4 Ways to Build Healthier Organizational Boundaries

We need to talk about boundaries in the workplace.

It’s critically important that individuals learn how to create and uphold healthy boundaries in their lives in order to be well. But all the boundary-building in the world won’t help your staff all that much if your organizations don’t have policies and a culture that supports their efforts.

Let’s be honest: most animal shelters, veterinary clinics, and other animal care and welfare organizations have weak, if not non-existent, boundaries. We’re not alone in this – most non-profits and healthcare settings are the same. We’ve gotta do better.

Why should you care? Because organizations with crappy boundaries create the perfect conditions for their staff to develop burnout and compassion fatigue. That’s bad for them, it’s bad for those you serve, and it’s bad for your bottom line. So let’s talk action steps:

1. Get real about job descriptions.


If you want to reduce burnout and compassion fatigue at your organization, start by looking at job descriptions.

Sarri Gilman’s book Naming and Taming Overwhelm reminds us that self-care at home can do a lot of things, but it can’t fix a job with a never-ending, demanding, unreasonable list of expectations that can never be met during work hours. It’s a recipe for overwhelm and burnout.

From Sarri Gilman’s Naming and Taming Overwhelm


So if your organization is telling employees to take better care of themselves, but their job descriptions are outrageous…whelp. That’s on you.

What are your expectations of your staff? Can they ever realistically fulfill them given the limited resources they’re working with each day? Are they doing the work of three people? Job descriptions (hours, tasks, responsibilities) need realistic boundaries. Sit down with your staff and work this out.

2. Neutralize taking breaks.

In our work culture we tend to celebrate “selfless giving” and throw shade at people who try to set limits. Taking a break becomes a personal choice fraught with emotion and can be weaponized against them.

Organizations can take the choice away, so that taking a break isn’t a referendum on any single person’s work ethic and there are clear policies about what is and is not okay to do. Normalize healthy limits.

Consider creating mandatory breaks for your foster families in between animals.

For example: implement a one week break after foster kittens go back to the shelter. Try a one month break after a long-term, behaviorally-challenged dog gets adopted.

Help families avoid burnout by creating the norm of taking a break between new animals. It’s not on them to decide. This reduces their guilt.

This also goes for staff. Take a hard look at how much work they’re taking home and the toll that’s taking on them.


Develop a break-positive culture at work to reduce individual decision-making.

My husband is in a union. He is required to take a 30 minute lunch and a 15 minute break every day at the same time. If he wants to skip a break or the team foresees a problem with the break schedule because of something urgent, they need to speak with the Foreman to get permission to work through their break.

He doesn’t ask permission to TAKE the break. He has to ask permission to NOT take the break. Breaks are the norm.

Breaks are not a reflection on an individual’s work ethic or commitment to getting the job done. It’s simply the way it’s done.

If someone resists taking a break, my husband’s coworkers remind them that’s not how it works. There is no decision fatigue. They know it’s okay to take the break, how long to take, and when to do it because it’s decided in advance.

No guilt. No judgement. And no one is abusing their break or leaving their coworkers hanging around wondering when they’ll be back. Clear boundaries for the win!

If your staff refuses to take breaks and vacations, you need to find out why they don’t feel safe enough to take a time out. What are they worried will happen? What do they need in order to feel okay about stepping away for 15 or 30 minutes? How will you, as their leadership, address it?

The same idea goes for communicating after work hours. This is a whole blog in itself. Make it the norm that non-urgent calls and emails are to be ignored until work hours. Set boundaries around tech for your staff, so they can feel safe ignoring their devices for a few hours.

THEY ARE NOT ROBOTS. PEOPLE NEED TO REST.

3. Pay them to transition back to their personal life.

Give them time on the clock to debrief at the end of their shift. This helps them create a boundary between work and home because you’re giving them 10 minutes to process what they experienced that day, so they can leave it behind.

They can debrief with their supervisor, with their team, with the person taking over for the next shift, or by themselves with a journal. The point is to make debriefing a part of their daily routine. Regularly downloading their day helps your staff to create a healthy boundary, so they can go home a little lighter and come back in the morning with the internal resources to take on new challenges.

4. Enforce a zero tolerance policy for toxic, boundary-breaking behavior among staff.


Leadership needs to monitor the boundaries between their employees in high stress, emotionally charged workplaces. As compassion fatigue levels rise, so does lateral aggression aka workplace bullying. Relational boundaries are going to get crossed. It’s the job of leadership to watch for it and address it in a timely fashion.

“If there appears to be animosity between certain employees, be sure to keep an eye on their relationship both inside work and outside work. If a member of your team is taking their work home with them, because another employee is pushing them to, without your consent, you need to implement rules that state staff should only be contacted at work, unless you, as a manager, have granted permission to do otherwise.” – Steve Pritchard, HR Rep

In addition to what’s mentioned above, be on the lookout for: gossip, passive aggressive behavior, individuals being ostracized, and other forms of bullying. These are red flags that people are not doing well and need you to pay attention.

