letting go

Practice Compassionate Badassery

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

Lauren described compassionate badassery like this:

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

I bought it.

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

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

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

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

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

There are two linked ideas that ground this practice:

  1. Choose to embrace uncertainty and paradox.

  2. Pledge hardcore allegiance to your own welfare.

 

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

What does it mean to choose uncertainty and paradox?

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

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

Same goes for our work.

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

Wait up, what’s a paradox again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s why it’s badassery.

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

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

 

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

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

Vulnerability requires strength. Just like Lauren said.

 

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

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

Buddhists might call this compassionate non-attachment.

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

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

 

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

We are not in control.

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

This work is not completely up to us.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Listen to Sharon Salzberg, OG compassionate badassery tour guide:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Both matter.

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

Adopt out thousands of dogs. You are a success.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t worry. Neither is permanent.

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

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


 

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

It takes deep resources.

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

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

My girl-crush Renee calls this self-loyalty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To practice compassionate badassery:

  1. Choose to embrace uncertainty and paradox.

  2. Pledge hardcore allegiance to your own welfare.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

2017 Word of the Year: Joyful Responsibility

In 2015, I chose: Integrate

In 2016, it was: Full

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Action absorbs anxiety.”  – Angeles Arrien

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

Confusing martyrdom with compassion

Wanting to have all the answers

Thinking I’m responsible for everything

Resentment

All or nothing thinking

Cynicism as a world view

Productivity as a way to earn my place on the planet

Busyness as a measure of my value

Exhaustion as a badge of honor

Dieting. Really. I’m done.

Feeling like I’m not enough

Feeling like I’m too much

Not honoring my boundaries to gain the approval of others

Complaining (less at least!)

Apologizing for who I am

 

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

Enjoying being of service, because I do enjoy it!

Accepting and asking for help

Not knowing the answers

Saying no, honoring boundaries, respecting my limits

Hopefulness as a world view

Savoring small pleasures

Engaging in meaningful action, regardless of outcome

Laughter with others while we do hard things

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

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

Not taking other people’s behavior personally

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

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

Re-investing in old friendships

Feeling good enough

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

Self-care, early and often, duh

Celebrating anniversaries, graduations, birthdays

Acknowledging my achievements and hard work instead of brushing it off

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

 

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

 

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

 

Happy New Year Friends!

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!

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,

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

written by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Mis estimados:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

bird in hand

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

 

with love + hope,

7 Easy, Affordable, Fun Ways To Increase Self-Care

Some days I don’t know where the time goes. Before I even look up from work, I realize it’s time to call it quits for the day. I didn’t do yoga or meditate or anything I had planned to do for myself. Blergh.

Self-care is tricky, not because it’s all that complicated, but because most of us put it at the bottom of our list of things to do. One reason (among many) for that is because we’ve aimed too high and made it hard for ourselves to meet our self-care goals.

I’m a big fan of underachieving, so I wanted to share some easy ways to add self-care into our lives.

Those of you who subscribe to my e-letters already know what’s up, since you got a version of this list over the holidays. But for those of you missed it, here are some of my favorite, simple ways we can all take care of ourselves:

 

1. Rent or download a free audio book from the library and listen to it while you commute to work. Make your journey an entertaining one. I just listened to Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Listening to a story that isn’t related to work is stimulating and refreshing. Plus, it makes the commute a pleasure instead of one more chore we have to do.

2. Buy a humidifier/aromatherapy diffuser. Use with lavender oil. Put it near your bed. Sleep well.

This one is rocking my world lately. I cannot wait to go to bed, so that I can turn this gadget on. Which means I’m not staying up late to watch one more TV show or to surf the web. As soon as I can, I hit the sheets, so I can huff some lavender. So I’m increasing the quality and quantity of my sleep: that’s some excellent self-care right there.

I got mine here.

MIU-COLOR-300ml-Aroma-Diffuser-Ultrasonic-Humidifier-300-0-0

 

3. Take an online drawing class with the super talented Lisa Congdon. It’s free for a 2 week trial, after that it’s $10 a month (cancel any time). Get your imagination and creativity rolling on your day off. I’ve been doodling like a maniac since taking this class which is relieving some of my stress and connecting me to a part of myself that I let slide over the years. It’s important that we all have hobbies outside of our work.

4. Grab a book that has nothing to do with work or school and read for pleasure. I just finished Outlander (thanks for the recommendation Nat!). It was light and entertaining which kept my attention, even when I was stressed out. Stories like this help me let go of obsessive thoughts so I can rest at night.

5.  Subscribe to a new free podcast and listen to it on the way home from work or while you’re making dinner. It’ll help you decompress after a tough day. On Being is my daily bread. I just finished listening to Serial too and it rocked my world.

6. Ask a friend to join you for a class you’ve wanted to take, like yoga or painting. Then book it. No backing out. I look for Groupons for classes to save money. And I found a yoga studio that is donation only. Search your local area for sweet deals, so money isn’t a barrier. Being with friends helps us feel less isolated and learning something new helps us to feel more competent. Both build resiliency.

7.  Do nothing. Treat your self to some rest. Really. Sit down, be still, and breathe for 5 minutes (or more). Allow yourself some quiet time. Listen to the birds. Be present to the moment and let the rest go. Cultivating calm is self-care.

So those are a few things that replenish and sustain me. But maybe you prefer knitting cat sweaters or laying someone out in roller derby. Whatever it is, add it to your to-do list or your schedule and make time to do you in 2015.

