Self Care for Activists (How to Avoid Compassion Fatigue, Part II)

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Hello again Dearhearts,

I hope this week has been treating you well, or even better, that you’ve been treating yourself well within the hard things that can happen over the course of a week.  

Last week I talked about compassion fatigue, or the idea that we can get exhausted from caring so much.  Without our knowledge, this exhaustion can cause us to close the doorways to our heart.  I shared what my teacher Diane told me, that "a broken heart is an open heart." 

This week, I'm sharing a few targeted thoughts and actions on how to practice self-care for activists (which I believe we all need to be these days).  Here are five tips--many of which I learned from Diane during my training in Integral Facilitation last year--that have helped me  stay honest yet hopeful during these challenging times.

Realize that you’ll never stop hurting.

I know it’s ridiculously obvious, but I need to say a few things out loud, such as: “I will never save the world. I won’t end racism in the United States. I won’t figure out how to adequately care for refugees or stop genocide.  I won’t even figure out how to recycle correctly.”

Going even further, I know I will never stop hurting other people with my presence.  Try as I might, I will continue to say insensitive things that further racism on a larger scale and can sever personal relationships forever.  Despite all my talk of zero-waste living, I will still consume in a way that harms the environment and the people at the bottom of the economic food-chain.  

The gravity of this truth is real.  I am hurt by the world, and I am hurting the world.  This is the reality of being in relationship with life.  There is pain.  As the Buddha taught, suffering is an essential part of existence.  If I try to wall myself off from this suffering, I disconnect from life itself, which makes me feel self-righteous on a good day, but unspeakably lonely on my worst ones.

Trying to make all of the pain go away feels like an endless game of Whack-a-Mole.  The moment I resolve one issue, another pops up, and then after confronting that one, another sticks its head out.   After more than 30 years of whacking away diligently, I realize I am presented with a choice:  Do I exhaust myself every day trying to FINALLY make all those pesky moles go away, or do I realize that I will be playing this game forever and ever?

Practice:  Take out your journal, set a timer for 15 minutes and write about the ways you have been hurt by other people. Tell the full truth, because you don’t have to share this with anyone else. Then set the timer for another 15 minutes and write about how you have hurt other people.  When you’re finished, place a hand over your heart.  Congratulate yourself, because you are living your life.  Honor that if you didn't care, it all wouldn’t hurt so much. Respect the inevitability of the hurt within the care.


Embrace the practice of play.

I will forever be impressed by the work of Dr. Stuart Brown, who founded the National Institute for Play.  He discovered the importance of play when he studied the lives of murderers, including Charles Whitman, the gunman who committed the mass shooting at the University of Texas in 1966.  Dr. Brown found that the one thing many murderers had in common was a severely restricted play history in their childhoods.

Throughout his career, he has proposed that the opposite of play isn’t work, but rather that it’s violence.

Personally, I know how violent and horrible I feel inside when I’ve worked myself too hard and yet still don’t feel like I measure up to the standard of success I’m given from the outside.  I’ve never thought of getting a gun during my worst moments, but I have exploded in anger at people around me.  

In my worst moments of life, play is what has saved me from taking myself too seriously.  It’s literally transformed my incredibly toxic mood into one of glee, just by becoming more playful.

In our overly busy and still-very-Puritanical culture, it’s hard for me to justify taking time for play.  But I feel it’s my responsibility to keep playing if I want to see a more peaceful world.  This is why I just signed up for Level II Improv with the brilliant Lisa Kays (who I just interviewed for my podcast here).  It’s why I practice the discipline of taking two hours a week to play, which can look like hunting through old dresses at a thrift store or doing handstands in the pool.

Choosing to play is a small act, but it feels revolutionary most days when I put it at the top of my endless to-do list.  I know that if more of us embraced this attitude of play and started a movement, it would be revolutionary.  So I choose to play, even when it feels pointless (part of play is that it should be pointless, in fact!).

Practice:  Do it.  Mark off two hours this week to do something that feels like play to you.  Don’t try to get something done during this time.  Don’t do an activity to please someone else. Choose it because it feels decadent and lovely.  Notice how you’ll try to wriggle out of it.  Notice how you feel after you do it.  Plan another playdate for yourself next week.


Learn to hold more than one perspective.

Another great aspect of play is that it increases your capacity to regulate your emotions, which helps you understand perspectives that are different than yours.  This is essential for the healing and reconciliation that I believe are possible within our culture right now.

During President Obama’s speech at the memorial last week for the murdered Dallas police officers, he told the officers’ stories while also bringing in the perspectives of recently murdered black men by police officers.  When he spoke about so many conflicting atrocities in the span of several breaths, my brain scrambled all wrong and right.  In that moment, all I saw was the collective suffering of violence.

