compassion fatigue

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

In a nutshell, practicing compassionate badassery means mindfully making vulnerable, courageous choices that support sustainable, ethical, and satisfying caregiving.

There are two linked ideas that ground this practice:

  1. Choose to embrace uncertainty and paradox.

  2. Pledge hardcore allegiance to your own welfare.

 

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

What does it mean to choose uncertainty and paradox?

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

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

Same goes for our work.

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

Wait up, what’s a paradox again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s why it’s badassery.

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

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

 

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

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

Vulnerability requires strength. Just like Lauren said.

 

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

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

Buddhists might call this compassionate non-attachment.

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

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

 

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

We are not in control.

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

This work is not completely up to us.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Listen to Sharon Salzberg, OG compassionate badassery tour guide:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Both matter.

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

Adopt out thousands of dogs. You are a success.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t worry. Neither is permanent.

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

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


 

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

It takes deep resources.

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

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

My girl-crush Renee calls this self-loyalty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To practice compassionate badassery:

  1. Choose to embrace uncertainty and paradox.

  2. Pledge hardcore allegiance to your own welfare.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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,

Are You On the Path to Burnout?

There’s a new study I want you all to read called Negotiating the Challenges of a Calling: Emotion and Enacted Sensemaking in Animal Shelter Work. According to the authors, animal shelter workers are typically on one of three “calling pathways”…and two of them lead straight to burnout.

I recommend you read this short article on the study, but here’s my quick recap.

The Three Paths

1. Identity-Oriented: You want to make a difference for animals and you see yourself as having a special connection with animals. A big part of your identity is based on the belief that you are uniquely suited to caring for animals. You’re shocked by what you experience at the shelter, perceive challenges as a threat to your sense of self as being gifted with animals, and feel broken down by the work.

2. Contribution-Oriented: You want to make a difference for animals and you see yourself as having special skills that will help the organization. A big part of your identity is based on your belief that you have valuable skills that are in short supply and can make a positive impact for a cause. You are shocked by the challenges at the shelter, perceive them as a threat to your sense of self as a talented contributor, and feel defeated by the work.

3. Practice-Oriented: You want to make a difference for animals. You don’t see yourself as uniquely gifted or talented, but you are just as passionate about working with animals as the other two. You have more realistic expectations of the work and perceive challenges as opportunities for learning. This empowers you and contributes to your belief that you have the capacity to grow and master new skills. You may feel fatigued, but are still happy and fulfilled by the work.

All three “paths” feel called to work with animals and all three feel negative emotions about the upsetting aspects of the work. But according to the study, the first two lead to burnout. Only the third path leads to fulfillment and engagement.

How come? The study goes into great detail about how we frame and make sense of challenges. But one way to consider the three paths is through Carol Dweck’s work on mindset.

Growth Vs. Fixed Mindset

Mindsets are the internal running accounts of what’s happening to us, what we think it means, and what we should do about it. We all have this going on in our minds and it frames and interprets every experience – every challenge we encounter.

The first two paths seem to be a “fixed” mindset. In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are fixed, static traits. They spend their time documenting and judging their skills. When a challenge at work occurs, failure is to be avoided at all costs, so they can maintain their identity as gifted or skilled. In an environment like an animal shelter, where conditions are never perfect, this means there will be lots of perceived “failure” and sense that one is never “good enough.”

The third path seems to be a “growth” mindset. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—skills and talent are only the starting point. When a challenge at work occurs, they see this as an opportunity to learn and improve their skills and talent. They’re focused less on proving themselves and more on developing themselves. And they believe others can learn and grow as well. This makes them more resilient to the challenges of working in an environment like an animal shelter.

 

Next Steps

I frequently get asked if there is a test that organizations can give during interviews to determine if someone would be a good fit for this emotionally challenging work. I would never base a hiring decision on one quiz, but I do think that there’s something to be said for recruiting staff who already have a growth mindset and therefore may be less judgmental (towards themselves and others) and more resilient to the inevitable challenges of the job.

The good news is that all of us can take steps to help ourselves (and our staff) to develop a growth mindset. We do this by becoming more aware of our running internal monologue and learning to challenge these thoughts, so that we can open up space for change and growth.

This is the foundation of my course Compassion in Balance. We can’t stop the challenges from coming our way, but through increased self-awareness, a willingness to explore new approaches, and deliberate practice we can learn how to manage them better and become more resilient in the process.

If you’d like to read the full study, which I hope you do, I’m happy to email a single copy to you (copyright prohibits me from sharing the full study here). Just email me.

p.s. if you’re wondering, I see myself in all three paths at different points in my career. I’m happy to report that, with practice, I’m walking that third pathway of growth and collaboration these days. How about you?

Compassion in Balance starts June 5th! 

See you in class,

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.

with love,

Compassion Fatigue Strategies Course Starts Soon!

The next session of my course, Compassion Fatigue Strategies (CFS) through the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program, is about to begin and registration is now open!

The class launches on March 13th and runs through the first week of May.

CFS is a four module, online, self-paced class for people who work with animals. It’s designed to give you the space to learn about how to manage the impact of compassion fatigue in your life.

You do the work on your own time. There are live calls with me, but even those are recorded, so you’ll never miss a thing, no matter how busy you are.

Would you like to join me and a group of your peers for 8 weeks of thoughtful, honest, and courageous discussions? Want to earn 15 CEUs? Think getting together for 4 live calls to practice stress reduction and mindfulness practices sounds good?

