What Happened When I Couldn’t Complain for 5 Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on solving or coping with the problem instead.

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

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

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

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

That’s when WSUXS started broadcasting loud and clear.

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

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

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

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

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

Not the bathrooms…

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

I was boring myself. I was making myself miserable.

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

So I decided to stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our life becomes a WSUXS marathon. 

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

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

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

So what can you do?

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

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

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

nothing has to change

 

More on this topic:

How to Complain Less

Why Complaining is Literally Killing You

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

 

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

 

Flip the Script: I Could Never Do Your Job, I Love Animals Too Much

“What do you do?”

“I work at an animal shelter.”

“I could never work at a shelter. I love animals too much.” 

“Please go away now.”

 

Every single person who works in an animal shelter has had someone say this to them. All of us.

It’s what people say in response to hearing what line of work we’re in. They’re not thinking about what they’re saying and my bet is that they don’t mean to hurt our feelings.

But they do.

In every workshop I give, every class I teach, and in some recent research I was a part of through the Shelter Medicine program at UF, this one phrase comes up again and again.

It pisses you off. It hurts your feelings. It’s lodged in your brains.

 

That’s because when someone says:

I could never do your job. I love animals too much. 

We hear:

You must not love animals (as much as I do) and that’s why you can do that horrible work.

 

Of course, that’s bananas. The people who work in animals shelters love animals more than the average person.

That’s why we’re willing to put ourselves out there to help them in their time of need. That’s why we keep showing up to work in difficult conditions where the limited resources rarely meet the needs. It’s why, when necessary, we’re willing to walk with them in their final moments, letting animals know that they are are seen and loved, as they leave the world.

We love animals more than anyone! We know this. You know this. Truly, you do.

So why does this flip remark tweak so many of us so badly? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this phrase cited as a contributor to our compassion fatigue.

Let’s break it down:

On one hand, we get upset because that comment reveals how little the general public understands the complex work that we do. Also, as the late, great Rodney Dangerfield said, we don’t get no respect.

Is that stressful? Yeah it is.

On the other hand, we also get upset because we’re telling ourselves a story about what we think the other person means.

We interpret what they say through filters created by our own individual experiences and perceptions. Some of those experiences may include having been harshly criticized for euthanizing animals or for having to charge money for our services.

It may also include our own mixed feelings about the work that we do (mixed feelings, including guilt, are really normal) and how we’re being affected by it.

We take this comment very personally. But if you think about how we’re all being told the exact same thing, it really isn’t personal at all!

As with many things in life, including work, when we take things like this personally we add a thick layer of optional suffering onto that annoying, but ultimately harmless, comment.

Remember: meaning is co-created.

Since we can’t control what other people say or do, we can focus on what we can control: our end of the conversation. We can choose to tell ourselves different stories about other people’s actions. We can change our interpretation, so that it feels better for us. Let me explain.

 

I could never work in a shelter

 

Even when I was at my worst stages of compassion fatigue it didn’t hurt my feelings when people said this me:

I could never work at a shelter. I love animals too much.

Because for some lucky reason (that I take no credit for) my filters allowed me to hear it this way:

I’m not strong enough to do that work. I don’t know how I’d survive it. 

 

I perceived the comment as a reflection of them and the nature of the work (it is hard!). It had almost nothing to do with me. But, if it did have anything to do with me, I chose to interpret it as a compliment.

As in:

I’m not strong enough to do that work, but you are. 

 

Believe me, I get how you could hear the first way. But let’s be honest. We know that’s not what most people really mean.

OK, some insensitive or judgmental people might actually mean that they love animals more than you, but who cares what they think? If they’re not willing to get in the arena and do the work with you, then they’re just critics.

Thank you Brené Brown for the book and Theodore Roosevelt for this:

 

critic arena daring greatly

 

Most people simply mean that they care about animals and they don’t know how they’d cope with all the pain and suffering. That’s legit.

Could they say something better? Sure! They could say:

“I love animals so much, but I don’t think I’m brave enough to do that work. Thank goodness there are strong, compassionate badasses like you that choose to step up.”

Or just something simple like:

“Wow, that’s tough. Thank you for your service.”

And then you can say:

“Thanks for appreciating what I do. It’s really hard, but you know what makes it easier? Donations.”

Then ask them to write your shelter or rescue or clinic a check.

 

So the next time someone says they couldn’t do what you do because they love animals too much, just smile.

Practice the fine art of compassionate badassery: know who you are, what you value, why you do this hard, but deeply meaningful work, and then choose not to get rattled by other people’s comments.

Choose to hear it as a compliment instead. Choose to spin the story in whatever way lifts you up or, at the minimum, doesn’t make your eyelid twitch.

