Are You an Asker or a Guesser?

Are you stressed out by all the requests you get?

No matter what you do for a living, if you’re like most of us, the demand for your help and services far outweighs your resources.

And that means you need to say “no” a lot. 

It takes courage to say “no” – it makes most of us sweat. 

And we may find that we feel some anger, resentment, or annoyance towards the people who made the requests…because they put us through the misery of needing to set limits. 

For example, if you got a call from a client asking if you can squeeze their dog in for a last minute appointment that day, you might feel annoyed that they’re even asking. 

Don’t they know that I don’t have the time for that? That I’m already stretched to my limits? 

Maybe you wind up saying “yes” and then you’re overwhelmed.

Or maybe you do muster up the courage to say “no”, but then you’re upset that their request put you through the torture of turning them down. 

No matter what your answer, you feel stressed!

Here’s where it helps to understand that there are two different styles of making requests.

I talked about it in a Facebook Live last night. You can watch that HERE to hear more or keep reading…

Jessica Dolce Live

Andrea Donderi has a theory that we’re all raised in one of two cultures: Asking and Guessing.

In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favor, a raise, a last minute appointment, – fully realizing the answer may be no.

In Guess culture, people grow up believing that they should only ask for something if they’re pretty sure the answer will be yes.

Which one do you think you are?

Askers put stuff out there and wait to hear your decision. Can you watch my dog this weekend, so I can go on a last minute trip? Can you squeeze my cat in for a quick exam? Can you fit any more carriers on that transport?

Askers don’t mind if you say “no”  – they’re just gathering info about what’s possible. 

But when an Asker meets a Guesser, things get stressful. 

Askers expect you can and will say “no”, if it doesn’t work for you.

But Guessers have a hard time believing that the Asker really feels this way. 

If you’re a Guesser, you hear the request as an expectation.

They wouldn’t have asked, unless they expected I would say yes.

That’s why Askers can come off as rude or presumptuous to people who are Guessers.

Remember that pet owner who called for a last minute appointment?

They might be rude and inconsiderate OR they’re just an Asker, who expects you might decline.

They’re just giving it a shot by asking.

The problem is that Guessers are assuming everyone has the same mindset about asking – that no one would ask unless they expect the other person to say “yes”.

This mindset is based on a false assumption.

And this assumption creates a lot of unnecessary resentment and additional anxiety when we’re saying “no” to any request. 

So what do we do about it?

If you’re an Asker, be clear about your expectations when you’re making the request: let the other person know it’s okay to say NO. Give them an out.

Explain that you understand your request may not be something they can accommodate and you’re open to other options or ideas. 

If you’re a Guesser,stop assuming everyone expects you to say yes. A LOT of the requests you get are from Askers who expect that you might decline.

Experiment with assuming that at least half of the requests you’re getting are from people who know it’s a long shot. Drop the baggage of imagined expectations. It makes saying “no” a lot easier. 

If your Guesser, try asking for more. When we only ask for what we want and need if we’re sure the answer will be yes, we’re shortchanging ourselves.

We can’t possible know what someone’s answer will actually be, unless we ask. Don’t assume! You’re cheating yourself out of a lot of help (and potentially wonderful experiences) because you guessed incorrectly. 

I know that this doesn’t address the guilt, sadness, and stress of knowing that an animal is suffering or might die because you’re setting limits, but it is one layer of your stress that you can potentially let go of.

I Got Fired For Saying NO.

The very first time I said NO to a client, I got fired.

Picture this: South Philly, 2003. I was running my brand new dog walking business. I was 24 years old.

Boundaries were a hazy concept. When it came to my business, I had almost none.

If someone wanted to hire me, I took the job without hesitation and bent over backwards to accommodate their every request.

I did this because I was afraid of losing business.

But also because I wanted people to like me. 

I was hustling for approval.

I wouldn’t have called it that back then. 24 year old me was simply offering “excellent customer service.”

But my sense of self-worth was tied into being liked by my clients and that, my friend, was not about customer service.

