self care

compassion fatigue

It may sound silly, but as a person who has worked in nonprofit social service for quite some time, I can attest to the existence of compassion fatigue. I’m a fundraiser for a global disaster relief organization, and events happening all around the world – from hurricanes, to earthquakes, or even a bombing or explosion like those that occurred in Boston and West last week – can drastically affect the daily lives of emergency responders, volunteers, and nonprofit staff.

While most people just turn off the news when it becomes too much, we live inside disasters for weeks after everyone else has moved on to the next thing. We love the work and the missions of our respective organizations. We help people, no doubt about it. We live for those special moments where we connect with a client or a donor that remind us why we do what we do. But often, we do not practice the kind of self care we should during the long aftermath of these terrible events.

After a while, you start to lose the ability to react to any major event like everyone else does. You stop being able to empathize in a natural way, and you start having to quickly tuck those kinds of feelings away so that you can do your job. You can’t turn off the news, because knowing about the news is your job. You can’t get away from it. You think about it at home, when you should be sleeping. You worry. And you have to wake up again and do it tomorrow.

Often, a lot of what I do is public facing information distribution, giving information to the people so that they can help. But many times, the people I talk to every day are calling because they are traumatized and need someone to listen to them. So we are not only raising money for the victims and managing our staff response, we are therapists, communicators, and nonprofit liaisons for the business community. We are organizing chaos. We help create outlets for people to give in the aftermath of a disaster that makes them feel powerless, and yet oftentimes the people on the ground are not adequately caring for themselves.

We never have time to be shocked, to be angry, to grieve. We always have to be ready for the next horrible thing that might happen. In the world we live in, this can be a daunting state. Sometimes it feels as if the bad things never end. While this work has made me incredibly good at managing other people’s needs, and has taught me to remain calm and thrive under pressure, it has also perhaps numbed my emotions and left me in a state of perpetual disaster related burnout. The idea that I may be less compassionate in my professional life than I want to be is very upsetting to me. I got into nonprofit because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. I still do, but sometimes I wonder if I need a change of venue. It’s rough to live in a disaster response world indefinitely.

It’s also frustrating because charities are judged on their success by how little they spend. I can’t count the times I’ve been asked what our administrative costs are and had people decide not to give based on the answer. Most nonprofit employees are underpaid and overworked.  We value innovation and allow athletes and corporate executives to make millions, but nonprofit CEOs who make six figures are considered suspect somehow. Don’t charities deserve to have talented staff who can afford to own houses and are provided things like health benefits and vacation time? These are the people who care for the weakest among us.

We can do better.

Dan Pallotta recently gave a wonderful TED Talk on the dysfunctional relationship we have with our charities.

When I started my job, I worked too many hours, and didn’t take care of myself like I should. While I am way better now at leaving on time and putting my physical and mental health in the forefront, I still slip during stressful response operations and find myself eating poorly, not sleeping as much as I need to and skipping the gym. It sometimes takes several days of feeling crummy and cranky and burned out before I really stop and practice that self-care that is so important. Not beating myself up about having pizza three times in one week or missing a workout is usually the first step. Replacing the bad with the good things is the next – healthy food, exercise, enough sleep, more water and less coffee, that kind of thing.

And so in the interest of practicing self-care, I spent this evening making a list of goals I want to accomplish at work and in my personal life, and decided to write this blog and talk about compassion fatigue. Writing is a big part of how I cope with stress and how I relate to myself.  And guess what? I already feel better. I’m watching some Mad Men and looking forward to seeing my wonderful Spanish friends Capsula play at the Austin Psych Fest this weekend, along with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Suuns, The Soft Moon, and Silver Apples. I also get to see Sarah Jaffe and The Eastern Sea play on Saturday. An awesome weekend of music is about to ensue, and I am so thankful to be living in this city, healthy and strong. Music heals.

Every day you open your eyes is a good day.