Finally, every leader has to deal with at least one relentless boundary pusher on their staff. This person who refuses to adhere to the rules and always has a good excuse for why they need special treatment.

You want a zero tolerance policy with them too, because they are vampires who will suck your goodwill dry. No matter how much you give, it won’t be enough. So set a hard line and uphold it. It’ll save you a ton of time and energy.

Here are 4 steps you can use to set boundaries with your staff based on the CARS model:

  1. Establishing your boundary, by focusing on the behavior you do want.
  2. Clarifying the policy, by focusing on the behavior the organization wants.
  3. Explaining what the consequences will be for not doing the positive behavior.
  4. Follow through with the consequences if the positive behavior is not done.

These are some of the ways I’ve seen organizations step up their boundary game to create healthier workplaces. What’s working for your org? Tell me below in the comments. I really want to know!

Further reading: Setting Boundaries at Work by Penn Behavioral Health

How to handle employees who are relentless boundary pushers

This Question Could Change Your Life

I have a New Years resolution for you.

This goes double if the holidays were a strain on your:
Time
Finances
Energy
Emotions
Relationships
Pets
Waistlines (c’mon, I can’t be the only one who eats sugar cookies for breakfast Christmas week?!).

When we have so much coming at us in our free time, plus work, it wears down our ability to make good choices for ourselves.

Our boundaries get wonky.

Overwhelm arrives. And with overwhelm comes drama, reactivity, and loads of poor self-care choices. Cue exhaustion.

So as you move into 2019, here’s one simple way you can repeatedly steer yourself away from overwhelm.

Every time you are faced with a choice, pause and ask yourself:

Is this energizing or draining?

Sometimes we have to do stuff that drains us. That’s life.  

But loads of times we do things we don’t really want to do because we’re telling ourselves we “should” do them. That drains us.

  • I should go to the gym 5 days a week because that’s what a good New Year’s resolution looks like. 
  • I should accept that dinner invite because I’m a nice person and that’s what nice people do. 
  • I should let my friends bring their dogs over to my house, because my dog should be able to handle having canine guests and because I should be polite. 


Imagine if, before you answered these requests, you paused and asked yourself: does this feel energizing for me or does it feel draining?

If it feels draining, can you give yourself permission to say NO?

Instead, can you say HELL YES to spending your limited resources on what you actually need right now? Or what authentically feels good?

If so, would you choose resting instead of running? Or a peaceful visit with friends instead of a dog fight over dinner?

I did this earlier in the week when I kept pushing myself to meditate. Why all the resistance I wondered?

Then I asked myself: If I’m being honest with myself, does meditating feel energizing or draining right now? The clearest answer came back: draining!

What would feel energizing I asked? Taking a pottery class instead.

OKAY!



You can back away from the edge of overwhelm by pausing before you automatically agree to requests from other people.

You can back away from exhaustion by asking yourself if what you’re about to make yourself do energizes or drains you.

If it feels draining and you’re leaning towards doing it anyway, ask yourself:

If you knew that no one would ever judge you for saying NO, would you still say YES?

You have a right to choose what works for you.

That might mean going against the grain of what other people expect you to do for them or what our cultural says “good people” who have their shit together do.

Make your resolutions work for you.

Lean towards what naturally sparks your energy. It doesn’t always have to be so hard, you know?

Cheers to an energizing 2019!

How to Build Compassionate Badassery Boundaries for Life

Imagine waking up in the morning…

and you feel rested and ready for whatever comes your way today. You know that there’s a long line of animals and people who need your help. No doubt, it can feel overwhelming sometimes.

But you take a deep breath, pour yourself some coffee, put on some comfortable pants (not necessarily in that order) and feel totally confident that you can handle the challenges today will bring because you’ve got Compassionate Badassery Boundaries.

You know you can trust yourself to:

  • Block off time for yourself and your own needs
  • Turn down last minute requests that don’t work for you
  • Only answer emails at set times
  • Limit the free advice you give to friends and friends of friends of your dentist
  • Empower others to problem solve and help themselves
  • Say yes to your ideal clients and work load
  • Pause and think about what you really want before you give your answer
  • Recalibrate when you start to take on too much
  • Cope with uncomfortable emotions
  • Offer yourself compassion that you can’t help them all.

How does that sound?

Let’s stop imagining and make it happen.

Forget that fantasy you have about being able to do it all, fix everything, and save ALL the animals.

What do you REALLY want for your life?

What do you want your days to look and feel like?

Do you want to help animals AND have dinner with your family every evening? Do you want to help people AND get in bed early to read a good book? Do you want to help your community AND meet your BFF every Wednesday night at the gym?

It may not feel like it right now, but: You actually have a choice. 

And I built a new class to help you create those choices for yourself.

It’s called Building Compassionate Badassery Boundaries and we’re getting started on January 14th.

building compassionate boundaries challenge class

Building your Compassionate Badassery Boundaries is all about figuring out what you want and value in your life and then creating the boundaries you need to make it happen.