That was about my own worthiness, as a human being, becoming tied up in external validation.

I wanted to please everyone. But especially the people that were hard to please.

So when anyone wanted to pay me to take care of their pets, I said YES.

Even when my gut was ringing the drama-alarm, warning me not to take the job. 

My gut set off a 10-alarm warning the day I met Maxine. 

Maxine (not her real name) had a Chihuahua that couldn’t be touched. The dog walkers that she hired in the past were, according to Maxine, unreliable idiots. She wanted to hire me. 

MY GUT: “Oh come on. You know the other dog walkers aren’t the issue, right? She’s the problem.”

Maxine said she heard that I was the best. That I was amazing with shy dogs. Would I please, please take care of her little guy?

MY GUT:“OMG. You’re not actually falling for this are you? Do not take this job!”

Maxine told me that sometimes it’s hard to find her dog, because he likes to hide in her giant piles of dirty laundry. She showed me the piles.

MY GUT: “GET OUT.”

I did not get out. I took the job.

My gut was NOT shocked when every boundary I tried to set with Maxine – my payment policies, my scheduling policies, my common-freaking-courtesy policies – were steamrolled.

She typically called me at the very last minute to pet sit. This drove me nuts. I complained about her a lot. Sometimes to her dog. 

Then I had my first professional boundary breakthrough:

Maxine was never going to change her behavior. It worked for her. She got what she wanted.

I couldn’t change her, but I could change ME.

I could stop saying YES to her last minute requests. I could stop hustling for her approval. 

It felt risky. But I vowed that the next time she called me to pet sit with zero notice, I would say NO. 

So there I was, walking through the Italian Market on a sunny afternoon, when my cell rang.  

Maxine needed me to pet sit for her.

She was already in her car, driving out of the city to see her brother.

The pet sitting job started right now.

I stared hard at a mural of cheese (this is South Philly) and drew strength from a giant wedge of Parmesan. 

NO, I said, I’m not available.

The screaming began immediately. 

I was terrible person, she said. I didn’t care about her.
I didn’t care about her dog. Or any animal.
I was greedy. I only cared about money.

I was an asshole. Now she couldn’t visit her brother.
Did I know he was a veteran? And sick?
Did I hate America?

Uh, NO. I stuffed a soft pretzel in my mouth to keep from folding.

Maxine, sensing her tactics weren’t working, turned to tears.

She thought we were friends.
She really depended on me.
She needed me.

NOPE. NOPE. NOPE. 

And then she fired me. We never spoke again.

I had never said NO like that before. I had never been fired. I was both nauseous and exhilarated. 

This was the day I began to love boundaries.  

I said NO more often. It was hard and sometimes painful.

But it was worth it. 

I learned a lot of important lessons during that time:

  • No matter how much I give, it will never be enough for some people. I have to decide what “enough” looks like for me.
  • I am responsible for my own behavior. I am not responsible for the choices other adults make.
  • Sometimes my worst fears about setting boundaries do come true, but that doesn’t mean I made the wrong choice.  
  • I can survive being disliked and being fired.
  • Difficult clients sap all of my energy, leaving me with less to give to my lovely, respectful clients (why am I punishing the good ones?!). 
  • I can have a thriving, fully-booked business AND take time off. 
  • Clients who truly value my services have zero problems respecting my limits.
  • People absolutely KNOW what they are doing when they ignore my boundaries. I won’t make excuses for them or play their games.

But boundary work is never done.

When I started working in an animal shelter, my old boundaries weren’t enough. The stakes were higher and I struggled to set healthy limits. This led to burnout and compassion fatigue.

Since then I’ve worked hard at understanding and upholding my boundaries – learning new lessons about myself and what setting limits means for me in different situations.

I believe that boundary work is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.

You can’t take care of yourself without them.

And you can’t create healthy boundaries until you learn to listen to your gut and face your fears about setting limits.

Also, it helps to have a script. 

Are you struggling to set limits at work?

Maybe you have a client, customer, or staff member that never takes NO for an answer or chooses to ignore the rules, no matter how accommodating you are with them?

