What is ‘self-care’ and why is it important for human rights activists?

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What is ‘self-care’ and why is it important for human rights activists?

What is self-care?  What does this term mean to me?  Why are we talking about it?

Does it refer to an individual or is broader than that?  Where does an organization and its culture fit into notions of self-care, wellness and sustainability?  Where do communities fit in?

Why is self-care important for people doing human rights work? 

What are the struggles and signs of distress that one experiences?  Are people working in human rights particularly vulnerable to these struggles?

Note: This dialogue is PUBLIC. Do not share any private or sensitive information. For advice on a specific situation, please contact a participant privately.

Why is self-care important for human rights activists?

 Hello everyone.. let me get the ball rolling on this thread.  I think this question is very fundamental to 'human rights work' - where the tension between the rights of individuals as private persons and as members of families, communities, groups, organisations, societies...is ever-present. There are also many levels or aspects we can consider in addressing this question:   on the personal and perhaps most obvious level, working on defending and promoting human rights is a long and strenuous path; so naturally it is important for activists to know and to be able to access the means to sustain ourselves....  which, as the discussions on the other threads will show - is not an easy thing to do. 

On a deeper level, I think that human rights work is essentially a constructive and affirming process... and must include the promotion / defense  of access to resources for people to "care for themselves"  - which brings many other aspects into the picture, including economic and social, political contexts which are in many cases, not conducive to this at all.

For many activists in the south, access to resources is a fundamental issue to any approach to 'self-care'... 

I would like to leave it here, and hope that others can pick up this thread of thought.

What is Self-Care?

Everyone has the right to stand up, to speak out and to defend human rights. 

Everyone has the right to defend human rights safely, without fear of retribution, such as physical violence, slander or attacks on their families. 

Equally, everyone has the right to defend human rights and enjoy a full life, without sacrificing livelihoods, health or happiness.

When I think about what self care means, I realize that I first need to begin with what activism means to me.

I love human rights activism. It is my passion and my path. It makes me happy. When I make a change, even a small one, I feel joy. I feel it when my friends succeed -- that shared sense of success. And renewed hope that it is worth it. 

When I think I’ve failed, or struggle with that grinding sense of not being able to do enough, I am devastated. I feel like I’ve been climbing a mountain, and just can’t go a step further. 

Self-care, wellness, sustainability -- to me, it is all about finding a way to have balance. To keep doing this work with love, passion and fun -- and to be able to take the hard times in my stride, to have perspective and to understand that what we do is enough. That I am enough.

It means I have enough inside me to take care of -- and love -- my own body, heart and soul. To have enough to hold my children with pleasure and without distraction. To be present with them. To have enough to laugh and play with my lover. To be with my friends and family. Without fear, or future regret.

It also means being able to afford doing the work, without sacrificing all the other, equally important parts of my life. That I am not trading in my children’s education or my chance for a peaceful retirement, for the intensity of now. We don’t like to talk about that part of it, and I know its uncomfortable, but activism doesn’t pay the rent. 

I really appreciate that Lin brought up this aspect of self-care, because how we manage our resources as individuals and organizations is integral to how we take care of ourselves as activists (and I hope we can talk more about it):

linchew wrote:

 For many activists in the south, access to resources is a fundamental issue to any approach to 'self-care'... 

Like Lin, I also firmly believe that self-care needs to be understood within a framework of rights... and responsibilities. We have a right to do this work and be safe, well and fulfilled. We have shared responsibilities as individuals, and as organizations -- to take care of ourselves, our colleagues, organizations and movements.  

And I believe, with all my heart, that it is possible.

What is self care ?

Self care refers  top those things an individual does to himself or herself to   reduce stress and burnout in the course of human rights activism work.

It Implies our energy levels are  rejuvenated so that we continue with the human rights work uninterrupted.

Rationale for Self care

In many cases human rights activism is  risky especially  in states where  there is repressive governance and if the activist becomes too vocal they may be “silenced”.

 

What are the signs and why is 'self care' important?

The whole activist movement - human rights, social justice, environmental, etc - is endemic with people burning out. Most of the work in these areas feels important to us and so it is important to ourselves, our organisation and the cause that has inspired us that we don't burn out. It's NOT a requirement of being involved. In fact quite the opposite - if we really care about what we are doing then it is vital that we learn to recognise and deal with burnout before it impacts us and our work. For starters, just ask yourself the question: what is most likely to motivate others to want to get involved and support your project - seeing a team of people on the verge of burnout or a well motivated team having fun and achieving results? Easy choice wasn't it! 

