self care

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


Check out the new Compassionate Badassery Matrix!

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!

2018 Words of the Year: Ease + Receive

Do you choose words of the year? For the last few years, I’ve chosen a word or phrase to guide and remind me of where I want to go (figuratively speaking, of course, or my word every year would be Italy) in the new year.

In 2015, I chose: Integrate

In 2016, it was: Full

In 2017, I went with: Joyful Responsibility

Last year I chose joyful responsibility because I’m always mud-wrestling with the question of how to engage in service with less stress and a lighter heart. I just went back to re-read this post and I was like, oh hey, sometimes I really know what I’m talking about! So maybe you want to check that blog out.

But did it work? Was I all gleefully responsible in 2017? That’s what you really want to know, right?

Sort of.

I was sidetracked by a lot of personal grief and loss in 2017. I wasn’t expecting to be on the floor crying for so much of the year. Even so, I was still conscious that I had chosen joyful responsibility to guide me.

Which means that although I started off the year volunteering at Planned Parenthood like a boss (I even went to DC to meet with my senators and made this video), when grief took me out at the knees and grad school had me begging for a brain transplant, I knew I had to dial it way back.

How did I know? Because I got weepy when I was asked to lead a communications training and that was a (not at all) subtle sign that I was overwhelmed.

2017 was a way more stressful year than usual for me (and lots of you – I know I’m not unique in this regard). When we have increased stress, we have to increase our self-care or we risk compassion fatigue, burnout, and other beasties that can take us out of the game or make us ineffective if we stay in it. I didn’t want that to happen.

I knew I had to redirect my limited energy to doing my (paid) work well and finishing up grad school. That meant less volunteering for Planned Parenthood. 

Normally I would beat myself up for this, but because I was embracing the idea of joyful responsibility, I offered myself a lot of self-compassion instead. I refocused on joyful responsibility when it came to my job. 

Having this phrase as my 2017 guide consistently helped me to see when I was contributing in a meaningful way and when I was reactive and spinning out (which feels terrible and does not help anyone).

So, yes. It worked.

This week, I chose my words based on what I want to invite into my life this year.

My 2018 words are Ease and Receive.

Simply put, I am inviting ease into all areas of my life in 2018. In this context, ease means I’d like to struggle less (which is not the same as hard work. I’m down with hard work).

I want to be that cat.

I believe that struggle is NOT required in order to do great work, to help others, or to make changes for ourselves.

I forget this ALL the time.

One way that I forget is that I tend to dismiss what I do well if it comes naturally to me. If someone tells me I did a great job, I think, “Nah, it’s no big deal that I stood in front of a room full of grumpy, sleepy nurses at 7am and got them laughing about compassion fatigue. I’m sure anyone can do that.”

I dismiss what I have to offer when I can do it with ease.

But this is what I know is true: Just because you can skillfully do something with ease, doesn’t mean it’s not awesome or that everyone else can do it. We’re each naturally good at different stuff. We all have different strengths.

Even more importantly:

The ease with which you do things does not negate the value of what you do.

Suffering is not required. Something can come easily to you and still be immensely helpful or useful to others. If accounting and taxes comes naturally to you, I highly value what you offer.

So I am inviting ease into my life this year. I am going to remind myself (often) that what I offer is good enough and that I don’t have to struggle in order to offer something of value in this world.

And here’s the big one: I am open to receiving in 2018.

I am issuing a delightfully quirky letterpress invitation to the Universe (call it whatever works for you – God, Spirit, The Great Comforter, Source, Creator, sometimes I just call it Birdie), to bring on what I need to thrive.

In other words: I’m down to receive help from others, new opportunities, guidance and support, collaborations, l-o-v-e, compensation, and time for naps.

I am turning up the appreciation dial, using the power of ease to make some space (literally and figuratively) in my life to receive the new, and I’m turning down the volume of noise so I can really listen and notice what’s being offered.

Let me tell you: this is not easy for me to write.

As I type these words about ease and receive I can hear the critical, stingy voice in my head grumbling:

“Who do you think you are?”

“Other people are way worse off and deserve this stuff way more than you.”

“Giving is better than receiving…says everyone, duh.”

“Could you be any more selfish?” (say it like Chandler)

“Woo woo woo woo woo.”

“Well now, looky here. That lady thinks she’s real special. Round here, we call that entitled.”