Or do you overextend yourself, trying to do everything for everyone, and you know it’s not sustainable?

Then I hope you’ll join me and a group of animal care and welfare folks this winter for the Building Compassionate Badassery Boundaries course.

We start on February 17th. 

We’ll work together for 8 weeks to build the boundaries you need to create a life that truly works for you.

You can set limits AND be successful, kind, and make a big impact in the world. 

But you might need new skills, more support, and a few scripts to make that happen.

If you’d like some help, then I hope you’ll join our squad this winter.

Sign up now so you can take advantage of the Early Bird price and save 50%. The discount is good through February 6th!

Enroll HERE and use the code: EARLYBIRDSAVE150

Want more info? Check out this page for course details and FAQs.

The Compassionate Badassery Manifesto

Practicing compassionate badassery is my shorthand for helping professionals who are making courageous, vulnerable, mindful choices that go against the norms.

It’s my small way of pushing back on a culture that validates extreme sacrifice (which causes burnout and compassion fatigue) and shames helpers for setting healthy boundaries.

If you’re new to the idea of compassionate badassery you can read about it here, but as you can see, it’s a lengthy declaration.

So I wanted to create something short(ish) to help us stay connected to this life-sustaining approach to helping others. It was time for a manifesto!

Practice Compassionate Badassery:

A Manifesto for Helpers

We believe that self-care and service inherently belong together.
Our well-being fuels our impact.
We pledge to honor our own welfare;
And will not cause harm to ourselves, as we care for others.
Compassion is our superpower.
Healthy boundaries protect our big hearts.
We hold these contradictions and uncertainties:
– Work hard and let go of the outcomes.
– Can’t fix it and show up anyway.
– See the big picture and savor small rewards.
– Seek out joy and allow pain.
We know that laughter is medicine.
Curiosity is connection.
Pausing is powerful.
Good enough is perfect.
Rest is revolutionary.
We are grounded in gratitude.
We have the strength to ask for and accept help.
We challenge systems and seek solutions.
We live with integrity.
We do the hard things.
We make mindful, vulnerable, courageous choices every day.
This is our path towards effective, ethical, sustainable giving.
We are practicing compassionate badassery.

I could rewrite this manifesto a hundred times. Who am I kidding? I already have! It’s never really done.

But at some point, I need to declare it “good enough.” That’s what I’m doing today (take that inner perfectionist!).

want to write your own manifesto?

Here are some questions to get you started:

What do you want to declare?

What do you believe in?

What are you committed to?

What kind of emotion do you want to stir up in others?

Write your own or borrow mine. Either way, a little revolution is a good thing!

OK, Let’s Do This (How I Beat Stress with an Etsy Poster)

Two months ago, when I felt like I couldn’t do much of anything (because grief), I did what every sad, but kinda crafty 40 year old woman does: I bought stuff on Etsy. 

Specifically, I bought a Lisa Congdon print that says OK Let’s Do This. I hung it right above my desk.

It wasn’t my first choice (I love all of her work), but I sorely needed a pep talk. I was feeling stuck, slow as molasses, and had no idea how I was ever going to get all my work done. Between you and me, my couch game this year has been STRONG.

I knew I needed to see and say those words every day: OK Let’s Do This.

by Lisa Congdon


OK Let’s Just Try To Do This One Thing even though your brain had been replaced with moldy Silly Putty.

OK Let’s Get To Work and try to get three things done, then you can listen to another chapter of Educated.

OK Let’s Make a Move Right NOW because if you hesitate for one more second, the couch is going to swallow you whole and burp out your uncharged Fitbit.

OK Let’s Do This.

It was a one sentence pep talk. Nothing fancy. I was just straight up inner coaching myself. But it worked (things that also worked: being outside in the sun, seeing a therapist, painting the walls a new color).

Here’s what I want for you: find the words that help you move in the direction you want to go. Then say them a lot. A lot, a lot.