Over 6 weeks, (because healthy boundaries take longer than a few days to build!) you’ll access six modules, private discussion boards, and 4 live video group coaching calls to help you do that.

You’ll be learning with people who 100% understand how hard it is to set limits when animals are in need.

We get that the struggle is real.

Here’s what you can create with the tools from this course:

  • Know with confidence what you’ll say (or email) in order to have respectful, kind relationships with other people, even when you’re saying NO.
  • Create an end-of-the-workday routine, so you can stop multitasking and be present for your life at home.
  • Take regular breaks and trust that your staff or clients can handle things without you.
  • Deal calmly with any discomfort, including the guilt or anxiety that comes up when you state your policies and limits.
  • Start doing yoga or cooking dinner or making a scrapbook of your cats (or whatever it is that you’ve been wanting to do, but haven’t gotten around to it in a few, er, years) with your newly created free time.

Sound good? Then join us this winter and let’s get started!

Here’s a $50 Early Bird discount – it’s good until 12/7/18.

Have You Thanked a Shelter Worker Lately?

It’s National Animal Shelter Appreciation Week, so I thought I’d share an older piece I wrote years ago for StubbyDog (originally published Oct. 2011) called Everyday Heroes: Shelter Workers.

They stand at the doorway each morning and take a deep breath. The dogs, recognizing that they’re no longer alone, have erupted in a cacophony of demands for food, bathroom breaks, attention.
Overwhelmed by the noise, hearts pounding, trying to pick a direction to go in first, they say, “I’m coming just as fast as I can everybody. I love you all this morning.”

And then they start running.

They weave through the chaos: an injured dog, the hysterical family of a missing elderly cat, an animal control officer with a van full of strays, new volunteers who need training, making a call to an adopter that didn’t show to pick up their new dog, setting up a safe kennel for a victim of cruelty in desperate need of medical care.

There are more dogs than there are kennels.

There are adopters to meet with, kennel cough to be treated, biographies to write, veterinarians and trainers to consult with, surgeries to find funding for, rescue groups to reach out to, social media trolls to quiet, documentation of cruelty cases to complete, baths to be given, and hard, painful choices to be made.

The daily work continues: Kennels must be scrubbed, food delivered, medications carefully administered, evaluations to be completed, kennel charts filled out, yards to be cleaned.

There are 24 hours in a day and 100+ hours of work to be done.

They feel tiny in the presence of this mountain of work and the countless souls they’ve been trusted to care for. How fast can they work, for how long, and will it make a difference?

But just when they feel like they’re slipping under water, it happens: one great day.

A long-term resident finally gets adopted, a local business stops by with a donation of a new washing machine, the dogs they feared wouldn’t make it find foster homes, a child’s birthday party brings toys and treats, an adopter calls to tell you how happy they are with their new cat, a volunteer brings coffee and hugs.

They are flying on the wings of this good day, fueled by the hope that there will be more just like it. Powering into another work week, trusting that, if they keep their heads up and their feet moving forward, it will be okay.

 

They are a vital part of our community. The safety net for our pets. The beating heart deep in our collective hope for a better world for our animals.

They are the magicians, the master jugglers, the contortionists, working endlessly to pull one more miracle out of their bag of tricks. One more life saved by their weary hands. They are the underpaid, overworked operators working the lines until there is a happy ending.

They are doing the work most of us could never bring ourselves to do. We depend on them to care for the animals in our families and communities. We demand more and more from them and they show up for the challenge. They are willing to take the heartbreak, the lost lives, the failures, the sadness and exhaustion. Because they know the animals can’t make it without them.

They are our determined hands, our compassionate hearts, and they need our support.

They are shelter workers and they’re everyday heroes. Be sure to thank them for their service.

p.s. I think volunteers and foster families are the bomb too and wrote tributes to them back in 2011. You can find them here and here

Why You Need to (Literally) Schedule Some Fun

Does scheduling fun make me look nerdy?

So be it. Because scheduling fun works.

And not just for me. This is one of my students’ favorite self-care practices.

Here’s why you should consider it too: when you’re experiencing chronic stress (hello all of us!) you might be experiencing a real dip in your happy hormones.

That’s the good stuff: oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. These are the hormones that help us feel pleasure, motivation, connection, and satisfaction. All the stuff that helps boost our resiliency.

There are lots of ways to increase these hormones, but scheduling fun happens to be my favorite way to purposely bump up dopamine levels.

Dopamine is released when we achieve our goals AND when we are anticipating something good.

When dopamine is low, depression and low motivation are much more likely.

But the deliberate anticipation of something fun can help us feel better and become more stress resilient. That’s because 6-8 weeks before a pleasurable event, our brains are already releasing dopamine.

So if we plan small fun events regularly, then we’re putting ourselves into a state of happy anticipation. The future always looks bright.

Here’s how to do it: 

Grab a piece of paper and brainstorm 10 fun things that you like or want to do.

It doesn’t have to be big stuff that take planning, like a trip or hosting a dinner party, but you can include that stuff too.

Think small: a trip to the library, watching one episode of a favorite show, a pedicure, a hike with friends, baking a pie, or a free concert.

