You can join The Good Enough Club too! To be a card carrying member (there are no cards…yet) all you have to do is keep trying despite hitting bumps in the road, practice being kind and forgiving to yourself when things don’t unfold perfectly, and remain aware of how your thoughts are influencing your actions.

Basically, just keep on truckin’ baby.

Here’s something to think on (or take 10 to write about it, if you’re inclined to journal your way to new insights):

Has all or nothing aka black and white thinking caused you stress in your personal life? At work? Maybe even with your pets (like your DINOS)? How so? What will you do in 2016 to lessen that stress?

p.s. Read this if you’d like to understand the difference between perfectionism and healthy striving, plus tips for coping with this particular mind trap.

 

By the way, this blog was originally shared in my e-letter that I sent out a month ago. If you’d like to get this sort of stuff, plus other tidbits, right in your Inbox, you can sign up for my monthly-ish newsletters here.

See you in our Good Enough Clubhouse!

The Dark Side of Empathy: When Too Much Turns Into None

“I had never been told that empathy is a finite resource. You can run out. As a normal, psychological response, you cannot give of yourself again and again and again without replenishing.”

Emmett Fitzgerald

We need to have a talk about empathy. People who work in helping professions tend to have big old hearts. We’re a naturally sensitive and empathetic bunch. Our ability to feel what another being is feeling is part of what drew us to the work we do.

It makes us great at our jobs, but empathetic engagement is also what contributes to compassion fatigue. In a nutshell:

Excessive empathy can lead to a lack of empathy. Too much can turn into not enough.

Kristin Neff, PhD helps explain why: “Empathy can be defined as emotional resonance — feeling what others are feeling. Our brains actually have specialized mirror neurons designed for this purpose. Mirror neurons evolved to help us quickly know if someone is friend or foe by registering their feelings such as anger or friendliness in our own bodies…The problem for caregivers is that when we’re in the presence of suffering, we feel it in our own bodies.”

With our mirror neurons firing all day long – feeling and absorbing the stress, fear, and sadness of the animals and people around us –  we can start to feel flooded and overwhelmed. It may seem as if we’re soaking in suffering.

Here’s the thing: the emotions of others are contagious. If our empathetic “immune system” isn’t robust, then the boundaries between ourselves and those we serve may become very blurry. And at some point, we may not be able to feel the difference between what someone else is experiencing and what is happening in our own bodies. We feel it all.

Where do we end and where does the other being begin?

This boundary can be especially hard to find for those of us that work with populations who are defenseless: children, animals, the environment. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky writes in Trauma Stewardship, “When we speak for animals or creatures or environments that are unable to speak for themselves, we may gradually lose the ability to distinguish their voices from our own. If we don’t pay careful attention, our feelings of identification and responsibility may increase to the point that we experience their anguish in a debilitating way. In the long run, this can diminish our ability to be effective advocates.”

If we are excessively empathetic, it’ll feel like out system is being totally overwhelmed by what’s happening around us. There were many days at the animal shelter where I felt like a walking open wound.

To protect ourselves, many of us start pushing our feelings away, shutting down, and numbing out. It feels like the only way to survive.

Gradually we may discover we’ve lost the ability to empathize with others (both at work and in our personal lives). This lack of empathy is actually a very common symptom of compassion fatigue in experienced caregivers.

run out of empathy

 

As we hit the limits of our empathy, without finding a way to recharge and care for ourselves, we become desensitized. We minimize the pain and suffering of others. We stop listening and change the subject. We tune out. We become indifferent.

Instead of feeling everything, we no longer feel much of anything.

“It’s as if you’re a sponge that is completely saturated and has never been wrung out. You can only take so much.” – from Trauma Stewardship

If you’re new to the work, it may seem like lacking empathy could never happen to you. I get it.

Years ago at the shelter, I was assisting in the euthanasia of a dog that I was very attached to. To say that I had excessive empathy for this particular dog would be an understatement. I was weeping during the euthanasia. This stressed out the dog and we needed to call in a third person, so I could step aside from restraining him. The woman who came into assist had been on the job for many, many years.

Embarrassed, I apologized to her for crying. She took one look at my face, slick with tears, and said, “I wish I could still feel that way. I can’t remember the last time I cried.”

Today I recognize that her numbness was a normal and predictable sign of compassion fatigue. She had once cared very, very much. But back then I was shocked. I honestly had no idea what she meant. I was overwhelmed by emotions.

I wanted to feel less. She wanted to feel more.

We were both struggling to find a healthy middle ground where we could engage empathetically, but without causing harm to others or ourselves.

Neither of us had found the sweet spot of healthy empathetic engagement –  a compassionate detachment –  where we’re not numb or aloof to the suffering of others, but we’re also not flooded with their pain either.

In this way, we can still take caring action to help others, but we suffer a little less. It’s a bit more compassion, a little less empathy: Read more about the difference between empathy and compassion here.