“If you’re not bleeding, sweating, and going broke, you’re not doing important work!”

For the love of Birdie, how boring and annoying is this?

Not gonna do it this year. This year I am talking back to Edith (I think that’s what I’m going to call the critical voice in my head. I’ll let you know in 2019 if the name sticks) and I’m saying nope. I’m all for it.

I’m open to receive and I’m rolling in the ease.

This includes receiving snail mail and email! Write me.

Can you relate? Do you struggle with receiving?

Receiving help from others? Gifts? Compliments?

Recognition for your work? Money for your services?

Love and kindness from yourself or others?

I’m going to make a sweeping assumption that lots of you struggle with this, as I do, because many people who are in helping professions have difficulty receiving.

We love to give and fix (we’re in control!), but we don’t like to be on the receiving end. We’ll explore that more in future blogs, because it deserves it’s own space.

But for now, I invite you to take a minute to sit with the idea that there is more than enough to go around, that the degree to which we struggle or suffer does not determine the value of our work (or ourselves), and that we can only truly give (without judgement) when we allow ourselves to receive (without judging ourselves).

Want to practice receiving? It’s a muscle. Start with small reps.

Try this: the next time someone gives you a compliment or acknowledges your good work, receive it. Just say “Thank you.” Do not dismiss or qualify it. If it feels uncomfortable, notice that and allow those feelings to be. They’ll pass. Then high five yourself (when no one is looking).

What are your words of the year? Or what would you like to choose for 2018? What do you want more of? What would you like to guide you? I’d love to know – tell me in the comments.

May you live with ease in 2018 and may you receive what you need to thrive in the coming year. 

xo,

Grief, Grad School, and What I Ate

…By choosing food as your drug—sugar highs, or the deep, soporific calm of carbs—you can still make the packed lunches, do the school run, look after the baby, stop in on your parents and then stay up all night with an ill 5-year-old—something that is not an option if you’re regularly climbing into the cupboard under the stairs and knocking back quarts of scotch.

Overeating is the addiction of choice of ‘carers,’ and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It’s a way of screwing yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to. Fat people aren’t indulging in the ‘luxury’ of their addiction, making them useless, chaotic or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone. And that is why it’s so often a woman’s addiction of choice.

I sometimes wonder if the only way we’ll ever get around to properly considering overeating is if it does come to take on the same perverse, rock ‘n’ roll cool of other addictions. Perhaps it’s time for women to finally stop being secretive about their vices and instead start treating them like all other addicts treat their habits. Coming into the office looking frazzled, sighing, ‘Man, I was on the pot roast last night like you wouldn’t believe. I had, like, POTATOES in my EYEBROWS by 10 p.m.’.

– Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman, excerpt from I Know Why the Fat Lady Sings

 

grief and ice cream

 

I gained about 20 pounds this winter.

My cat and my dog died just a few weeks apart from one another.

I was already pretty exhausted from pushing through my final semesters of grad school, including grinding out my capstone (on resilience building for caregivers – oh, the irony), while working and teaching.

Then I fell into an ocean of grief, bringing a cruise ship full of vegan Ben & Jerry’s and ALL THE CARBS with me. 

If you were working with me over the winter, spring, and summer, you probably didn’t notice I was snorkling through pint after pint of PB & Cookies, because, as Moran so astutely points out, you can be fully functional and overeating.

I did good work, I got straight As, I walked the dogs.

In August, I graduated from school. I was able to really rest for the first time in a very long time. The grief began to lift and I started taking better care of myself in all ways, including physically.

Last week I took part in a online photography experience with a group of brave, creative women. Among other things, we dared to share our bodies as they are, so we could reclaim our wrinkles and rolls. It was life-shifting. I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise.

Today I’m feeling good AND I have a big belly.

I’ve been trying to be really kind to this part of my body because it’s a tangible expression of how sad I’ve been and how much I love the family members that I lost this year.

My fat is a physical manifestation of my grief.

I talk to my sad belly sometimes. I tell it I don’t blame it for being here. I don’t hate it or want to punish it away. This is a new approach for me. I usually just beat myself up.

I’m not doing that right now, because:

  1. I’m just glad I made it through a really hard time. If I’m a little fatter for it, oh well.
  2. I’m committed to talking to myself with more kindness. I don’t want to be mean to myself anymore.