The only stipulation is that it has to truly make you happy and you’ll look forward to doing it!

Don’t get hung up on whether it’s possible to do this stuff right now. Just write.

Got your list?

Now grab your schedule. Pick one or two things from your list and put them in your calendar.

Repeat weekly.

If you’re struggling to do this stuff, add accountability to the mix by putting down some money for tickets or asking someone else to join you.

And if you feel like putting fun on your calendar is lame, then ask yourself: How’s doing fun stuff spontaneously working out?

Are you doing it regularly or does your free time get sucked up by work, errands, vet visits, and mindlessly scrolling Facebook? If it’s the latter, get our your calendar and schedule your fun!

Recap:

  1. Make a list of fun stuff.
  2. Each week look at your calendar and schedule something fun.
  3. Look ahead and make fun plans in advance with tickets, deposits, or friends (for added accountability).
  4. Savor the anticipation and get your dopamine pumping.

Hit reply and tell me what you’re going to do for fun next week!

Is Self-Care Letting Organizations Off The Hook?

I’m always full of questions, but lately these are at the top of my mind:

Who benefits when we don’t ask the right questions? And how does this potentially uphold the status quo?

Here’s what I mean: have you ever questioned why everyone is so focused on self-care as the solution for compassion fatigue?

Who does it benefit when self-care is the ONLY way we’re taught to manage this predictable byproduct of our work?

The answer is simple:

 

The message staff gets is: If you don’t take care of yourself, it’s your fault that you have compassion fatigue.

That’s just not accurate.

To be clear, self-care IS critically important and it’s the foundation of everything I teach (because no one can take care of you for you. Sorry, no one is coming to save your ass).

I love the pants off of self-care.

But, all the self-care in the world won’t matter if:

– You have a job description that has no boundaries (how many people would it really take to accomplish everything that’s been assigned to you?) and you never have time off to DO self-care.

– Or you work in an unsafe environment with low pay, no benefits, and are treated like an unskilled, expendable resource (“churn and burn” baby!).

– Or you have toxic coworkers that you suspect would run you over in the parking lot if you asked them for help and a cruel boss that tells you that if you “really loved animals”, you wouldn’t need to take a break.

 

When organizations focus ONLY on self-care as the solution for compassion fatigue, then they get to blame YOU for having compassion fatigue and wash their hands of this complex issue.

Organizations have a responsibility to create a healthy, ethical work environment where individual self-care efforts are supported and strengthened by the organization’s efforts to treat their staff like the valuable resource they are through: education, mentoring and supervision, fair policies, safe equipment, appreciation, time off, conflict resolution, adequate pay and benefits, and trauma-informed support.

I’m not saying it’s easy or that organizations can make these changes overnight, but they’ve got to step up to the plate. Addressing CF isn’t just an altruistic move. It benefits the organizations when they tackle one of the root causes of expensive issues like turnover and presenteeism.

If we want to address compassion fatigue effectively – which benefits everyone –  then we always need to be looking at this issue from the individual AND the organizational level.

The researchers backs that up. Self-care alone isn’t enough.

So if anyone tells you that self-care is the be all, end all of compassion fatigue management, just ask them: who does that benefit?

Psst, just one more time for the folks in the back…ya still have to do self-care.

#AMA, UFL, and Other Acronyms You Might Want To Know About

Here’s the scoop: I’m hosting a Facebook Live next week and I want you to send me your questions about compassion fatigue, burnout, and resilience!

But honestly, you can ask me about anything. Like, how I came up with the idea for DINOS: Dogs in Need of Space or my favorite antique store in Maine or how to make a vegan blueberry muffin pie.

If you have a question for me, I want to hear it!

Just leave me a comment here and let me know what questions you have, then I’ll be sure to answer in my Facebook Live on Wednesday 9/5 at 4pm EST!

You can tune in and watch the AMA here.

Did you know that I’m only teaching ONE live compassion fatigue course in 2018 and it starts soon?

If you’ve been wanting to take a class with me, connect with your peers in animal care and welfare, and learn about how compassion fatigue impacts all of us so that you can thrive (not just survive) in the challenging work you do, I hope you’ll join me for Compassion Fatigue Strategies at UFL!

Class starts September 24th and it runs for 8 weeks. I know it can help you and I want you to join us!

Learn more and sign up here (56 people and counting are already on board, so don’t miss out on your chance to start feeling better ASAP).

But don’t take my word for it:

Remember to leave me a comment with your questions, ok?

 

What Climbing Mt. Katahdin Taught Me

“You must do the things you think you cannot do.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt

My father has been hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) for 46 years.

The AT is more than 2000 miles long. It begins in Georgia and ends in Maine on Mount Katahdin.

Some people (thru-hikers) do the whole trail, start to finish, in 4-6 months.

My dad started walking on the trail in 1972.

Since then he’s gone back to hike different sections of the AT doing 50-100 miles of it at a time.

Last week, at 70 years old, my dad hiked the last 11 miles of the AT and reached the summit of Mount Katahdin.