Self-care doesn’t have to be overwhelming. But we do need to plan for it and stick to our commitment to ourselves, so we don’t let weeks and months go by without taking care of our own needs.  So before any more time slips by, brainstorm a few easy ways that you’ll care for yourself in the coming months and make it happen. You deserve it!

Giving you a love-filled high five, 

Letting Go of the Outcome: How Do You Measure Success?

Today, the day after Election Day, I know there are more than a few animal welfare advocates who are feeling pretty bummed. In Maine, where I live, a ban on the cruel practice of bear baiting was voted down. And in Aurora, Colorado, voters were able to keep a pit bull ban in place (for now!). In both areas, advocates worked tirelessly to make a difference for animals in their communities. In both cases, despite their hard work, they lost.

The outcome wasn’t what they had hoped and worked for. But the outcome isn’t what determines if they were successful or not.

Does that sound a little crazy? I mean, obviously, we all wanted the votes to go in a different direction and we’d be celebrating today if that had happened. But the outcome often has little to do with the work itself.

These advocates gave their all. They did a fantastic job of outreach, education, and door-knocking work in our communities. They conducted themselves in such a way that they could be proud of themselves. They used their time well. None of that has changed now that we know the outcome of the votes. It doesn’t negate or undo the months of work they put in. That’s because:

 

That is how we can measure our success. Are we conducting ourselves in an ethical, compassionate, intelligent way? Are we using our time well and working to make things better for those around us?

Then we win, no matter what the outcome. This is important because the truth is:

Most of the time, we cannot control the outcome of our work.

 

Dog trainers cannot control whether or not their clients will listen to them. They can’t make their clients actually do the work (or do it right) each day in order to address the behavior issues that led them to seek training help in the first place.

Veterinarians cannot control whether or not their clients listen to them either. They can’t make their clients perform the medical care that will help address the issues that led them to seek veterinary care.

Shelter workers cannot control whether or not adopters listen to them during adoption counseling. They can’t make families follow through with what was agreed upon during the adoption process.

None of us can control whether our clients are telling us the truth or are just telling us what we want to hear. And we can’t control whether or not they will follow through on what we recommend.

Some of the time this means there will be negative outcomes and we need to work to accept them.

The dog trainer finds out their client didn’t listen to their advice and now the dog has bitten someone and is scheduled to be euthanized.

The vet finds out the client didn’t listen to their advice and now the dog has a chronic, painful, and more expensive condition that needs to (and may not) be addressed.

The shelter worker finds out that the adopter did not listen to them about keeping their new dog on leash and now the dog is lost and hasn’t been found.

The advocate finds out that the vote fell the other way.

These negative outcomes are not a true reflection of the quality of the work that was done (even though it may feel that way some times). When our satisfaction with our work or sense of success is attached to whether or not the outcome was a good one, it can  be very painful. It can feel like failure.

But so often, we aren’t in control of the outcome, no matter how hard we work or how perfect we try to be. Or how much the animals deserve a better ending.

We can’t control what others do. We can’t take responsibility for other people’s actions. And some of the time, bad things happen and it’s no one’s fault at all. 

The outcome has to do with so much more than any one person. These situations don’t begin or end with us. They’re often complex and always way bigger than you or me.

However, we are responsible for what we do – how we relate to challenging circumstances and how we conduct ourselves.

four fold way

 

So we can choose to commit to doing the daily work to the very best of our abilities. We can invest in the process, rather than just the end result. Instead of allowing our self-worth, happiness, and sense of success come from the outcome alone, we can determine our own conditions of success by asking ourselves:

Am I conducting myself in such a way that, no matter what the outcome is, I can be proud of and at peace with myself?

 

That is something we have some control over.

Everyone’s conditions of success will be different: Was I compassionate? Hardworking? Fully engaged? Flexible and creative? Calm and non-reactive? Did I make those around me feel respected and that I valued them?

Even when the outcome is a good one, it helps to consider how you felt getting there. Winning can come at a cost to ourselves and others too. We can choose to be mindful of how we’re engaging with our work each day and do so in a way that allows us to feel good about how we treated ourselves and others.

responsible for energy
If you haven’t read My Stroke of Insight yet, add it to your must-read list!

 

Letting go of the outcome is not easy.

Of course we want every pet to be adopted and for the adoption to work out. We want to help our training and veterinary clients in order to increase the quality of their pets’ lives. We want to win the vote and change policies so that laws are fair, humane, and effective. We want to do our best work and have our efforts succeed, so that every animal that we touch gets to live and be well.

Letting go of the outcome doesn’t mean that we stop trying or that we don’t work as hard. It’s not passive resignation. It means learning to recognize what we can and cannot control. It means being actively aware of the truth in the present moment. And trying not to attach our sense of success or happiness to the outcome.

It means that we stop beating ourselves up and have some self compassion when painful things (that are often beyond our control) happen. It means we allow ourselves to feel difficult emotions, so that we can process them and let them go. If there is something to learn from these experiences, then we do so, and we bring that knowledge with us as we move forward, so that we can do it differently next time.

And we can acknowledge that we did good work that mattered and made a difference, even if in the end, the outcome wasn’t what we had hoped for.

If we showed up, paid attention, acted with compassion, and stayed present to those around us, then we gave the best of ourselves and that is enough. That’s succeeding, each and every day.

 

Journal prompt: What are some ways you can measure your success internally, without it depending on the outcome? What would be your personal conditions of success?* 

 

*Fist bump to Jen Louden, who taught me about the Conditions of Enoughness which inspired this phrase!

 

A love-filled high five to all of you,