But I do want to feel better, stronger, more flexible. And for that reason, sad belly and I are, with deep affection, saying a long, slow goodbye to each other this winter. We’re working out and taking long walks and eating just a little ice cream.

This is what I know about myself: eating is my drug of choice when I am depleted, overwhelmed, and stressed. It’s how I numb out and self-medicate.

As I fill my life back up with fun, friendship, art, and relaxation it’s easier for me to unhook from the freezer aisle.

My personal work is to more consistently nourish myself in ways that are authentically sustaining during these times of intense stress and heartache.

My professional work is helping others do the same, so it always feels a little dicey sharing how I still struggle.

But that’s really the point, isn’t it?

We can know all the things and yet, we’re human. So we’re going to stumble (and if you’re like me, you fall face first into a slab of cake from Silly’s), but we can still reach out to help one another.

Each year that I’m lucky enough to be alive I understand myself better. I meet myself with more kindness and skillful care. It’s a practice.

Whatever we’re struggling with, all we can do is practice as we go.

Maybe for the first time, I feel really okay with who I am and how I make my way through the world. I am doing the best I can, sad belly and all. That’s good enough for me.

 

Friends, tell me: do you have mashed potatoes in your eyebrows too? 

If you do, here is resource that might support you on your journey:

TEND: A Chat with Dr. Deb Thompson from Your Nourished Life – This recorded webinar is specifically geared towards helping professionals (a whole lot of us are overeating). It’s also where I got this quote from and there are worksheets.

with love,

Your Heart is Your Powerhouse

And I bet it’s working overtime these days. So many compassionate people I know, who already work so hard as helping professionals, have recently become even more engaged in service and activism work in a multitude of efforts to protect the people, animals, and environment we hold dear.

Self-care is more important than ever. Activism, just like animal welfare and care work, is a long game. If you want to keep going, you have to take care of your tools, starting with your heart.

Your heart is a muscle. It’s about the size of your two fists

It beats approximately 100,000 times in one day and about 35 million times in a year. Even at rest, the muscles of your heart are working hard – twice as hard as your leg muscles when you’re sprinting to the ice cream truck. You are so strong!

Figuratively speaking, your heart is just as powerful as your source of empathy, kindness, and compassion. Your role as a caregiver and healer is work of the heart – meaningful, connected, sensitive, and life-affirming. You are so loving!

All of this is to say, your heart is magnificent and essential. Please don’t forget to take care of your powerhouse, as you take care of the world.

Go to the doctor. I know you go to the veterinarian’s office every other day (I see you there!), but now it’s time for your annual physical exam. And while you’re at it, go to the dentist, since gum disease and heart disease are connected. Medical care is self-care.

Move your body. Exercise helps cuts your risk of heart disease, but it also helps you shake off the stress that builds up all day at work. I recently stumbled on this guy and I can’t stop laugh-dancing. That’s a thing, right? I dare you to do this with your co-workers the next time you feel like pulling your hair out.

Ground your work in something bigger than your anger. That’s a complicated one. I know. John Lewis helps me understand this idea of love in action better. And Desiree Adaway reminds me that if, “…we ground our work in joy, support, community, and security we will win.”

Sync your values. I bet most of you would consider compassion to be one of your core values. Many of you work in “humane” societies. But really: how humanely are you treating yourself? How much of that compassionate care are you offering yourself? You deserve and need just as much, if not more, love and care as you give to others.

Here’s some help in that area:

Self Care Flow Chart: for when you don’t know what to do, but you know you need to do something.

Finding Steady Ground: 7 behaviors to strengthen ourselves, so we can keep taking more and more powerful and strategic actions in the world, plus How to Get Out of a Cycle of Outrage.

The Modern Violence of Overwork: a short passage from Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk, and a powerful question from Parker Palmer, to read again and again.

This is What I Believe: Do no harm, take no shit, be real, don’t take it personally, and more brilliant inspiration.

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!

Are You Thinking About Suicide? And Other Questions We’re Afraid To Ask

Talking about suicide can be hard. It makes my chest tight. But so many of us are suffering and we all want to do something, so let me ask you this:

Are you prepared to offer help to someone in emotional distress?

I think it’s safe to assume that many of us feel incompetent in this area. How often does that stop us from reaching out when someone needs us?