I couldn’t conjure up the right words, so I borrowed Lisa Congdon’s to help me pick myself up over and over again this spring, until I could do it on my own.

Things eventually got rolling again and it wasn’t long before I got my first whiff of overwhelm. I had a lot of catching up to do and I felt anxious. So I had to change my pep talk.

OK Let’s Do This became It’s OK You Got This.

One motivated me to get going. The other helped me to feel calmer, more capable.

Whenever I notice that I’m starting to spin out about the classes I’m teaching, the programs I’m building, the newsletters I’m (not) writing, and the conference talks I’m giving, I stop and remind myself:

Yes it’s a lot, but I know I can do this. I’ve done it before. I’ve got the skills. I’ve got the knowledge. All will be well.

And I feel better.

That’s what I want you to know: What you say to yourself matters. Choose the words that will be most helpful and put them on repeat. Especially when you’re stressed out. Here’s why:

The way we perceive stress and the way we perceive ourselves in relation to stress matters.

Kelly McGonigal PhD wrote about 3 protective beliefs we can chose to have that will change how stress impacts our physical health.

The 3 Most Protective Beliefs About Stress:

  1. View your body’s stress response as helpful, not debilitating (I’m gonna use this burst of energy to tackle that challenge!)
  2. View yourself as able to handle, and even learn and grow from, the stress in your life (I can do this!)
  3. View stress as something that everyone deals with, and not something that proves how uniquely screwed up you or your life is (I’m not alone in this, I’m just human, also maybe I need a snack?)


The research shows that having these positive beliefs can protect us from some of the harmful effects of stress, even if we can’t REDUCE our stress.

And here’s another way we can change how stress impacts us, without reducing our stress: find the meaning. If you can finding some meaning in whatever it is that’s stressing you out, you can reduce the harmful effects of stress (says McGonigal).

This is important to consider because lots of you work very intense jobs and there will be times when you can’t reduce your exposure to stress. So you have to change how you relate to it. That shift can help protect your heart (and other at-risk body bits) from the harmful effects of stress.

For me, it was the second belief (I know I can do this!) that has been really powerful for me these past couple of months. I can’t prove that it helped keep me physically healthy. But I can say, without a doubt, that telling myself over and over again – It’s OK, You’ve Got This – led me out of anxiety time and again.

When we believe (and reaffirm) that we have the skills that we need to address a challenge, we become less stressed by that challenge.

And if we don’t know how to address the challenge, but we believe that we have the capacity to learn the skills we need to tackle it, we’re less stressed.

If we believe that we have the skills and resources to cope with the difficult emotions that might come with the challenge, we’re more resilient to the stress.

How you perceive yourself in relation to stress matters. And you can shape your perceptions with deliberate self-talk.

So say it with me now:
OK, Let’s Do This.
It’s OK, I’ve Got This.
 
You can learn more about this stress perception stuff in the super popular TED Talk from Kelly McGonigal. But what about you? What words do you need to have on repeat, so you can do the thing?

Go Home You’re Drunk: What Insomnia + Compassion Fatigue Have in Common

The past couple of months have been, er, challenging.

Short story: My two beloved cats died. In between their deaths I managed to break out in a full body rash that lasted 4 weeks.

Between grief and non-stop scratching I got almost no sleep.

Let me tell you something: heartbreak + hives + insomnia = one hot mess.

Have you met Depression Kitty? Accurate.

Thanks to time, tears, therapy, journaling, and two million anti-histamines, I feel really good now. I’m myself again. 

But more than anything, the single biggest factor in my mental health upswing was being able to sleep again. 

Fun fact: Did you know that insomnia and depression are pretty much interchangeable in terms of how they present?

“Mood and sleep use the same neurotransmitters. It’s very hard to tell if someone has sleep loss or depression.” says Dr. Joyce Walseben, psychiatrist and former director of Bellevue Hospital’s Sleep Disorders Center.

Sleep regulates a bunch of feel good chemicals, like serotonin, that are closely associated with our mood and behavior. When we’re not sleeping enough our brain’s emotional center is 60 percent more reactive than normal. 