In fact, go ahead and choose to interpret anything that comes across your plate as being less personal, less insulting, less intentionally menacing, and way more neutral or benign.

Doing that isn’t for anyone else’s benefit (though it will benefit others). It’s a freebie you can throw yourself so that you suffer less.  And wouldn’t that be nice?

The work is hard enough as it is. Flip that script so that it hurts less and serves you better!

 

 Thank you for your service. You guys are the best

xo,

 

 

New Session of Compassion in Balance Starts June 6th!

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

 

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

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

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

 

compassion in balance online class photo

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

nothing has to change

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you’ll join us this summer!

with love,

Intro to Debriefing: 4 Ways to Manage Compassion Fatigue

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

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

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

This is where various kinds of debriefing come in handy.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

friends sharing

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical Suggestions for Crisis Debriefing for Schools

Critical Incident Debriefing

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Download the PDF of this blog: Introduction to Debriefing

 

you got this,

The Good Enough Club

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

External accountability is the bees knees.

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

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

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

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

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

good enough


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

It goes something like this:

I was going to go to bed earlier, but now is such a bad time! I’ll wait until work isn’t so busy to start my new routine and then I’ll be able to do it right every night.

I missed 2 weeks or 2 months of yoga classes because things got crazy and now my routine is ruined. If I can’t go every week, what’s the point? Maybe I’ll try again later when things settle down and this time, I won’t slack off. 

I wanted to run five miles each morning before work, but I never actually did it. I suck at self-care.

You see the problem with this way of thinking right?

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

Then we fool ourselves into thinking that as soon as that happens, we’ll have tons of free time and the ability to finally do it perfectly.

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

This all or nothing thinking winds up being yet another excuse for not taking care of ourselves. Either we do it all perfectly (whatever that means) or we don’t do it at all.

Our little yoga group is pushing back on this defeating, distorted thought pattern. If you missed a day or three of yoga. No problem. Come on back.

If you didn’t start on January 1st with the rest of us, make today your Day One. If you can’t do the whole practice yet, lower the bar and do what you are able to do now.

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

 

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

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

  • We believe doing something is better than nothing (unless that nothing is meditating, in which case, rock on with your being-not-doing self).
  • A slip up or a lapse isn’t a failure. In fact, there are no “failures” – big or small – that will keep us from showing up to try again another day.
  • Instead of harsh criticism and judgement, we offer ourselves self-compassion and kindness.
  • Instead of rigidity and perfectionism, we stay flexible to accommodate the wackiness that is life.
  • We commit to taking care of ourselves, even though we can’t do it perfectly.
  • We adjust our expectations and question the stories we tell ourselves about how we “should” do things.
  • We pull back a little, so we can keep going for the long haul. Operating at 100% effort, 100% of the time isn’t possible (or necessary).
  • We accept that there are times when we will need to do less. We allow things to change.

 

You can join The Good Enough Club too! To be a card carrying member all you have to do is keep trying despite hitting bumps in the road, practice being kind and forgiving to yourself when things don’t unfold perfectly, and remain aware of how your thoughts are influencing your actions.

Basically, just keep on truckin’ baby.

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

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

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

 

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

See you in our Good Enough Clubhouse!

How to Stay Accountable In Online Classes

Have you ever signed up for an online class, but never got around to doing a thing with it? You’re in the right place. We’re gonna talk about online class accountability today.

Taking an online, self-paced course is awesome because you can do it when it fits into your schedule. But let’s be honest: sometimes our pace turns out to be…never.  If you’ve ever registered for an online class and not actually taken it, then we have something in common.

Somewhere out there lives an entire village of untaken, unopened class lessons, desperately waiting for you to log in, so they can teach you how to finally knit your cat a unicorn horn.

I offer some pretty great online classes, but I don’t want you to sign up and not take it. I want you to really benefit from them.

Here’s how:

1. Enroll with a Friend:  Ask a friend or colleague with similar interests to take the class with you. Start the course at the same time and make a schedule together, so that you’re both progressing through the lessons at about the same pace. Then hold each other accountable by planning to discuss it on a regular basis. You can do this in person over brunch or by email. Or try a quick daily check-in message (“DONE!”) with no need for a reply to one another.

Have a lot of friends? Ask a bunch of them to enroll in the class and make it a work project or a book club-like event. My Compassion in Balance alumni group is currently doing a 30 Days of Yoga practice together and we post photos and comments in our private Facebook group to let each other know we’ve hit the mat that day. Group accuntabilty – woot!

Hooray for Accountability Partners (and Keith Haring)!
Hooray for Accountability Buddies (and Keith Haring)!

