Reflections on Compassion Fatigue and Self-Care

Jennifer Brown | |

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In this minisode, Jennifer shares her thoughts on several pertinent (and previously released) episodes from The Will To Change on the topics of compassion fatigue and self-care. You’ll discover the importance of thinking about your thinking, the potential pitfalls of sharing our story in unhealthy ways, and the healing power of community.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • The potential hazards of DE&I work (6:00)
  • Why we need to “think about our thinking” (13:00)
  • How to utilize negative experiences as learning tools (17:00)
  • How awareness creates progress (23:00)
  • The healing power of community (25:00)
  • The emotional toll of toxic work cultures (27:30)
  • How work can be a safe space for some communities (29:00)
  • Lessons that diversity practitioners can learn from actors (32:00)
  • The importance of maintaining healthy boundaries (35:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta and I’m here today with Jennifer Brown. In this minisode we’re going to be talking about compassion fatigue and self-care, and we’re going to be reflecting on, again, some of the amazing guests and interviews that we’ve had in the past. Jennifer, thanks again for allowing me to join you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hey, Doug, I’m looking forward to this.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you. My first question for you is about this idea of compassion fatigue. I’ve heard you talk more and more about it. Can you say a little bit about why are you thinking more and more about compassion fatigue? Maybe you can define that a little bit for our audience as well.

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure thing. I heard it, actually, from the animal rights field and also anyway who’s involved in end-of-life care it’s a little bit more commonly referred to in those industry, but when I thought about for diversity practitioners meaning folks either such as me on the outside influencing organizations and carrying those ideas forward and dealing with all of the resistance. But particularly for people internal in organizations, many of whom are our audience for The Will To Change, it’s a very difficult role that we do every day.

Those of us who carry the water, as I say, for these ideas and are often ourselves in a marginalized or multiple marginalized identities traditionally, we’re dealing with not only leading organizations through this change that a lot of people typically resist and have a lot of feelings about and they let us know those feelings, but we’re also coping with our own headwinds, microaggressions. I often call it “death by a thousand cuts” of being the only ourselves, for example. Or an underrepresented group and therefore subject to the day-to-day stereotypes and stigmas that others in our workplaces may have towards us whether those are articulated or not.

And it can feel just incredibly bone tiring to be getting up every day, fighting the fight as it feels every day and where do we then care for ourselves? It just strikes me that I worry about the sustainability of our community of change-makers and change creators and advocates because it’s a long game. We all have these peaks and valleys of feeling like we can do it and feeling encouraged, and then others where we feel very discouraged. And what I don’t want to have happen is all of the new entrants into this work and into the field I don’t want people to get discouraged. I want them to make sure they’re shoring themselves up.

I do worry about the new entrants into this work as companies are creating more and more positions for an official, formal role leading these efforts in companies, and more and more people are wanting those roles, which is all great news. They have the passion, certainly, and many people are being chosen based on the visible passion that they’ve shown towards the work and according to their identity, so that they have a personal investment in bringing their voice and the voices of different communities. But really it’s a hardcore job. It’s really hard. The long game, as I said, it’s a marathon. There are going to be tremendous highs and tremendous lows when you lead this work and those lows can feel really personal. And I want to make sure that we as a community of change makers and practitioners are shoring ourselves up, we’re strengthening ourselves, we’re making sure that we’re fueling ourselves in a sustainable way because the work is no joke. It gets under your skin, quite literally.

DOUG FORESTA: It should almost come with a disclaimer, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. It’s potentially hazardous, pace yourself. I think the training regimen, if you will, like the self-care regimen, radical self-care that’s required to do this work is no joke. You’ve got to fortify yourself in really intentional and proactive ways and I think that’s a message that we don’t spend a lot of time talking about in community. And it’s not a conversation that I think needs to be had or should be had in public. It’s an inside conversation where you can just collapse. If you need to not be in control and just be messy and raw about something, about things that you’re seeing, that you’re hearing, that are coming your way and you don’t know what to do with them, but you always have to have this professional face in the work, where do you fall apart? Where are you allowed to do that, to whom, and in what format? And that’s something that I’ve planned for.

DOUG FORESTA: We were chatting a little bit beforehand about the other side of fragility. We talk about fragility a lot of times like we did with the episode about white fragility, but there’s the other side of fragility, do practitioners ever get to be fragile?