You might be thinking, I don’t have insomnia so this is dumb and I want a snack. 

Hold on! The CDC defines adequate sleep as at least 7 hours a night. 

Sleeping less than 7 hours per day is associated with an increased risk of developing chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and frequent mental distress.

Are you getting 7+ hours of sleep on a regular basis? 

Many of us don’t even come close (if you do, high five!)..

For some people, that’s a point of pride. We brag that we don’t get or need a lot of sleep.

Exhaustion is a status symbol in our culture.

It’s “proof” that we’re busy doing important stuff (and therefore we’re important).

That being said, you probably do have a lot on your plate and not enough support to help you handle the load. 

No wonder sleep isn’t a priority. 

You might be thinking, the CDC is bananas. I really am fine on 5 hours a night. 

Fun fact: We can’t accurately perceive our sleepiness.


Professor Sigrid Veasey of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology, has said that lack of sleep skews our self-awareness. In the podcast Hurry Slowly she talked about a research study that looked at how people perceive themselves when they’re only sleeping 4 hours a night.

After the first night, when asked how they felt, they reported they felt terrible and sleepy.

But once the third night rolled around, they started reporting that they were feeling back to normal. 

They said they had “adjusted” and no longer reported feeling sleepy. 

But the objective tests they were taking showed a different story: with every passing day their performance was getting worse and worse. 

You make think you’re doing great on just a few hours a night, but you can’t accurately perceive yourself homie.

Kind of like when you’re drinking. You think you sound normal, but you’re slurring your words while slowing sliding off the bar stool. You’re not fooling anyone.

Go home, you’re drunk.

There’s a strong parallel here with our experience of compassion fatigue. 

It’s hard to perceive ourselves accurately when we’re experiencing CF.

We may acknowledge that the work we do is sad and hard, but overall our self-awareness is pretty low. We think we’re doing fine.

But if we’re experiencing CF there’s a good chance we’re not seeing ourselves accurately, that our outlook on the world is skewed, and that our behavior at work is impacted. 

Here’s what I mean:

Compassion fatigue is a normal, predictable consequence of working in a helping profession. But the symptoms of CF (which can include anger, exhaustion, hyper-vigilance, apathy, lack of empathy, excessive complaining, and rigid thinking) do impair our ability to do our work well. 

We’re so busy taking care of everyone around us that it can be hard to recognize how we’ve changed and how the quality of our work might be slipping.

Just like sleep deprived folks, we think we’ve adjusted well. 

But we’re drunk and we need to go home, before we unintentionally cause harm to ourselves or those we serve.

That’s why compassion fatigue education is so important. It helps us to see ourselves clearly. What we notice we can change. 

So let’s get practical: what’s one thing you can do today to help manage the impact of compassion fatigue?

Get some frigging rest.

Every other thing you need to do to be well, like spending time with friends, upholding your boundaries, resolving a conflict, processing your emotions, or getting some exercise, is so much harder to do when you’re sleep deprived.

Not to mention we need sleep to heal from our work – when we’re asleep our body has the chance to repairs itself and our brain is busy processing memories and trauma. 

So how do you know how much sleep you really need?

Listen to Veasey: “What is the amount of sleep you need not to exist but to thrive? What’s the amount of sleep that you need to feel energized, excited, enthused about your life, your family, your friends? What’s that amount of sleep?”

For me, thriving is 8-9 hours a night. Sleep is the foundation of my well-being. 

Everything, including writing this newsletter (the first one I’ve written in nearly two months) is 10 billion times easier, more enjoyable, and of much better quality when I’m well rested. 

So please, I’m begging you, get some rest. It can help lift your mood and perspective, improve your physical health and relationships, and address compassion fatigue too. 

Sleep can be complicated, so if you need some help, listen to the podcast!

Why I’m Pulling My Compassion Fatigue Self Study Class

Have you been considering taking my self-study class? Then you’ll want to read this:

The Compassion in Balance SELF-STUDY class is going away on April 26th. 

