self care

5 Practical Self-Care Tips For Coping with COVID-19

If you’re a helping professional the following tips would apply on any typical day of high-stress, emotional work. But now, whether you’re working overtime or sidelined at home, it’s more important than ever to weave these simple practices into your day, so that you can be well during the COVID-19 crisis.

Tip #1 Get Grounded

You can listen to Jessica read tip # 1 here.

COVID-19 has brought a massive amount of change and uncertainty into our lives. Lack of control and uncertainty can trigger fear, which activates our stress response (fight/flight/freeze). This impacts our wellbeing and our ability to do our work effectively.

Feeling stressed right now is normal! But being stuck in stress does take a toll on our immune system, emotions, and relationships.

Simple self-regulation practices are one way we can reduce stress. Self-regulation activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers the rest and restore response, helping us to feel safer, less reactive, and more in control.

Here are a few ways to practice self-regulation:

  • Focused breathing, such as box or square breathing
  • Grounding in the present moment through your senses (orient yourself to the environment: what can you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste right now?)
  • Shake the stress out of your body (just like a dog!)
  • Go for a brisk walk or dance
  • Watch a funny video and laugh out loud
  • Sing or hum (activating your vagus nerve)
  • Cuddle your pets or hug a loved one (for at least 20 seconds)
  • Place your hands on your chest, over your heart, and say “I am safe”

Another option is to do something small that’s within your control. Clean a junk drawer, weed your garden, or brush your dog. Give yourself a quick win with a tangible outcome.  

These practices may seem too simple to make an impact, but the research is clear – our nervous system plays a critical role in our resilience. Through simple self-regulation practices we can tend to our nervous system and reduce our stress.

Try these short exercises multiple times throughout the day and they’ll add up, helping you to feel calmer, think more clearly, and communicate effectively during this challenging time.

Tip #2 Assume Nothing

When your stress response is triggered you may notice a change in your ability to communicate.

That’s because your “downstairs” brain (the emotional and primitive parts of your brain, such as your amygdala) are in charge of responding to (real or perceived) threats to your safety.

Your “upstairs” brain (the rational and logical part of your brain) goes “offline” during this time.

Your upstairs brain is what you need to problem solve, communicate, control your emotions, and access empathy. If you’ve ever done something you immediately regret, your downstairs brain was in charge.

That’s why communicating while stressed = increased misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and lots of problems to fix later on.

Here’s what you can do to improve communication and make life a little easier for yourself and others during this time:

1. Soothe your nervous system to help your “upstairs brain” come back online. Self-regulation always helps.

2. Do not take anything personally. Everyone is stressed and afraid right now. Whatever people say and do is a reflection of how they’re feeling. Never assume it’s about you, because it’s not.

3. Always check for understanding. When you speak, ask that the person listening repeat back to you what they heard, so you can check that they understood. When you’re listening, repeat back what you think you heard and ask what you got wrong.

Try not to assume anything is personal, that you’ve been understood, or that you understand someone else during this stressful time.

By calming your nervous system and checking for understanding you’ll reduce hurt feelings and increase everyone’s chances of getting critical tasks done correctly.

Tip #3: Prep For Sleep

Feeling tired, but too wired to sleep? Many helping professionals experience this on an average work day. Now lots of us are struggling with falling and staying asleep at night.

The irony is that sleep is an important part of keeping our immune system healthy. And we need that now more than ever.

So what can we do if we’re too stressed to sleep? It probably won’t help just go to bed early. Most of us will need to actively prepare our bodies to rest.

Here’s how:

1. Get grounded and self-regulate all day with the practices listed above. Self-regulation is no joke! Pump the breaks on your stress response ALL DAY.

2. Create a 5-20 minute pre-bedtime routine to help shift your body into a more parasympathetic (rest and restore) state:

  • Do “legs up the wall” pose for 5-10 minutes
  • Use a weighted blanket or an 8 pound bag of rice on your belly
  • Take a lukewarm shower 60-90 minutes before bed
  • Stretch tight muscles with a foam roller
  • Listen to guided meditations, yoga nidra, or an audiobook
  • Soak your feet in Epsom salt with lavender oil
  • Write in a journal – release worries or notice the good

By taking some time to release tight muscles, lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and sooth your frazzled nervous system, you’ll be more likely to fall and stay asleep.

If you do find yourself waking up at 3am, don’t stress about it. If you can’t fall back to sleep, get up and try one of the options above.

Tip #4: Stop Looping

Rumination or overthinking can feel like a productive thing to do when you’re nervous or upset, as we all are right now. But numerous studies have shown that overthinking leads to a variety of negative consequences.

It sustains or worsens our sadness, fosters negatively biased thinking, and impairs our ability to actually solve problems. We need to get out of the loop.

If you notice you’re going round and round in your head try to:

  1. Engage in a distracting activity. It needs to be engrossing enough that you won’t lapse back into thinking and ideally something that generates a positive emotion. But it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it absorbs you and doesn’t harm you.
    • Read or watch something suspenseful or funny
    • Meet a friend for a virtual coffee date
    • Go for a run or do yoga
    • Pray or meditate
  2. Run lists or count objects. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try naming all 50 states, the cast of GOT, count the books in your office, or name 50 objects you can see right now. This helps bring your upstairs brain back online and then you can more easily shift to another activity.
  3. Talk back to yourself. If you notice you’re saying the same negative things to yourself on repeat, choose a new comeback or mantra to repeat instead:
    • “I can handle this.”  
    • “I will deal with what happens when it happens.”
    • “I’m doing the best I can with the limited resources available.”
    • “I’m a compassionate badass who tackles challenges for a living.”
    • “This is temporary.”