2. Go Public: We’re more likely to stick to our commitments when other people know about our goals. Tell people in your life that you’re taking the class and what you hope to achieve. Make it known.

I hate to let people down, so I always feel more incentive to do the work when I’ve told people about it. When we keep our goals a secret, we give ourselves the chance to strike all kinds of deals to let ourselves off the hook.

You can also use social media to hold yourself accountable. Sometimes just the act of posting your goals and progress to an audience is enough to keep you plugging away.

3. Create Content:  Bloggers, this one is for you. As a spin off to #2, if you already have an audience, think of the class you’re taking as content fodder. It can be tough to find new things to write about every week. Use the structure of the class to create new content. You can write weekly posts to correspond with each lesson and share your progress. Or your can write a wrap-up post when you finish the class to share what you’ve learned. Announce to your readers early on that you’re in class. Knowing your readers are waiting for your thoughts on the topic will help keep you in school.

4. Schedule It: Before you get started, look at your calendar and life. Is this the right time to start or should you wait a couple of months to dive in? Where can you block out time each week to do the lessons?

Plan to start the course when you feel like it’s realistic for you, but then stick to it by blocking out time in your calendar to do the work. Make a commitment to start each lesson on a specific date and mark down any live calls or webinars. Do this in advance – so your schedule reflects your commitment.

Personal_Accountability
I can never get enough of these chickens. They really speak to my soul, you know? (source)

5. Set Your Intention: Be clear about why you’re taking the class. We’re all so busy and have a trillion things pulling at our attention. Reflect on why you hit “buy now!”, so you know why you’re willing to pass up New Girl reruns to do the homework.

Here’s a question to help you figure out your intention for the class: What do you hope to be able to do differently because of this course? Try to be very specific. This will help keep you motivated when the going gets tough.

 

So that’s it folks – a few ideas for how not to fall off the online-class wagon!

 

If you’re looking for a class to take this year and you work with animals, may I suggest my classes? Let’s hang out!

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

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

Emmett Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

run out of empathy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what helps?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You don’t have to figure this out alone. I offer online courses and individual coaching. Both exist so you can be well, while you do good work in the world. 

with love and gratitude,

12 Books To Read When Your Brain Hurts

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

 

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

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

 

Bonus Picks! SciFi/Horror/Fantasy genre:

Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

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

All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness

 

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

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

 

See you at the library,

Compassion Fatigue Strategies Course Starts 2/1!

Last summer I teamed up with the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program to launch Compassion Fatigue Strategies a four module, online, self-paced class for people who work with animals. And guess what?

A new session of the course starts on February 1st, 2016!

 

More than 60 animal care and welfare professionals showed up last session to learn about how they could manage the impact of compassion fatigue in their lives. Through weeks of thoughtful, honest, and courageous discussions, we were able to create a truly special learning experience together.

 compassion fatigue strategies class testimonial

 

Class kicks off again soon and while there’s no magic pill or quick fix for compassion fatigue, there are strategies, tools, resources, and new ways of thinking about the work that will help you transform how compassion fatigue is impacting your life.

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

Students from last summer’s session have shared that the course helped them to better prioritize their tasks, let go of work at the end of a shift, make more time for themselves and their personal lives, become more aware of their own emotions, mental states, and stress triggers, create healthier boundaries for themselves at work and at home, and much more.

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

I know you’re beyond busy and this may not be a great time to add something else to your schedule, but let’s be honest:

Nothing will change if you don’t carve out some time and energy to address how compassion fatigue is taking a toll on you and your work.

There will never be a perfect time to take this class. The to-do list will never be done. But if you want to stay in this work for the long haul, doing ethical, effective work and feel better while you do it, then you’ll have to make time to create something new for yourself.

 

Can you give yourself about 2 hours a week (that’s 15-20 minutes a day) to learn and explore practices that can support you for the rest of your career? Can you put yourself on your to-do list this winter?

You can read more about the class and what the students had to say about it here. And if you’re wondering how this course is different than my other online class, Compassion in Balance, check this comparison chart out.

Or tune in for a few minutes to the video below and I’ll tell you why I think you should take the class this winter.

Hint: it has a lot to do with 2017.

 

 

Ready to make a change? Register Here!

 

See you in class,

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

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

– Jennifer Michael Hecht

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

animal welfare mental health

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Learn how to be a light in the darkness.

 

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

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

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

Get your mental health plan in place now.

Here are some resources for getting help:

Look up therapists on PsychologyToday.com or GoodTherapy.org

A Beginner’s Guide to Therapy

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Resources for prevention training:

QPR Institute

A state by state guide to suicide prevention trainings and resources

A comprehensive list of gaterkeeper programs

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

in gratitude for your service,

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