That’s right, I’m pulling my first born out of rotation. 

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the class. 

In fact, I hear stuff like this all the time from students: 

“Compassion in Balance has helped me tremendously. I was on the verge of quitting last year and I feel like I’m finally in a better place now. We’ve had compassion fatigue training before, but none of it really focused on working with animals and it didn’t really make sense. You’ve bridged the gap for me and I truly appreciate it!” – Megan, Animal Shelter Volunteer Coordinator

But my work has come a long way since I launched that course in 2014.

It’s time for CiB to evolve. 

My baby is going BIG TIME (you hear Peter Gabriel’s voice saying “big time” too, right?)

The self-study is being transformed into a brand new online program for animal shelters.

It’s a pretty amazing year-long program designed to make a bigger impact for organizations. You’ll learn all about it later this month.

And not to to get too far ahead, but I’ve got something new cooking for individuals too. So if you’re not part of an organization, no worries. I’ve got you!

Here’s today’s takeaway: 

If you’ve been wanting to enroll in CiB, but haven’t gotten around to signing up yet…now’s the time my friend! 

Enrollment in Compassion in Balance (the self-study) closes on Friday April 26th.

After that, it’s going on sabbatical.

You can learn more and sign up for the class here. 

This is the most affordable, most comprehensive compassion fatigue class for animal care and welfare workers out there, so if you want it, don’t hesitate. It WILL help. And you have access to the materials for a full year, so scoop it up now and jump in whenever you can. 

One more time for the kids in the back carving their initials into their desks:

Enrollment in The Compassion in Balance self-study course ends on Friday 4/26. 

p.s. If you are already a student in the self-study (thank you!), don’t worry – you will still have access to the course materials for a full year, as promised. The only thing that ends on the 26th is new enrollments.

Grief at Work: What Does a Grief-Competent Workplace Look Like?

Lately I’ve been thinking about how multiple losses can complicate grief. And if they happen in a short period of time it can overwhelm our ability to cope.

If we work with animals in shelters and vet clinics, the sheer number of losses we experience can be a major challenge (see: cumulative grief). In some workplaces we’re experiencing daily losses and in large numbers.

This puts us in a constant cycle of fresh grief with coping skills that might be really overloaded. And I’m not even including the losses we experience in our personal lives. Which I should, since most of us are grieving on any given day

Have you read the “ball in the box” description of grief?

It’s wonderful. And it made me think about some of you and how, if the losses are constant, the ball never has a chance to get smaller naturally. The losses stack up and the pain can be overwhelming.

Yet we hardly talk about grief at work.

So I have questions. 

What do we do with all this cumulative grief? How do we tend to it and allow ourselves to experience the pain (so that it’s not trapped inside and causing damage), but still remain functional at work? 

We do a pretty terrible job of allowing for grief in our modern society. It’s all the more challenging when our workplaces are filled with unacknowledged loss and pain. Or when we avoid acknowledging that some of the losses we experience have been traumatizing.

Sometimes we’re afraid to feel or do anything because we worry that acknowledging the loss might “break the dam” and we’ll fall apart.

We’re holding so much in.

But what if we acknowledged the grief more regularly, so that there was no dam to break? What if our workplaces were psychologically safe enough for us to be vulnerable with one another?

What would it look like to acknowledge grief and to create shared rituals that allow us to grieve together in workplaces that are constantly impacted by loss?

What would a “grief-positive” or at least a “grief competent” workplace look like?

Like I said, I have a lot of questions. 

But I’d never leave you hanging without some ideas for what we can do to address this.

A friend who works in harm reduction (for people impacted by drug use) mentioned how many losses her community was dealing with and shared this resource for grieving on the job, born out of AIDS bereavement work, called When Grief Comes to Work.

I highly recommend it if you’re in a leadership role. The guide includes a number of prevention and intervention strategies such as: trauma-informed organizational culture, varying workload, education so staff understands what they’re experiencing, social/group support, workplace rituals, mental health coverage, supervision to process events, and resources for self-care.