I have a feeling some of you may be wondering if being numb is really such a bad thing. Who wants to feel the painful stuff? The problem is that losing our empathy, to the point that we’re numb, will have a negative impact on our work.

While it can be a very healthy coping strategy to put strong emotions aside in the moment, so we can do a difficult aspect of our job, we can’t stay detached all the time. 

Without empathy we can no longer care for our clients and patients effectively and ethically.

We may wind up dismissing their needs, minimizing their pain, becoming rigid in our thinking, silencing their stories, withdrawing from clients and coworkers, cutting corners, and making unethical decisions.

Not to mention, our stuffed down negative emotions will find their way out in other unpleasant ways. The pressure will keep building until we explode or get sick. Ever freak out at someone you love over nothing? Start weeping at a soup commercial? Always have a cold? You get the idea.

So what helps?

We can work (and it is ongoing, proactive work) to find the optimal level of empathic engagement where we are still connected to those we serve, but we’re not losing touch with our own body and emotions.

To figure out the healthiest empathetic response means we have to determine the wisest approach in any given moment (this requires flexibility). One where we still feel warm and caring, but without taking on others’ stories and feelings as if they are our own. We recognize there is a boundary between us.

To do this we use healthy coping skills to help us manage what we’re bearing witness to and absorbing every day.

Start with kindness for yourself. Take a break. Explore mindful breathing and physical exercise to help let go of some of the energetic pain you’ve been soaking up. Reach out to a supportive person or professional who can help you begin to process and release your feelings.

One powerful way to help ourselves is to explore practices that teach us how to feel more stable in the face of great pain. Yoga and meditation, along with other contemplative and creative practices, help us learn how to be present in the moment and feel grounded in our own bodies, which enables us to more skillfully tackle overwhelming circumstances at work.

Humanitarian aid worker Marianne Elliot writes about how this helps her find equanimity:

“One of the most dreadful things about this work is that you’re confronted by a need that is much greater than your capacity…often there was so little that you could do….But yoga helped me in learning to just sit. Sit with all this suffering and bring presence to it…And I feel that it was really with my meditation practice through yoga that I was able to do that without being overwhelmed by the pain, or feeling like I’d have an impulse to withdraw.”

We still feel pain of course. This work is so hard. Rather than judge ourselves or stuff our pain down, we can offer ourselves self-compassion in response to this recognition that we too are suffering.

Dr. Neff goes on to say, “The implication for caregivers is that we need to generate lots of compassion — for both ourselves and the person we’re caring for — in order to remain in the presence of suffering without being overwhelmed. In fact, sometimes we may need to spend the bulk of our attention on giving ourselves compassion so that we have enough emotional stability to be there for others.”

This practice of self-compassion and care can help us become well enough to access that sweet spot of healthy empathetic engagement.

We can’t do it alone though. Organizations must also take steps to help their workers. This might include making sure that particularly draining and difficult tasks, such as euthanasia, are rotated, so that no one person has to shoulder this alone, providing regular breaks to recharge, and giving employees a constructive outlet to discuss and let go of work through weekly debriefing and/or support groups.

No matter where we are on the empathy continuum – too much or too little – we can take steps to help ourselves move towards that center line. By forming healthy boundaries and committing to proactive, authentic self-care, we can regularly boost our empathetic immune system.

It’s a long road, but every step taken in the direction of that healthy expression of empathy will help change how it impacts you and build your resilience, allowing you to find some balance in this difficult, but deeply meaningful work that we’re privileged to do.

 

You don’t have to figure this out alone. Take a look at my online classes. They exist so you can be well, while you do good work in the world. A new session of Compassion in Balance starts June 6th!

with love and gratitude,

12 Books To Read When Your Brain Hurts

If you love to read, but have trouble doing it because you’re so stressed out, I feel your pain.

Reading is my most favorite way to unwind, let go of the day, and “fill my cup“, so to speak.

Tons of my students have shared that reading is one of their favorite activities as well, but that it’s also one of the first things to go when their compassion fatigue levels start to skyrocket.

In fact, not being able to read winds up being one of their early indicators that their stress levels are climbing and they need to implement some self-care asap.

So what do you do when reading is one of your favorite ways to take care of yourself, but your brain is too bonked to do it? Here are some ideas I’ve gathered from past class discussions and my own life:

1. Skip any reading that is related to animals (or whatever population it is that you serve). Even if it’s fiction, but especially if it’s non-fiction.


2. Listen to audio books. Download them from the library if you want to save some bucks. It feels so good to have someone tell us a story again!


3. Let yourself off the literary hook. It’s ok to read lighter stuff when you’re stressed (or anytime you want). You’re not trying to impress anyone…by the way, I’m saying this to myself. My whole life I’ve had elaborate fantasies about people, who will never be in my home, judging my bookcases. Lower the literary bar.