JENNIFER BROWN: No, is the short answer. We’re triggered all day long. We just have to be really strong and really professional in the face of things that mere mortals that aren’t leading this work would fall apart from or react badly to or have an emotional response or just be able to be human. It strikes me that there’s this perfectionism where we have to be this perfect human being in leading this work and if you cut us we won’t bleed and if we bleed we won’t talk about it. We certainly won’t tell you that you made us feel this way and if we do give that feedback I think it endangers our very job.

You’re paid to rise above. You’re paid to be unassailable and superhumanly strong.  That concerns me because day after day being like that is not something that I think is fair to expect of people. I think we’ve got to do our own work of self-care and filling our cup and making sure we’re really vigilant about our mental hygiene.  Some of the clips we’re going to play today are about our internal dialogue and how we look at challenges that come our way, how we tell our stories or not, and the healthy way to tell stories which Nkem talks about in a really interesting way, and how Bandy Lee talks about how awareness is not just half the battle, it’s actually most of the battle. I thought that was so fascinating. We’ll get into that in a moment, Doug, but I love the segments we chose for today. They each shine a different light on what we’ve been talking about.

DOUG FORESTA: Well, thank you so much. You had mentioned, you said this is a brainy bunch and I think that that’s very true, literally true because they’re all talking about the brain, too. Yeah, why don’t we actually do that? Let’s start with Ellen Petry Leanse and for our listeners, we’re going to be re-releasing that episode as a best of, it’s called Brain-Based Self-Care for Advocates. Why don’t we take a listen to a clip from Ellen talking about thinking fast and slow?

ELLEN PETRY LEANSE:  When I work in a company and I see that everyone at the top is male, or even a white male, fully abled person or usually abled person, straight, whatever.  I get the message that those are the people that are going to lead, and I will probably subconsciously minimize my role or my potential without even knowing it as a potential leader of this company.

Now, the interesting thing is those routines run in the fast-thinking part of the brain, as Daniel Kahneman calls it in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.  But the slow-thinking part of the brain is really the home of our highest human cognition.  This is the pre-frontal cortex, which is the most human part of the brain, if you will, it’s the home of critical thought, long-term thinking, mood, and action regulation, self-censuring, if you will.  Self-awareness, and what we call “meta thinking,” which is thinking about thinking.  And by thinking about thinking, we can come in and say, “Look, I’ve always told myself this story that I can’t do this or that only people like that can do this.”  And we can think about our thinking.  This is why I say the mindset can come in.  And we can begin to work and practice new mindsets where we see ourselves as more than what those blind spots would tell us that we are.

DOUG FORESTA: So yes, this thinking about thinking and thinking fast and slow, I would love to get your feedback about what comes to mind for you, Jennifer as you listen to this.

JENNIFER BROWN: Part of the most successful and effective practitioners in this work manage the balance which is what she’s talking about, which is I think the old patterns that we are interpreting or the lenses that we’re seeing our experience through and having that reaction to it, that’s often negative when it deals with what we see and hear every day in our roles that may be geared towards us, it may just be geared towards the ideas that we represent — the ideas of change and equality and inclusion.

But the thinking about thinking that she’s talking about, the long game strikes me as a filter we can develop as practitioners to step back, notice our initial response, and validate that response and do that in a place that’s safe to do that while maintaining our professionalism. But, really, I think re-wiring ourselves or perhaps channeling or accessing this slow thinking she’s talking about, which is stepping apart from ourselves and noticing, why am I having that reaction? What impact is it having on me? And then what do I want my reaction to be? And actually choosing that very intentionally. We all know our immediate reaction to things is not always our desired reaction.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s very true.

JENNIFER BROWN: We’re often not proud, perhaps, of what comes out of our mouth or are you somebody who avoids conflict? Are you someone that depresses it or ignores it or moves on? Are you someone that responds in the moment in ways that you regret? Some of us are very introverted thinkers in these moments and some of us are very extroverted. Regardless, all of these things are going to happen to us. I think the thinking about thinking is what sets people apart that are deep in this work, which is that you have the capacity to hear things and either be a direct object of certain behaviors and comments and hurtful actions or you have the ability to step away from that and get some distance and be objective. And then think about, “I am an instrument to receive this,” and then think about, “How can I do my own work in order to not have it hurt me at the core, but to really take the right lesson from things?”