No matter where you work please don’t miss this amazing interview with psychotherapist Francis Weller.

In particular, I’m turning over his thoughts on the powerful relationship between grief and gratitude, sorrow and joy:

“The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible…

A heart that does not somehow deal with grief turns hard and becomes unresponsive to the joys and sorrows of the world. Then our communities become cold; our children go unprotected; our environment can be pillaged for the good of the few. Only if we learn to grieve can we keep our hearts responsive and do the difficult work of restoring and repairing the world.”

Don’t skip the interview. It’s rich.

If you have anything to share about how organizations can address grief and loss, I’d love to hear from you.

Are any of you offering groups facilitated by a veterinary social worker or grief counselor for your staff? Do you have any rituals to acknowledge your losses? I’m curious to know what’s already being done. Leave a comment or send me a message anytime. I always want to hear from you!

Why I Waited 6 Months Before I Got Help for Depression

If your arm was broken how long would you wait before you got help?

1 second. 

I would wait 1 second. 

But when I was experiencing depression a couple of years ago, I waited about 6 months before I asked for help.

In all fairness, I didn’t realize I was depressed for most of that time. I thought my inability to concentrate, weepiness, and lack of energy was from grief (two of my pets died in 5 weeks) and finishing up grad school. And for the first couple of months, I think that grief and stress were indeed the cause. 

But a few more months of feeling bad and I began to suspect it might be something more serious because it wasn’t going away, no matter how much self-care I threw at it. 

It was my gynecologist that helped me see I was depressed.

She didn’t come to that conclusion during my pelvic exam (my cervix was surprisingly cheerful). We just talked. I took a simple depression screening. It was clear that I was more than sad. I had a medical condition.

With that clarity, I could stop trying to self-care my way out of it (I hear that’s not how you fix a broken arm either). I started taking an antidepressant.

This is the same gynecologist who asked me how she would know when it was time euthanize her senior dog. Crying and talking about dogs during Pap smears is our thing. 

I was high functioning while I was depressed which is why I didn’t think I needed help. But when I felt better I looked back and it was clear that I hadn’t been myself for months.

Unlike having a broken arm, depression isn’t always immediately obvious. It was hard for me to accurately assess what I was experiencing. That made it tough to get the right care.

Later on, I found a great therapist. I’ll tell you about her some other time.

I’m 100% these days. I was able to get the help I needed. 

But so many people never do.

Only about a third of those suffering from severe depression seek treatment from a mental health professional.

36% of people with social anxiety disorder report experiencing symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help.

10 years.

That’s heartbreaking.

I worry that many of you aren’t getting the care you deserve. 

There are so many reasons why people don’t seek help. Health insurance. Stigma. Access to services. Cultural differences. Fear. 

And there’s a TON of confusion surrounding mental health care.

Plus, there’s the mental illness itself. When you’re depressed it can be really challenging to muster up the energy to make a bowl of cereal, let alone interview therapists.

This much is clear: if a woman who was raised by two therapists and has no problem talking about mental health issues (that’s me) needs some help figuring out she’s depressed so that she can get the right care, then it’s safe to say lots of us could use a little help when it comes to sorting out mental health stuff.

Very few of us feel like we know what we’re doing in this area. That’s why I always have a live Q+A with a therapist (Hi mom!) in all of my compassion fatigue classes.

People are confused:

What kind of therapy is the right fit for me? Will my boss know if I use the EAP to find a therapist? What should I do if I notice someone at work seems depressed? Can my boss hold it against me if she finds out I used the health insurance I have through work to get medication for a mental health issue? Is compassion fatigue the same thing as depression? How do I find a good therapist (my last one wasn’t so great)?

These are just a few of the questions we get asked every year. 

If you work with animals or people who are suffering and traumatized, I bet you have questions like this too because the work you do takes a toll on your mental well-being. It leaves all of us wondering WTF? some days.

If you’re in a leadership role in an animal shelter or vet practice, I’ve got to ask: what’s your plan for supporting the mental health of your staff?