I was there with him on what turned out to be the hardest hike I’ve every done.

Like holy crap, my legs are spaghetti, hard.

For 11 hours I had to do physical stuff I thought I couldn’t do, like pull myself up over giant boulders and hang off of little pieces of rebar as I lowered myself down.

It was exhausting. This week, I’m covered in bruises and scrapes.

So why did I do it?

I said YES to this hike because I wanted to be there when my dad accomplished a goal he’d been working at for a lifetime.

I said YES because I knew I would regret not being there to celebrate with him.

I said YES to discomfort over regret.

And boy, was there a lot of discomfort.

But I was there when my dad completed a lifetime of work.

Here’s what happened when I made the choice to push myself to do something I wasn’t sure that I could do:

I learned that I’m physically stronger than I think I am.

I learned that I am able to tolerate more discomfort than I thought I could.

I was reminded that being clear on WHY I am doing something very hard (to honor my dad) matters.

I was reminded that having support along the way to keep my spirits high and (literally) pull me up matters.

I was reminded to not believe the stories I’m telling myself about what I cannot do.

Because I did it.

And now I know I can do it again.

Climbing Katahdin reminded me about what it takes to grow and make positive changes:

1. It’s not about speed. Reaching your goals or building new practices will sometimes take years, maybe decades. Just because you’re going slowly doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. And it doesn’t make it any less worthwhile to pursue them.

2. It’s not just about the goal. It’s critical that we learn to enjoy or feel intrinsically rewarded by the process of trying. If it was only about the goal, my dad would have been miserable hiking all of those decades. It wasn’t just about something being attained in the future. It was about the journey (cliche? yes. still true though).

3. It’s not going to be comfortable. If you want to accomplish something big or hard, there will be discomfort along the way. Period. When we’re walking along the edge of something new, it’s not about staying comfortable. It’s about growing (and they don’t call them “growing cuddles”…it’s growing pains, my friends).

My dad would have been way more comfortable spending his annual vacation in the Bahamas. But he choose to hike the AT every summer instead, so that he could achieve something deeply meaningful to him.

I would have been way more comfortable cheering my dad on from the couch. But I choose to hike a mountain to be there with him, so that he would know how much he means to me.

And it often means doing things differently than other people (my dad comes very close to holding the record for the longest section hike ever. Very few people tackle the AT the way he did). Following your own path can be uncomfortable too.

What are you willing to get uncomfortable for?

What do you want to accomplish or change?

What is the thing you think you can’t do?

You can do it.

But if you’re struggling to create change, like developing healthy boundaries, you’re normal.

Not a failure. Not broken. Not a lost cause.

You’re just human.

Creating changes, like developing and upholding boundaries is a lifetime practice.

It’s a 2000 mile long trail that most people never even step foot on because it feels too hard to begin.

So just take the first step.

You might be tempted to stay in your comfort zone. It’s the “devil you know.”

You may be thinking it’s better to stick with the pain of staying the same, then to risk the pain of growing.

“The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin

If you want to take the next steps then you will need clarity (a map!), support, and accountability.

You can find that kind of help through great books, mentors, friends, and classes.

It’s also where 1-1 coaching comes in.

If you’re not sure how to take those first steps or you need help to keep moving forward, coaching can help you move along that growing edge.

As a coach, I’m your trail guide.

I’ll be there to help you figure out the next best step, pushing you up the boulders, offering snacks to boost your energy (hello mindfulness + self-care!), and turning on my flashlight so you can see the trail again.

If that sounds good, I invite you to schedule a free 30 minute call with me and we can figure out if coaching together is the right fit for you.

There’s no obligation to sign up for coaching. This is just a chance to explore the idea.

Remember: you can do the things you think you cannot do. You just do them one step at a time, with lots of breaks (and snacks) along the way.

NEW! Coaching for DINOS Families

Guys, I’m finally able to share something that I’ve been working on for the last 6 months:

I now offer individual coaching and one of my specialties is working with folks who live with DINOS!

If you live with a dog who has behavior issues, you already know that it’s really challenging. But what I’ve come to understand over the years is that even when we have professional help for our dogs – like a dog trainer and a veterinary behaviorist – it can still feel really overwhelming and lonely.

For years, people have shared with me that they feel super alone and wish they had someone guiding them through all the wackiness of living with a challenging dog. So, that’s where I come in! In these new 1-on-1 sessions, I’m bringing my 15 years of experience supporting other families right to you through a flexible combo of coaching and consulting.

What does that look like?

Each session is personalized, but generally speaking: I’ll listen to your stories, we can troubleshoot some daily routine management issues, explore ways to create healthy boundaries and self-care for you, adjust expectations, role play difficult conversations, examine tough choices that need to be made, and we’ll set some goals to help you move forward.

The sessions focus on supporting you as you care for your dog. You bring the agenda and we partner up to address it together. We’ll celebrate successes (no matter how small) and you’ll get support as you face challenges.