And that, to me, feels always like it’s a depersonalization of it. It is an acknowledgement of the hurt of it, but it is so much more than that and the skill set practitioners need to develop is that of objectivity. The feeling of the feeling, but then putting the experience and the feelings in the right place and then transcending that to think about the more global issues that this should truly lead us to explore. And really, if I’m feeling this, okay, then what does it mean for everyone else? This is where the leadership part of the role comes in. What are the implications for this that just happened to me that caused these feelings in me? But what does that mean in terms of our entire workforce?

The ability to put our own raw experience and reactions into context, but then take the right lessons from it. I think that that’s one thing I hear in what Ellen’s talking about which is that ability to have the emotional regulation and notice, what is the input? What is our reaction? What is the more universal message that we can take from this as the teachers in our organization?

Going through that whole process, I think it’s just something we can be wiser about noticing, watching, regulating, growing.  Honestly, the wisest people I know, nothing fazes them. I think they’ve developed this at the extreme level.  I don’t fight fire with fire. I don’t lash back. I don’t respond in a hostile way or I don’t internalize hurt in a way that hurts me. I see it for what it is, I put it in the right place, and I transcend it, but I bring it with me. I don’t mean by transcend that I forget it, ignore it, or minimize it, but I bring it and I keep it in the right context.

We’re going to talk later with Nkem. The clip is about the ways that we can use storytelling not to retraumatize ourselves or others, but to utilize what’s happened to us and our primary experiences in our lives as teaching tools.

That’s what I’m talking about. The packaging of our experiences in ways that are productive and healthy for ourselves and also for our audience members, too. We have tremendous power. We can traumatize other people who are listening to our stories about our trauma, too. The question she asks always is: Is that healthy? Is it productive? Is it sustainable? Is it going to create lasting change? She would say no, so I think thought that was really provocative. We’ll get to that in a minute.

DOUG FORESTA: As you said that what came to me is the thought that wise people are able to use those experiences in service of what they want, but they are not used by them. Like you said, we’ll talk about that storytelling piece in a little bit. But I do want to play the next clip. I want to play and hear from Dr. Bandy Lee, who we had on an episode that is going to be re-released called, Mental Health, Self-Care, and Resiliency: Mitigating the Structural Violence of Inequality. I learned so much from this episode. Let’s go ahead and play that clip. Why don’t we do that now?

BANDY LEE:  No matter how inclusive we believe that we are, to a certain degree, we cannot separate ourselves from the common culture and the ecology that we’re a part of.  The best that we can do is to try to repair it and to make that awareness a strength in our trying to reach out to others. 

The awareness is very good, all that you’ve talked about in terms of conflicts and difficulty, that’s actually the process of healing.  The awareness is very good and the fact that we’re working on this as hard as it may seem and as depressing as it may feel to us at times that we’re making so little progress or that we’re going backwards.  But, in fact, the very fact that we’re aware of the problem takes care of most of the problem, believe it or not.  And that goes the same with mental illness.  We see that a lot, that those who are falling ill, the first thing they lose is the awareness that something is wrong.  We call that insight.  Once they lose insight, then they will follow, they will avidly follow the course of illness, reject treatment, reject any kind of insinuation that they might need help and then fall into a course of self-destruction — if not destruction of others — in the process.  

DOUG FORESTA: She’s talking there about awareness as well, right? It’s interesting, there’s definitely a theme there. I thought that was really interesting, too, that she said even when it feels like we’re falling behind, basically, if we’re aware then we’re not falling behind. I’m curious about your thoughts about that. I thought that was interesting.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know, that made me feel better, it really did, to hear her describe that awareness is even more than half the battle. In her understanding as a psychiatrist, it’s an enormous part of progress, actually, and it’s healing vis-a-vis what we were talking about that so many of us are frustrated with the pace of change and we do feel like our job is often to increase awareness for others over and over again. It’s a huge part of the job description is to educate or to illuminate or share data or personal story-tell in order to somehow shift hearts and minds. And it starts with awareness.

In fact, in my next book coming out in August of 2019, I have an inclusive leader path with four stages and the first stage is unaware and the second stage is aware. To me, this is a huge threshold that if we can get people to cross into, the problem will be on its way to being solved because awareness enlists your brain and your heart in something that I hope you find troublesome or bothersome or intolerable. That’s the kind of change thinking we need to generate amongst all of our stakeholders when we’re trying to increase awareness around diversity and inclusion.