I’m totally incompetent when it comes to helping people with physical medical problems, but if I saw someone on the street having a heart attack I would still offer to help, even if I didn’t know what to do.

I bet a lot of you are the same.

Even if we couldn’t remember how to do CPR or how to dress a wound, most of us would still reach out to someone having a physical medical emergency. We might offer a reassuring word, get the first aid kit, or call 911.

But what about when our friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers are suffering from a mental health emergency or are in emotional distress?

A lot of us just keep our heads down. Not because we’re bad people, but because we don’t understand mental health issues. We don’t know what to do. We might worry that we’ll make things worse than they already are.

Luckily, there’s something we can do about this. We can get trained.

I earned my certificates in Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper Training through NAMI Maine and in Mental Health First Aid through the National Council for Behavioral Health (offered internationally).

Both day-long trainings are designed to help everyday people learn how to effectively respond to individuals who are in psychological distress. Which is a lot of people. Consider this:

  • One in five Americans experience a mental disorder in any one year.
  • More than half of all adults in America will experience a mental disorder in their lifetime.

It’s highly likely that we will encounter someone (ourselves included) in need of mental health help at some point. So why not ditch the shame, clear up the confusion, and shed the stigma that surrounds mental health?

Let’s get informed. We can learn the risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns, strategies for how to help someone in both crisis and non-crisis situations, and where to turn for help.

This goes double for us in animal care and welfare work. Working in a helping profession requires intense emotional labor. All of us are impacted, in varying degrees, by the stress, trauma, and suffering we bear witness to every day. Sometimes it’s really serious:

1 in 6 veterinary professionals have considered suicide.

If you suspect someone may be at risk for suicide, it’s important to ask directly about suicidal thoughts.

DON’T avoid using the word “suicide.” You’re not planting the idea in their mind if you do.

DO ask the question without dread and without expressing a negative judgement.

DO be direct:

Are you having thoughts of suicide?

Are you thinking about killing yourself?

Letting people know that you care and want to help can make a real difference. Be sure to have information and resources available if they need assistance.

In the First Aid course, we learned a handy acronym to help guide us through the process of reaching out to anyone in distress (which includes panic attacks, addiction, depression, and self harm):

mental health action plan

In order to move towards the last 3 steps, we need to get educated.

Here are some resources:

Do whatever you can to help, but please don’t blame yourself if your efforts don’t result in a positive outcome.

I know there are those of you out there who have done all of the above and still lost a friend or coworker to suicide. Or maybe there were no signs, so you didn’t even think you needed to reach out. Either way, please know that what happened is not your fault.

Suicide is a public health crisis.

It’s the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

54 percent of the people who died from suicide didn’t have a previously known mental health issue, but were suffering from other issues, such as relationship, financial, physical health, or job problems.

The CDC report cites the need for several different approaches for prevention, beyond the focus on reaching out for mental health help, such as teaching coping and problem-solving skills early in life and reducing “access to lethal means.”

Research shows that the decision to attempt suicide is often made quickly, in an impulsive way.  One way to prevent suicide is to limit access to lethal means. That would allow intense feelings to pass and provides more time to get help. Kudos to veterinarian Dr. Andy Roark for taking on this aspect of suicide prevention in 2019 with his “4 Eyes” campaign.

Suicide is both an serious issue in our animal care community and a public health epidemic in our country. That means we all need all the help we can get to become more informed and effective in our prevention efforts.

We need to commit to reaching out to each other more AND understand that this is a complex issue, so despite our good efforts we won’t always be able to save everyone we love.

But we’ll keep trying.

Finally, if you are thinking about suicide call: 1-800-273-TALK

Please make the call.

Thoughts of suicide are often associated with a treatable mental disorder. These thoughts are common (you’re far, far from being alone) and do not have to be acted on.

If you call the crisis hotline number above, you’ll speak with a trained counselor who can help connect you to local resources and professionals who want to help. It’s free, 24/7, and confidential. Please call.

There’s only one of you in this world and we want you to stick around.

New Session of Compassion in Balance Starts June 6th!

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

 

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

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

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

 

compassion in balance online class photo

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

nothing has to change

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you’ll join us this summer!

with love,

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. 

12 Books To Read When Your Brain Hurts

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

 

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

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

 

Bonus Picks! SciFi/Horror/Fantasy genre:

Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

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

All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness

 

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

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

 

See you at the library,

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