When we’re stressed our mind, just like our body, can go into overdrive. But we can use positive distractions and compassionate self-talk to help us break out of the worry cycle, so we can feel more calm and capable.

Tip #5: Sanitize with Compassion

Metta meditation, otherwise known as Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM), is a powerful practice (backed up by science) that generates positive emotions, a sense of goodwill, compassion for yourself and others, and fosters connection.

Right now, we could use ALL of the above! This is a simple practice you can do anywhere. Right now, it’s a great way to feel connected every time you wash your hands.

If you want to give it a try, say the following phrases to yourself:

May all beings be safe.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be healthy.
May all beings live with ease.

Repeat this set of phrases three times. That’s enough time to generate warmth in your heart AND bust the germs on your hands.

Remember: Stress is cumulative, but so is self-care. If you take a few minutes here and there throughout the day to self-regulate, check for understanding, prep for sleep, distract your worried mind, and feel connected to the world while you scrub, it will all add up, helping you to feel more calm and resilient during this difficult time.

For more on each of these ideas, please see my free Coping with COVID-19 webinar here.

Looking for more support? Schedule a free call with me, so we can get to know each other and find out if 1-on-1 coaching or my Compassion in Balance Program is the right fit for you or your team!

Are You an Asker or a Guesser?

Are you stressed out by all the requests you get?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No matter what your answer, you feel stressed!

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

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

Jessica Dolce Live

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

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

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

Which one do you think you are?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re just giving it a shot by asking.

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

This mindset is based on a false assumption.

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

So what do we do about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Got Fired For Saying NO.

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

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

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

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

I did this because I was afraid of losing business.

But also because I wanted people to like me. 

I was hustling for approval.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY GUT: “GET OUT.”

I did not get out. I took the job.

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

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

Then I had my first professional boundary breakthrough:

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

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

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

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

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

Maxine needed me to pet sit for her.

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

The pet sitting job started right now.

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

NO, I said, I’m not available.

The screaming began immediately. 

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

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

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

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

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

NOPE. NOPE. NOPE. 

And then she fired me. We never spoke again.

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

This was the day I began to love boundaries.  

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

But it was worth it. 

I learned a lot of important lessons during that time:

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

But boundary work is never done.

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

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

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

You can’t take care of yourself without them.

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

Also, it helps to have a script. 

Are you struggling to set limits at work?

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

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

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

We start on February 17th. 

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

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

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

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

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

Enroll HERE and use the code: EARLYBIRDSAVE150

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Lisa Congdon


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

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

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

OK Let’s Do This.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I feel better.

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

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

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

The 3 Most Protective Beliefs About Stress:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HALT! You Might Need a Snack

Have you ever done a HALT check?

HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.

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

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

Here’s how it works:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Build Compassionate Badassery Boundaries for Life

Imagine waking up in the morning…

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

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

You know you can trust yourself to:

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

How does that sound?

Let’s stop imagining and make it happen.

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

What do you REALLY want for your life?

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

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

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

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

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

building compassionate boundaries challenge class

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

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

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

We get that the struggle is real.

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

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

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

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

Why You Need to (Literally) Schedule Some Fun

Does scheduling fun make me look nerdy?

So be it. Because scheduling fun works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how to do it: 

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

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

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

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

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

Got your list?

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

Repeat weekly.

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

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

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

Recap:

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

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

Is Self-Care Letting Organizations Off The Hook?

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

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

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

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

The answer is simple:

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

That’s just not accurate.

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

I love the pants off of self-care.

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

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

– Or you work in an unsafe environment (physically and/or psychologically) with low pay, no benefits, and you’re treated like an unskilled, expendable resource. “Churn and burn” baby!

– Or you have toxic coworkers and you don’t feel safe asking for help. Or a cruel boss that tells you that if you “really loved animals”, you wouldn’t need to take a break.

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

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

I’m not saying it’s easy or that organizations can make these changes overnight, but they’ve got to step up to the plate.

Addressing CF isn’t just an altruistic move. It benefits the organizations when they tackle one of the root causes of expensive issues like turnover and presenteeism.

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

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

Self-care is necessary, but it’s insufficient on its own.

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

Psst, just one more time for the folks in the back…you still have to do self-care, just be sure to examine the systems you’re in too!

What Climbing Mt. Katahdin Taught Me

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

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

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

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

My dad started walking on the trail in 1972.

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

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

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

Like holy crap, my legs are spaghetti, hard.

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

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

So why did I do it?

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

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

I said YES to discomfort over regret.

And boy, was there a lot of discomfort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because I did it.

And now I know I can do it again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you willing to get uncomfortable for?

What do you want to accomplish or change?

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

You can do it.

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

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

You’re just human.

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

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

So just take the first step.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a coach, I’m your trail guide.

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

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

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

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

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 actions 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.

You can read and download the shorter Compassionate Badassery Manifesto here.

Want some help with this? I offer 1-on-1 coaching that can help you FEEL good while you DO good!

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