Sign up here!

 

 

I know you’re busy, but nothing will get better unless we tackle it. We can do it together. But I need you to make a commitment to yourself.

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

Here’s what one CFS student shared on Facebook about her experience with the course in 2016:

“I just finished this course. It was very eye opening and worth every cent. I highly recommend it to anyone in the animal welfare industry.”

 

Here’s what another student had to say to me about not being sure about taking this class:

“I’m not the kind of person to readily discuss my feelings. I’m the kind of person who loves my job and wants to get my work done and do it well. I’ve gotten to the point in my career that I know this is an industry where I could work myself past the point of no return, whether that be burning out or leaving animal welfare entirely. But I came to this work because I love it. I just needed to figure out how to do it sustainably.

Jessica Dolce’s CFS class was recommended to me by a friend in the field and has been a great source of information, discussion, and the feeling you get when you realize you’re not alone. The work we do is insurmountable. It’s never ending. Sometimes it’s thankless. Sometimes it’s hard to remember why we started doing it in the first place. This course is approachable and self-paced. I am a terrible procrastinator, but I got it done and I’m glad I did.” – Shelter Medicine Veterinary Assistant, CFS alum

 

Do you want things to be different this year? Then let’s get you on a new path this spring!

Read more about the class and what the students had to say about it here.

 

See you this spring!

Compassion Fatigue Strategies Course Starts 9/19

The next session of my course, Compassion Fatigue Strategies (CFS) through the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program, is about to begin. The class launches on September 19th!

CFS is a four module, online, self-paced class for people who work with animals. It’s designed to give you the space to learn about how to manage the impact of compassion fatigue in your life.

Would you like to join me and a growing group of students for 8 weeks of thoughtful, honest, and courageous discussions?  Want to earn 15 CEUs? Think getting together for 4 live calls to practice stress reduction and mindfulness practices sounds good?

Sign up here!

 

compassion fatigue strategies class testimonial

 

Here’s the simple truth: there is no magic pill or quick fix for compassion fatigue.

But there are strategies, tools, resources, and new ways of thinking about the complex work that you do which will help you transform how compassion fatigue is impacting your life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what another student had to say about not being sure about taking this class:

“I’m not the kind of person to readily discuss my feelings. I’m the kind of person who loves my job and wants to get my work done and do it well. I’ve gotten to the point in my career that I know this is an industry where I could work myself past the point of no return, whether that be burning out or leaving animal welfare entirely. But I came to this work because I love it. I just needed to figure out how to do it sustainably.

Jessica Dolce’s CFS class was recommended to me by a friend in the field and has been a great source of information, discussion, and the feeling you get when you realize you’re not alone. The work we do is insurmountable. It’s never ending. Sometimes it’s thankless. Sometimes it’s hard to remember why we started doing it in the first place. This course is approachable and self-paced. I am a terrible procrastinator, but I got it done and I’m glad I did.” – Shelter Medicine Veterinary Assistant, CFS alum

 

Do you want things to be different in 2017? Then let’s get you on a new path this fall!

Read more about the class and what the students had to say about it here.

 

you got this,

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

If so, 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.

Talking about suicide can be hard. I’m wondering what all of you are feeling right now, as you read this, and it makes my chest tight. So many of us are suffering.

Let me ask you all something: How prepared are you to offer help to someone in emotional distress?

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

On the flip side, 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 or a friend accidentally cut themselves, I would still offer assistance even though I really wasn’t sure 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, bust out 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. This winter I earned my certificate in Mental Health First Aid through NAMI Maine. The full day training, developed by the National Council for Behavioral Health is offered internationally and helps everyday people learn how to effectively respond to individuals who are in psychological distress.

This is a training we should all take, no matter what we do for a living.

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.

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 major 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 ways to learn more right now:

Learn the signs, what you can do to help, and more myths about suicide.

More on suicide prevention here.

Always have this number nearby: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

You can also watch the free VetGirl webinar: Suicide in Veterinary Medicine

I highly recommend this Mental Health First Aid training for all of us, but especially for people in management and leadership roles. Your staff and the public you work with (who are also in distress some of the time) need you to know this kind of basic first aid for a variety of common mental health problems.

If you would like to get trained in Mental Heath First Aid, please visit this page.

 

What Happened When I Couldn’t Complain for 5 Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on solving or coping with the problem instead.

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

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

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

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

That’s when WSUXS started broadcasting loud and clear.

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

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

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

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

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

Not the bathrooms…

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

I was boring myself. I was making myself miserable.

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

So I decided to stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our life becomes a WSUXS marathon. 

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

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

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

So what can you do?

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

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

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

nothing has to change

 

More on this topic:

How to Complain Less

Why Complaining is Literally Killing You

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

 

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

 

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

“What do you do?”

“I work at an animal shelter.”

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

“Please go away now.”

 

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

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

But they do.

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

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

 

That’s because when someone says:

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

We hear:

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

 

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

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

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

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

Let’s break it down:

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

Is that stressful? Yeah it is.

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

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

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

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

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

Remember: meaning is co-created.

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

 

I could never work in a shelter

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

As in:

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

 

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

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

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

 

critic arena daring greatly

 

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

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

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

Or just something simple like:

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

And then you can say:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 Thank you for your service. You guys are the best

xo,

 

 

New Session of Compassion in Balance Starts June 6th!

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

 

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

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

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

 

compassion in balance online class photo

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

nothing has to change

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you’ll join us this summer!

with love,

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