For those of us who think about self-care and managing the compassion fatigue, I hope that it’s soothing to everybody to hear Dr. Lee talk about how we are on our way to solving the problem, just through that acute awareness of our own journey and our own headwinds and knowing that if we somehow unleash the problem and people on the problem that the remedy is underway. To me, it’s a comforting thing that she’s talking about.

DOUG FORESTA: I thought it was it very heartening, too. I just want to mention as well that people may also know Dr. Lee. She really rose to prominence writing The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. People may have heard of a psychiatrist who came out and talk about courage, it took a lot of courage to write that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right? That’s so true.

DOUG FORESTA: She rose to national prominence on that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, she talks with a bunch of other psychiatrists, they wrote this together and just wanted to acknowledge the real mental health challenges of country leadership that leads in this way and how it trickles down to a lot of us in terms of the day-to-day reality of managing inclusion and trying to put that message out in the world when it’s so contrary to the messages that we’re getting. You talk about self-care, this, I think, dictates the power of community.

She talks about how she and other psychiatrists get together in community and really, really have honest conversations about managing the pain of their clients and sharing the things they’re wrestling with and the treatment that they’re providing and their own journey in absorbing so much of the effects of toxicity in our society in general. Whether that’s the economic difficulties that are being faced in income inequality and mental illness and all of the things that she sees in the psychiatry world and having her own practice.

We often don’t think of the business world as being a toxic place, however, I would argue that there is a lot of toxicity that’s around us, and maybe that is the message for practitioners around self-care is seeing that toxicity in this larger context. And I would encourage everyone to read up on Bandy Lee’s work because I don’t think the workplace is so different or at all separated from the toxicity that’s running as undercurrent in our society and not even undercurrent.

DOUG FORESTA: It’s just a microcosm.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, exactly, and perhaps things are maybe magnified, maybe swept under the rug. There are some certain dynamics in the workplace about the toxicity, but make no mistake, it’s real, and so if you’re feeling like you’re craving being seen and heard around the severity of the toxicity of the national conversation right now and how it translates into every part of our lives, including the workplace, read Bandy Lee’s stuff. I think part of self-care is acknowledging the level of difficulty of what we’re doing.

I know it might feel overwhelming to some, but to me it puts a name and I feel like I get this sense of control in a way through understanding the monumentalness of what we’re up against and that it’s not just the workplace, it’s actually bigger than the workplace which, to me, makes me feel somehow better that I’m not alone and that this battle is being fought on multiple fronts, and that maybe if I can bring love and grace and forgiveness and kindness and all the messages of inclusion at least in the workplace that I can control, maybe I can make a better experience for people within these four walls. Maybe I can be a part of being that respite from the aggression that certain communities are facing the second they leave the workplace.

This is true, just to use LGBT people as an example, if you’re lucky enough to work for a multinational company that’s all over the world, often the workplace in the office itself is the safest place for LGBT people to be themselves. If you work for IBM and you’re in Romania or you’re in Russia or you’re in parts of Asia, you feel more secure. If you’re a woman in India working for a multi-national you feel safer at work than on your commute on the way home where anything can happen or in your families where your role is challenged every single day as somebody who’s making a professional career.

I do think that this could be a reminder as well that the workplace can be a refuge if it’s constructed in the right way. And that you’re really going after something very important for your employees. I mean, it may not be an American paradigm, but globally this can be a life-or-death endeavor.

DOUG FORESTA: Well, you had mentioned about not being alone. I want to come back to that, but what I want to do first is play our last clip from Nkem Ndefo. This is from Perspective Switch: Healing Trauma Through Healthy Storytelling. You had started to mention about it, about how we can tell our stories and that, so I want to play this clip now from Nkem.

NKEM NDEFO:  So I think we need to be a little more holistic about how we approach storytelling and this idea that I had mentioned of low-impact disclosure.  Low-impact disclosure, it’s hard.  When our story is very raw, we want to “blah!” it out, right?  But that’s reenactment, that’s not healing storytelling.  So, low-impact disclosure is I can talk about my feelings in a way that I’m present to them, they’re not overwhelming me, and I can pause and take a break when I need to, but I don’t need to flesh out the gory details because I’m not reliving the story.  The gory details come when you’re reliving.  We can leave out the gory details and talk about the impact.