Sometimes things aren’t getting any better and we have really hard choices to make. I’m there for all the hard decisions that need to be made too.

I never offer dog training, medical, or behavioral advice.

That’s not my area expertise. I’m there to support the work those professionals are doing with your dogs. So if you’re just starting out and your dog needs some serious training/behavior help – I want you to use your resources to meet with the pros that can assist your dog first, ok?

Right now, I offer two different packages: Monthly Support and Seasonal Support, which you can learn more about here.

If you’re interested in either package, all you need to do is schedule a free 30 minute consultation call with me to learn more about coaching and decide if it’s the right choice for you (it’s ok if it’s not – that’s what the call is there for!).

And if you’re a trainer or vet behaviorist that would like more info for your clients, just shout. I have PDFs!

Team DINOS (that’s you guys), I’m really looking forward to supporting you in this way, so don’t be shy, ok? I’m here to help.

Practice Compassionate Badassery

I learned the phrase “compassionate badassery” a few years ago when I stumbled into Lauren Rosenfeld’s Etsy shop YourToBeList. A silver bracelet, stamped with the words “practice compassionate badassery,” caught my eye.

Lauren described compassionate badassery like this:

“Being compassionate takes courage. It takes the strength to make ourselves vulnerable in order to be with others when they are in pain, so their pain can be transformed. So if you are a compassionate being, you are by definition — a serious BADASS.”

I bought it.

I’ve thought a lot about what it means to practice compassionate badassery, specifically how it informs my work as a compassion fatigue educator.

I see practicing compassionate badassery as a skillful way to stay healthy while effectively helping others. It’s based in a belief that self-care & service inherently belong together.

It’s not some kind of title we get or status we achieve. It’s a mighty practice we engage in (mostly imperfectly) over the course of our lifetime.

In this practice, we’re always growing and learning. We’re never cured and we never graduate!

Practicing compassionate badassery means mindfully making vulnerable, courageous choices that support sustainable, ethical, and satisfying caregiving.

There are two linked ideas that ground this practice:

  1. Choose to embrace uncertainty and paradox.

  2. Pledge hardcore allegiance to your own welfare.

 

That’s the short version. Here’s the TLDR version.

What does it mean to choose uncertainty and paradox?

Life is full of contradictions and change. It is simply the way things are.

It’s the way YOU are. As Walt said, we are large and contain multitudes.

Same goes for our work.

If we fight the contradictions and try to control everything, we’ll exhaust ourselves. Embracing uncertainty and paradox redirects our energy and allows us to thrive in the complicated spaces we hang out in.

Wait up, what’s a paradox again?

A paradox involves two elements, truths, or perspectives that seem contradictory, but are both true.

You know, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, “Good people do bad things,” and “I know one thing. That I know nothing.”

Giving and receiving can be a paradox for helping professionals. These ideas seem to be at odds with each other. I have a duty to take care of others and I have a duty to take care of myself.

Both statements are true. But we often perceive that it’s a choice between two extremes.

Some choose pathological altruism and cause great harm to themselves in order to help others. But it’s not a contradiction to care deeply for yourself, as you serve the world.

Then there’s the “killing-caring paradox” which is specific to animal welfare work.

Many of us are tasked with ending the lives of healthy animals in our work. It seems like a paradox, but it’s true that we can love animals deeply AND end their lives.

Life is complicated. Things are rarely black and white. Almost everything is both/and. Not either/or.

But if we’re burning out or experiencing compassion fatigue we tend to drift into polarized, rigid thinking. It takes energy to stay flexible.

Compassionate badassery means we push back on that crusty, rigid thinking and choose to practice openness and curiosity in the face of uncertainty and paradox.

This is not easy, given what we witness and experience. It involves energy and risk. Our hearts will break.

That’s why it’s badassery.

If it were easy it would be called compassionate brunch life and everyone would be doing it. #compassionatebrunchlife #liveyourbestbrunch

Want to practice compassionate badassery? Let’s dive into some juicy contradictions:

 

Strong back and soft front. The ultimate compassionate badassery practitioner, Roshi Joan Halifax, reminds us, “All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive…If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we risk having a front that’s soft and open….”

Healthy boundaries help hold us up, without completely armoring up. This strength allow us to soften, opening our hearts to ourselves and others. That’s how we remain compassionate in difficult circumstances.

Vulnerability requires strength. Just like Lauren said.

 

Compassion and detachment. As helpers we can be flooded by empathy, which exhausts us. Cultivating compassionate detachment is necessary.

That doesn’t mean we don’t care deeply. It means we give without getting lost in the pain of others, without taking responsibility for other people, and without becoming too attached to the outcome.

Buddhists might call this compassionate non-attachment.

We take a step back to access our sweet spot of empathetic engagement. When we practice compassionate detachment, we can do what’s best for those we serve AND what’s best for ourselves at the same time.

It’s a balancing act of self-regulation that can help to reduce compassion fatigue.

 

Work hard and let go. Speaking of non-attachment, our caregiver roles require us to work very hard to achieve a positive outcome. But the outcomes are out of our control.