Below is a piece written by Canadian activist Tooker on Earth Day, 2002. At the time he was suffering from severe depression; the piece was a private exercise for his therapist. Tooker spent his entire adult life doing inspiring and often successful work for a greener, healthier world. In 2001, in his own words, he "hit a wall". For the first time in his life, he battled burnout. Sadly sometime after this he took his own life....

Dear Activist:

It's another strange day for me. Things have been strange for 8 months or more. I used to be an activist. Now I don't know what I am. Did you ever read the Kafka story about the guy who wakes up and he has turned into a cockroach?

My mind is in a fog - I can't think very clearly. Making a sandwich takes a long time - I have to concentrate on every step along the way, and I am moving very slowly and deliberately. I feel like I am stunned, and spaced out most of the time. Today is Earth Day, but I feel I am on another planet.

I have been spending lots of time in bed, mostly sleeping, dozing, and dreaming.

It feels like my mind has melted down, though I am told that it comes back once the depression lifts. Whenever that is. For some people it seems to be months, for others years, and others never get out of it.

But I am writing to you about activism, not the frightening impacts of depression.

Amory Lovins, the great energy efficiency guru, once called me a Hyper-Activist. I guess that's what I was. I lived, breathed, and focussed on activism. It kept me thinking, inspired, interested, and alive.

But it also allowed me to ignore other things in life that now, suddenly, I realize I never developed. This makes me sad and despondent.

I used to enjoy cooking, but stopped. I always liked kids, but never really thought about having kids of our own. Changing the world was more important, and having a kid would interfere with our life's work of changing the world.

I didn't develop my mind in a broad way, learning about music and art and theatre and poetry, for example. It was focussed on changing the world. I never really thought about a career - I was living my life, not worrying about the trappings and credentials of the boring, status quo world.

Maybe I was living in a bubble of naiveté, doing my own thing, unconcerned that my perspectives and actions were so different from "normal". I never wanted to be normal, anyway. Normal got us into the mess we're in.

So now I find myself, with my sliver of being smashed to smithereens after being assaulted by police in Quebec City, a security guard in City Hall, and various other security guards during the mayoralty race. And numerous arrests.

Or maybe it was the tear gas, and last summer's smog. Maybe I pushed my brain too hard, and overstressed it with the run for Mayor of Toronto, or the passport burning, or 20 years of pushing against the juggernaut. And maybe Sept. 11 firmed up my worries into a real fear that working for change was really dangerous.

Or it could be a physiological response to too much coffee, stress, and smog. Maybe I've burned out my adrenal glands. Maybe my brain is poisoned from so much thinking about tragic ecological issues, pondering bad air, and getting frustrated at the slow rate of improvement and the rapid destruction of the living world. Could my brain have been damaged when I was close to dying with heat stroke in Vietnam in 1998?

I should have developed a deeper kinship with my family and with people. Don't get me wrong - I had lots of friends and acquaintances in the activist world. But they were not deep friends of the heart. I neglected my heart, and how I was feeling about things, about people, about situations. Now that I'm in crisis, I don't really have the language to connect with people. The silence is easier than trying to explain what I'm going through, or to relate to other people's issues or problems.

So what advice can I offer? Stay rounded. Do the activism, but don't overdo it. If you burn out, or tumble into depression, you'll become no good to anyone, especially yourself. When you're in this state, nothing seems worthwhile, and there's nothing to look forward to.

It's honourable to work to change the world, but do it in balance with other things. Explore and embrace the things you love to do, and you'll be energetic and enthusiastic about the activism. Don't drop hobbies or enjoyments. Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental if you are to keep going.

I never really understood what burnout was. I knew that it affected active people, but somehow I thought I was immune to it. After all, I took breaks every now and then and went travelling. And all my work was done in partnership with Ange, the great love of my life.

But in the end, when burnout finally caught up to me, it was mega, and must have been the accumulation of decades of stress and avoidance. And now I find myself in a dark and confusing labyrinth trying to feel my way back to sanity and calm.

So beware. Take this warning seriously. If you start slipping into the hole of depression and you notice yourself losing enthusiasm and becoming deeply disenchanted, take a break and talk with a friend about it. Don't ignore it. The world needs all the concerned people it can get. If you can stay in the struggle for the long haul you can make a real positive contribution, and live to witness the next victory!