At a minimum, please have a staff meeting to make sure they understand how their health insurance or your EAP works. Be sure to address confidentiality issues. 

It would help if we all got some training on mental health first aid, so that we better understood these issues for ourselves and felt more competent reaching out to those who need us.

I have other thoughts on this: 
7 Ways We Can Support Mental Health in the Animal Welfare Community
Are You Thinking About Suicide? And Other Questions We’re Afraid To Ask
Depression and Suicide In Animal Care Professions: What Can We Do?

There’s so much to say about mental health in animal welfare, it’s hard to know where to stop.

But for now, if you’re wondering if what you’re experiencing is depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc. please take an anonymous screening today. Knowing is the first step.

And if you want to keep talking about this sort of thing, join us over in the Compassionate Badassery Collective. It’s my private FB group where asking these sort of questions is always okay. 

Being a human is hard stuff. Let’s pinky swear we won’t wait 10 years to ask for help, ok?

HALT! You Might Need a Snack

Have you ever done a HALT check?

HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.

If you’re in recovery, you may already be familiar with this incredibly helpful acronym because it’s a tool to help prevent relapse.

But every single one of us could use HALT. It’s a simple way to help us stay aware of our needs, so that we can care for ourselves more effectively and create better outcomes during stressful or upsetting moments.

Here’s how it works:

When you’re feeling your stress levels rise or a funk coming on, HALT is a reminder to stop and assess your true needs, before you do something that you’ll regret.

If you’re in recovery, the thing you might regret doing is using again. If you’re not, than the thing you might regret doing is yelling at your dog, saying something unkind to a loved one (including yourself), eating a whole box of cookies, being impatient or judgmental with a client at work, writing an inappropriate email, or firing off a hurtful social media rant.

Before you behave in a way that feels out of control or breaches your integrity, ask yourself if you’re:

Hungry: When was the last time you ate? Was it something healthy? Is your blood sugar low? Are you dehydrated? Hungers come in all forms: Are you hungry to have your emotional needs met?

Angry: Are you feeling resentful or angry right now? Towards another person, a circumstance at work or in the world, at yourself?

Lonely: When was the last time you talked with a friend? A counselor? A supportive coworker? Are you feeling isolated? Disconnected?

Tired: Did you get enough sleep last night? Do you need a quick nap instead of a caffeine blast? Do you need a day off?

All of these things may be influencing your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Rather than just pushing through or ignoring your needs, identify if any of these are true for you at the moment, then take action to address them. Have a snack, talk with a friend, go for a brisk walk, take a nap.

If you can’t do anything to address your needs in that moment, acknowledge that your real needs are not being met right now.

Offer yourself some kindness and compassion. Remain aware that being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired increases the likelihood that you will act in a way that you may regret later, so tread lightly.

Or it may be the reason why you just did something you already wish you hadn’t done. Don’t beat yourself up (that never changes anything). Pause to breathe deeply. Consider how you can stay aware of your needs and better care for yourself in the future, so that you don’t allow yourself to get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.

The next time you snap at a customer, get frustrated with your dogs, feel hopeless about something, or just feel “off”, take a moment to HALT and ask a truly self-compassionate question:

What do I really need in this moment and how can I give it to myself?

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? Are you afraid of your staff getting on the self-care bus because they may not want to do that anymore? Maybe you’re worried that they’ll want to go home at the end of their shift, but you know that your organization can’t function unless your staff is always working overtime.

Job descriptions (hours, tasks, responsibilities) need realistic boundaries. If you depend on your staff to consistently go beyond the boundaries of the job description they agreed to when you hired them and you consistently ask them to stay late and do more, you’re dancing with exploiting your workers.

Get honest with yourself about what you’re asking your staff to do and how you’re using their energy, which is a finite resource.

Sit down and come up with humane job descriptions. That goes for leadership as well. How “doable” is your job?

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 a litter of foster kittens goes back to the shelter. Try a one month break for foster homes 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 from you 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 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

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