We are not in control.

For example, we could be PERFECT (spoiler: no we can’t) and things still won’t always work out.

This work is not completely up to us.

There are too many moving parts, the complexity of living beings, and cosmic unknowns that we do not have control over.

No matter how hard we try, we cannot be certain of the outcome.

“However hard you work, however much you give, and however many years you deny and sacrifice yourself for the sake of your work, the outcomes of that work are not up to you. We can determine our contribution to the world, but never the outcomes of that contribution.” – Elie Calhoun

This means we need to find a way to feel alright about our work and ourselves, even when the outcome isn’t what we’d hoped for. I recommend setting “internal conditions for success.”

Margaret Wheatley knows, “If we’ve returned again and again to our work, if we’ve taken up the challenges rather than avoiding them, if we’ve known when to give up, when to change, when to open up, when to love…well, I for one, will feel very successful.”

 

Accept limits and show up. There are limits to what we can do. So many problems cannot be fixed. We need to keep showing up to serve anyway. Did you know fixing and serving are different?

“Serving requires us to know that our humanity is more powerful than our expertise.” – Rachel Remen

Listen to Sharon Salzberg, OG compassionate badassery tour guide:

“We don’t always know how to relieve others’ suffering; often we can’t, in fact. Then our only recourse is to be present and attend to the suffering, which can be difficult.”

Showing up and being present is EVERYTHING. Or as my coach would say, we gotta hold that space.

In animal welfare work, compassion holds and hospice are a beautiful example of this.

Back to Sharon, “…any skillful caregiving relationship relies on balance: the balance between opening one’s heart as much as possible and accepting the limits of what one can do.”

Yo, that’s soft front, strong back again!

With compassion balanced by equanimity, we can show up and be present to suffering, even when we can’t fix a thing.

 

Imperfect and still awesome. We’re highly skilled. We strive to meet our personal and professional standards. Lives are on the line.

And yet. We make mistakes. We fail. ALL OF US DO.

We are not our mistakes. We are imperfect human beings, doing our best in imperfect organizations and systems, with limited resources, helping complex living beings.

Striving to be awesome at caring for others is a wonderful trait. But lots of us are stuck in perfectionism instead.

“Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain or blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield…it’s other-focused. What will they think?”  – Brene Brown, compassionate badassery researcher

Perfectionism is self-destructive. No one can perform at 100%, 100% of the time. Trying to do that is an express train to Burnoutville.

Know that you will cause harm (paradox alert: you can cause harm and be a healer) at some point. Accept this ahead of time. Try not to judge yourself. Fortunately, mistakes will help you grow.

You are both imperfect and awesome. The answer to all of this is mega doses of self-compassion.

 

Small moments and big picture. If we want to feel like our work is meaningful and we’re having an impact (despite all of the above) we need to pay attention and toggle our perspective.

Learn to zoom in mindfully, so that you notice you are making a difference for at least one animal or person every day. Then zoom out to take in the big picture impact you are making over the course of your entire lifetime.

Both matter.

Sit in a kennel and comfort a scared dog. You are a success.

Adopt out thousands of dogs. You are a success.

Neither is negated by the fact that you couldn’t comfort or save them all.

Neither is negated if you take a break or quit or change careers.

 

Use judgement and stay curious. We need to use our good judgement every day at work. How else will we make decisions? But using our best judgment is not the same as being judgmental.

Complex work + imperfect human beings + systemic barriers = few ideal outcomes.

When you catch yourself judging others (we all do it), consider how their actions are helping them to cope with a problem. It may not be a skillful approach, but it’s probably the best they can do with the resources they have.

Assume people are doing their best. It feels better and helps us to serve effectively.

Meet people where they are. Stay curious. Question your assumptions. We’re not so different from each other.

Use your judgement to help others take whatever small steps they can. Trust it will lead to the best possible outcome.

 

Welcome joy and pain. No mud, no lotus, as Thich Nhat Hanh likes to say.

Or as I like to say, no shit, no roses. My garden beds are full of alpaca poop right now. I’m going to eat some tasty peas this summer. Hooray for shit!

“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” – Naomi Shibab Nye

Word.

The joys of helping others are often directly connected to the painful parts. This is the tension of opposites that we have to live in.

Our joy and pain are in a committed relationship. They’re not just friends with benefits.

Sometimes we get stuck only noticing the pain. We need to train ourselves to see and savor the joy.

“If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller

Say thanks often. Gratitude fills us up and open our hearts.

Maybe we’re desperately trying to avoid the pain. But if we numb out pain, we numb joy too.

“Pleasure is not a reward. Pain is not a punishment. They’re just ordinary occurrences.” – Chogyam Trungpa

Don’t worry. Neither is permanent.

So much of what we love about our work is rooted in pain. The work breaks our hearts AND fills the cracks with gold (see: the art of kintsugi).

Our deepest suffering is fertilizer for our deepest, most badass compassion.


 

Honestly, this is hard. Like Buddhist nun level hard (that’s why they’re the ones giving us all the good advice).