 

YA and Children’s Lit Picks
The Divergent series – Veronica Roth
His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pullman
The Wildwood Chronicles – Colin Meloy
The Hunger Games series – Suzanne Collins
The Harry Potter series – J. K. Rowling

Humor Picks
Yes, Please – Amy Poehler
Bossypants – Tina Fey
How to Be a Woman – Caitlin Moran
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?  – Mindy Kaling
Me Talk Pretty One Day (or any other book) by David Sedaris
I Feel Bad About My Neck – Nora Ephron
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – Jenny Lawson

 

Bonus Picks! SciFi/Horror/Fantasy genre:

Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

Anything by Stephen King (try 11/22/63)

All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness

 

I know there are tons more! Which books keep your attention, even when your brain feels like it’s broken? What kind of reading helps you decompress after a tough day or week at work?

Tell me your top picks in the comments here or over on Facebook. Let’s keep a running list to help each other out!

 

See you at the library,

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,

Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

written by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Mis estimados:

Do not lose heart. We were made for these times.

I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world right now. It is true, one has to have strong cojones and ovarios to withstand much of what passes for “good” in our culture today. Abject disregard of what the soul finds most precious and irreplaceable and the corruption of principled ideals have become, in some large societal arenas, “the new normal,” the grotesquerie of the week.

It is hard to say which one of the current egregious matters has rocked people’s worlds and beliefs more. Ours is a time of almost daily jaw-dropping astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments. The luster and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is — we were made for these times.

Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement. I cannot tell you often enough that we are definitely the leaders we have been waiting for, and that we have been raised, since childhood, for this time precisely.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able crafts in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

I would like to take your hands for a moment and assure you that you are built well for these times.

 

Despite your stints of doubt, your frustrations in righting all that needs change right now, or even feeling you have lost the map entirely, you are not without resource, you are not alone. Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. In your deepest bones, you have always known this is so.

Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance, regardless.

We have been in training for a dark time such as this, since the day we assented to come to Earth. For many decades, worldwide, souls just like us have been felled and left for dead in so many ways over and over — brought down by naiveté, by lack of love, by suddenly realizing one deadly thing or another, by not realizing something else soon enough, by being ambushed and assaulted by various cultural and personal shocks in the extreme.

We all have a heritage and history of being gutted, and yet remember this especially: we have also, of necessity, perfected the knack of resurrection.

bird in hand

Over and over again we have been the living proof that that which has been exiled, lost, or foundered — can be restored to life again. This is as true and sturdy a prognosis for the destroyed worlds around us as it was for our own once mortally wounded selves.

Though we are not invulnerable, our risibility supports us to laugh in the face of cynics who say “fat chance,” and “management before mercy,” and other evidences of complete absence of soul sense. This, and our having been “to hell and back” on at least one momentous occasion, makes us seasoned vessels for certain. Even if you do not feel that you are, you are.

Even if your puny little ego wants to contest the enormity of your soul, that smaller self can never for long subordinate the larger Self. In matters of death and rebirth, you have surpassed the benchmarks many times. Believe the evidence of any one of your past testings and trials. Here it is: Are you still standing? The answer is, Yes! (And no adverbs like “barely” are allowed here). If you are still standing, ragged flags or no, you are able. Thus, you have passed the bar. And even raised it. You are seaworthy.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. Do not make yourself ill with overwhelm.

 

There is a tendency too to fall into being weakened by perseverating on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the Voice greater? You have all the resources you need to ride any wave, to surface from any trough.

In the language of aviators and sailors, ours is to sail forward now, all balls out. Understand the paradox: If you study the physics of a waterspout, you will see that the outer vortex whirls far more quickly than the inner one. To calm the storm means to quiet the outer layer, to cause it, by whatever countervailing means, to swirl much less, to more evenly match the velocity of the inner, far less volatile core — till whatever has been lifted into such a vicious funnel falls back to Earth, lays down, is peaceable again.

One of the most important steps you can take to help calm the storm is to not allow yourself to be taken in a flurry of overwrought emotion or despair — thereby accidentally contributing to the swale and the swirl.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.

 

Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts — adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take “everyone on Earth” to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. A soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.

The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of the soul in shadowy times like these — to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both — are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

There will always be times in the midst of “success right around the corner, but as yet still unseen” when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it; I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

The reason is this: In my bones I know, as do you, that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours: They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here.

In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But … that is not what great ships are built for.

This comes with much love and prayer that you remember who you came from, and why you came to this beautiful, needful Earth.

 


Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times,” (a/k/a “Letter to a Young Activist in Troubled Times”) Copyright ©2001, 2003, 2004, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, All rights reserved. This particular work is released under a Creative Commons License by which author grants permission to copy, distribute and transmit this particular work under the conditions that the use be non-commercial, that the work be used in its entirety and not altered, added to, or subtracted from, and that it carry author’s name and this full copyright notice. For other permissions, please contact: projectscreener@aol.com

 

with love + hope,