Ken Wilber says, “Everything is true and partial.”  Softening rigid thinking is essential to keeping an emotionally balanced perspective, especially during these charged times. Holding in the reality of violence can be difficult enough, without adding in the hatred for the “other.”  

Opening my personal perspective helps me alleviate the responsibility I put on outside forces to fix the problem for me.  Looking outside myself for a savior when there is also a lot of work to be done internally  can be incredibly draining.  Understanding this puts the impetus back on me as an individual, so I can look at how to best understand and influence the collective narrative.

Practice:  Take five minutes to sit with two very different perspectives.  See if you can connect to the parts of each perspective that are true, and where each perspective is limited.  Notice how you feel after stretching your capacity in this way.  I think It’s best to start with a subject that isn’t incredibly charged for you before you move to one where you may hold a strong opinion.


Own your privilege.

It’s amazing how hard it can be for so many of us (myself included) to own the privilege of having white skin and of growing up with money.  

During my Integral Facilitation intensive in June, our group had an emotional conversation around privilege and oppression.  Despite a high level of self-awareness among the participants, we found that still nobody wanted to own his or her privilege.  Even those of us who had benefited greatly from white Western advantages still wanted to talk about how we are the exceptions to this privilege because of having a hard childhood or a period of unemployment or some other setback.

As I write this, I’m acutely aware of my own privilege in having white skin, a good education, and even something as simple as being provided nutritious food when I was a child.  I’m privileged to write these words that perhaps are incredibly insensitive in a way I can’t see because I belong to the still-dominant culture of privilege.

I’m aware that most people who come to yoga classes and take my coaching programs look like me, and that this hurts us all.  I know I don’t do enough to expand the reach of my work to under-served populations.

I’m afraid to say it out loud because it feels vulnerable.  Then I realize that people of color and other oppressed groups feel this vulnerability all the time, just because of who they are and the world we live in, which still advantages me.  If I can step closer to this feeling of vulnerability for awhile as a way of developing greater empathy, then I will do it as often as I can.  It’s not even close to enough, but it feels like a start.

Practice:  Own your privilege with someone in your life.  Like with the prior exercise, start with a less-charged relationship, but one where you feel a sense of inequality and at least a little bit of personal safety.  Explain what you are going to do and ask if they can sit with you while you admit your privilege.  Do your best to tell your truth and to feel the weight of your privilege and how it oppresses your partner.  Don’t do anything to control your partner’s response.  Ask if he or she wants to share, but don’t demand it.   If they do, then just listen as fully as you can without interrupting.  Just feel.  Thank them for witnessing you.  Notice what changes in you and in this relationship after.


Own your pain.

This last section feels incredibly hard to write.  I know I am being insensitive, so I apologize  in advance.  I expect to be challenged on this, and I want that challenge so I can see what I am not seeing.

Racism hurts me.  Racism hurts me because I believe the benefit I have received and continue to receive from my white privilege has damaged my soul and my connection to my heart at a level that is almost inexplicable.  I’ve carried these thoughts around in myself for a while and then read this article, and started thinking more.

I have a strong belief that the horrible body image most white women carry around with them despite having normal, healthy bodies is a vestige from the many black bodies that were bought and sold to maintain their lifestyles of privilege.

And I also think the pain of the soullessness within white men for the many atrocities that have been committed for their privilege is so deep that I honestly haven’t been able to go there with them.  Psychically, it scares me. I truly think the depth of this inner wound is the reason that I have not been able to work with men.

This is a tough place to be. A big part of me believes that it’s our duty as white people to carry our inner pain of white privilege inside, because it can’t even begin to resemble the outer pain of the hatred and violence and oppression of having colored skin, both the  continued disadvantages that I know of and the ones I can’t even imagine.

Yet I don’t think there will be healing in our culture until we can realize this wound is double-sided.  It’s not until we can all feel safe enough to sit together and to cry over how much it has hurt us to hurt others, and how much it hurts to be hurt by others, and how fucking unresolvable all of this is that we can come close to anything close to reconciliation.

Again, I know I am wrong here.  I’ve only linked to white people in this article.  I’m limited and privileged, but I’m hurting and I care.  I feel like I want to delete this whole post because it’s insensitive and wrong and no enough.  But I also know that’s not the answer.

This is also where I reach the outer edge of my ability to suggest practices.  So maybe questions are better.  Would you sit with me?  Could we sit together?  Could we feel safe enough to talk?  Would you hurt me and would you let me hurt you in the efforts to connect?  Would you let me hurt with you?  How could we play together?  Could we do this?  Could I do this?  Would anyone want to try?