It takes deep resources.

That’s the other half of the compassionate badassery equation: pledging hardcore allegiance to your own welfare.

I’m talking holy rolling, ride or die chick dependability, hand-over-heart pledge allegiance to yourself kind of self-care.

My girl-crush Renee calls this self-loyalty.

Caring for ourselves is both a sacred obligation and our professional responsibility. It’s not something we need to feel bad about or selfish for doing.

Caring for our tools (heart, mind, spirit, and body) allows us to serve others for the long haul, doing ethical, effective work.

Here are some ideas for saying “I do!” to yourself:

– We need internal space to hold those contradictions. Create it: breathe, meditate, pray, do yoga, share your stories, allow for silence, trust in something bigger.

– Self-care is more than massages and taco night. It’s medical and dental care. It’s doing your bills, taking your meds, and having difficult conversations. More here.

– This is not all on you as an individual. Self-care can’t fix a toxic work environment or an unreasonable job description. Question the systems you work within. Organizations need to be held accountable for the conditions they create. Fight to make them better only IF you have the energy and safety to do so.

– Life is a series of expansions and contractions. Plan for this. When you’re in an upswing, put resources in place for the downswing.

– Remind yourself that you do not have to earn your self-care. EVER. You deserve care simply because you exist. Just like the animals do.

– Pay attention to your body. It’s keeping the score and it’s trying to talk to you. Listen, please.

– There will always be more need then you can address in a day (or lifetime). Your to-do list regenerates at night like gremlins. There is no finish line. Rest as you go.

– Notice your self-talk and tone. Ease up. Talk to yourself with the same kindness you’d give to your BFF (or your dog).

– Embrace “good enough” rules. Screw perfect. Find your own version of “good enough” when it comes to self-care, work, parenting, or anything else. The Good Enough Club is always accepting new members.

– Build healthy, flexible boundaries. Start by saying no to what drains you, so you can say yes to what energizes and supports you.

– Invest in your life outside of work, even if the work you do is your calling. Playing will counterbalance the intensity of the work you do. Refill that cup, girl!

– Your journey will have ups and downs. You will likely still experience compassion fatigue or burnout, even if you do everything “right”. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

– You cannot do this alone. No one can. Tend and befriend. Ask for and accept help.

– Emotions are contagious. You’re not a silo. “Take responsibility for the energy you bring into the room” – Jill Bolte Taylor. And notice when you’re soaking up other people’s stuff too.

– Own your mistakes. Do what you can to make it right. Be honest with yourself. Accountability heals.

– Ground your work in something bigger than your anger. Desiree Adaway reminds us that if, “…we ground our work in joy, support, community, and security we will win.”

– There is no shame in receiving mental health help. FUCK that. If your leg was broken, you’d go to the doctor. If your heart and brain are busted, go to the doctor.

– Make your life a martyr-free zone. Suffering and self-sacrifice are not competitive sports. Your suffering is not required in order for you to be of service to others.

– Recognize that you always have choices, even if they’re hard ones. Take responsibility for your life.

– Busyness and productivity are not badges of honor. Exhaustion is not something to brag about. Let go of “busy” as way to prove your value. Say it with me now: Rested is the new busy.

– Don’t take shit personally. It’s not about you. See: The 4 Agreements

– Adjust your expectations. “Happiness is greater than or equal to your perception of the events in your life, minus your expectation of how life should behave.” – Mo Gawdat

– Resiliency is like a muscle. Work it out like a boss and you’ll grow stronger, even in the broken places. Leonard reminds us that that’s where the light gets in, right?

There’s more, but I don’t want to punish you with another 2,000 words. In fact, here’s a Facebook cover image, as a reward for getting this far:

To summarize, practicing compassionate badassery means mindfully making vulnerable, courageous choices that support sustainable, ethical, and satisfying caregiving.

To practice compassionate badassery:

  1. Choose to embrace uncertainty and paradox.

  2. Pledge hardcore allegiance to your own welfare.

Practicing compassionate badassery requires that we invest deeply in ourselves, so that we can thrive amongst all of the contradictions and unknowns of serving others.

The work will never be easy or painless. Meaningful work rarely is. The waves will keep on coming, according to Jon.

But if we choose to practice compassionate badassery, then we’ll be able to more skillfully navigate these challenges, continue caring for others, and enjoy our one and only life a whole lot more.

“What are we here for if not to enjoy life eternal, solve what problems we can, give light, peace and joy to our fellow-man, and leave this dear fucked-up planet a little healthier than when we were born.” – Henry Miller


Listen to me talk and laugh about this idea (I share a poem that explains a lot called Autobiography in Five Short Chapters) in this Facebook video.

p.s. This is my take on compassionate badassery. I want to know what YOU think. Let’s make compassionate badassery a community brainstorm. What does practicing compassionate badassery mean to you?

p.p.s. Want some help with this? I offer 1-on-1 coaching and a self-study class that can support your compassionate badassery practice. You can grab a Practice Compassionate Badassery tee here too!