DOUG FORESTA: I love her. I love when she goes it’s like, “Just blah!” This idea that not all storytelling is healing because a lot of times people will want to tell their story, and telling our story is not intrinsically healing, there are other things we need. Curious about your thoughts about that, your experiences with that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, well, I have a personal story of this when I gave my first TED Talk and I came out – not only came out on the stage in front of a thousand people, but also talked about losing my voice as an opera singer and having to get multiple surgeries and I wasn’t sure I could get through the talk without crying.  It was the first time I had really given it. And it gets to, I think, what she’s talking about the re-traumatization of ourselves and when is the right time to share our story? When are we ready to share it? And the process of becoming so much more comfortable with it to the point where it is something we can deliver in an authentic way and in a vulnerable way, but not feel vulnerable to it every single time.

It reminds me a lot of acting. When you study acting, it is all about being present, but also the show must go on and you’ve got to be managing, “Where am I in my lines? Where do I need to be on the stage?” And so, it’s this really dichotomy of being super present and giving the audience the impression, indeed, that you are feeling all these things in a very genuine way, but you’re still in control and you still have a goal.

Storytelling is not this sort of raw, like she says, “Blah!” Storytelling, and particularly in the business world and the workplace context for the purpose of inclusion, you always have to have your goal in mind and this is what great storytellers eventually come to, which is the ability to talk about traumatizing experiences, but in a way where we can still have emotional control in the moment and where we’re also guiding the audience not down a re-traumatization path, but down a path of greater understanding.

It’s interesting what she talks about the low-impact disclosure, the purpose is not to go there and not only get swamped by our own pain, but also swamp the audience. I hadn’t really thought about that before. It helped me understand instinctively the processes I had gone through in discovering parts of my painful story, how I story tell about that now, and how I protect the audience and protect myself in my own storytelling is kind of interesting, while not letting them off the hook. That’s not what I’m talking about.  I don’t know. It’s very hard to describe, Doug.

Nkem’s episode talks a lot also about that you are allowed to step out. You are allowed to step back from the front lines. You don’t constantly have to be in this high alert and, by the way, exhausting, vigilant state that a lot of us are in, I think, when we do this work because we’re so passionate because we’re sensitive to dynamics, because we’re so empathetic and we’re always picking up things from others. That’s our blessing, but it’s also our curse because it can sneak up on us and cause real damage if you’re living in that place all the time.

I felt, again, really comforted and soothed and almost given permission in Nkem’s episode to not always be the one that’s fighting and that related, I think, to the storytelling, the compulsion to always witness and tell my story is a compulsion, while important, that we need to remember, we can step back and have somebody else take the ball for a while and that’s part of self-care, and that’s part of modulating our passion. It’s part of making sure we’re healthy and that we pick our spots.

We’re also blindly passionate, right? We’re like, “I’ll do anything! Call on me! I’m here!” It is this all-encompassing way of life, if you will, for a lot of us that do this work and we will never say, “No,” and we will not maintain healthy boundaries, we just won’t because we want to solve this problem so bad and it’s really our original wound.

It goes back to the reason we do this is we’re trying to solve something for ourselves and it’s this big, insatiable hole in our hearts, and perhaps multiple, that we will spend our lives trying to heal. And heal it in ourselves, heal it in others, so there are no boundaries.  She is all about boundaries. She’s a trauma healer. I just loved that she said it is okay to take a break and step away. And not only okay, you have to do this for yourself.

That clip talks about storytelling where we go to the mat every time we tell our stories, we are passionate, we give it our all, 150%, and I think maybe the message in this that I take, too, the reason allyship is so important is that in order to step back you’ve got to know who’s going to step in, right?

You’ve got to feel that there are 10 people that you can hand the baton over to somebody and have them run for a while.

DOUG FORESTA: Otherwise, you feel like Atlas, you’re holding up the world, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, yeah, exactly. You’re just pushing this mountain every day and it’s not healthy for you. When we talk about lining up our support structure, and also that a lot of people who aren’t directly impacted by bias and negative stereotypes and stigma every single day, they can grab the baton and run with it for a while. And then they can have those uncomfortable conversations and pay less of a price and it’s something, Doug, we talk about all the time — that’s the beauty of getting more people involved in this work is that many hands make light work and yet, a lot of us, I think, get isolated in the work and forget that that support structure is there and we don’t leverage it and we don’t work smarter not harder, modulating that, lining up our systems of support, and making sure we step back on a regular basis in order to restore ourselves.  Boy, I needed to hear that.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you, Jennifer. Thank you, again, for sharing your words of wisdom on this important topic. I really appreciate it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Doug.