Source: http://www.greenspiration.org/

What is burnout?

Thank you for sharing that, Mike.  It is a very powerful message.  For me, I hear people talk about burnout and I know that it is a serious risk of this job - but hearing it come from someone who is in it - wow.  It makes it all very real and scary. 

I agree with what you wrote above:

Mike Grenville wrote:

[Burnout] is NOT a requirement of being involved. In fact quite the opposite - if we really care about what we are doing then it is vital that we learn to recognise and deal with burnout before it impacts us and our work.

so I look forward to hearing from all of you - what is burnout, exactly?  What does it look like?  How do we know when we are creeping into that state?  In other words - what are the warning signs? 

Burn Out

The classical definition of burn out is a state that can look like acute stress disorder, or post traumatic stress disorder, or depression, based on ongoing (chronic and/or cumulative) organizational stress/distress. While this can include interpersonal factors, it is not limited to interpersonal as much as terms like secondary  trauma or vicarious trauma are. Having just spent much of the past 7 months working on staff support programming in Haiti, I am more aware (and I totally appreciate the statement that awareness is an agent for change) than ever of the vast extent of burnout at all levels of humanitarian response (which I believe is a form of activism). While the technical definitions may be useful in the teaching or sharing or comprehension of these concepts--it is ultimately the impact on our selves (all of us; body-mind-heart-soul), our families, loved ones, friends, communities, organizations and collegial relationships that defines burn-out. I recognize burn-out as an oppression or repression of one's passion---passion being that divine intersect of what we love/care about with our actions related to this love. Its when we no longer can rest or yield; no longer see or identify or appreciate beauty; no longer can relate socially in our usual ways that satisfy our human longing and need for connection; lo longer fulfill simple daily tasks, activities, functions, relationships; no longer experience enthusiasm in our work or play or love; no longer find our self in the matrix of life as it is playing out around and within us. Lost, repressed, depressed, isolated, navigating unfamiliar and uncomfortable emotional, psychological, and spiritual waters. When the well begins to seem empty.

Self care is a human right, and it is a shared right---one we can provide for others who for any reason may be unable to provide or practice it for themselves.  And as has already been stated--it is not only in reference to leisure or pleasure or "down-time" activities--it is access to the basic fundamentals of life--food, water, shelter, relative safety, a means to support oneself (however self is defined) and family (however family is defined). In many cultures selfhood extends beyond the boundaries of the individual, and includes family, ancestors, the natural world, the cosmos. Nurturing, protecting and maintaining our place in this larger order is self-care.

Burnout Defined

Burnout is a reflection of an internal response to a situation. There is no specific connection between the task itself or the hours spent doing something and burnout because it isn't just about activity. It is the individual perception that turns a perceived lack of return for the energy expended into stress. When the stress is unrelieved over time it leads to burnout. 

Whose responsibility is it when a member of a team or organisation experiences unrelieved stress and burnout? The individual under stress typically feels it is their problem. But if even one of the cells in our bodies is unwell do we say "tough being cell isn't it - hope you sort it out soon?" Rather the whole organism is mobilised to heal the situation. 

Likewise if one person is showing signs of stress and burnout, it should be an alarm call for the whole organisation to respond and face the issue. 

It is vital that a group culture is created that supports self-care, balance and sustainable work loads and patterns. Do we celebrate our successes together? And even celebrate in the successes in what we perceive as our failures? 

Develop the habit of appreciating the little things that happen in the people around you and what gets done.

Burn Out

The classical definition of burn out is a state that can look like acute stress disorder, or post traumatic stress disorder, or depression, based on ongoing (chronic and/or cumulative) organizational stress/distress. While this can include interpersonal factors, it is not limited to interpersonal as much as terms like secondary  trauma or vicarious trauma are. Having just spent much of the past 7 months working on staff support programming in Haiti, I am more aware (and I totally appreciate the statement that awareness is an agent for change) than ever of the vast extent of burnout at all levels of humanitarian response (which I believe is a form of activism). While the technical definitions may be useful in the teaching or sharing or comprehension of these concepts--it is ultimately the impact on our selves (all of us; body-mind-heart-soul), our families, loved ones, friends, communities, organizations and collegial relationships that defines burn-out. I recognize burn-out as an oppression or repression of one's passion---passion being that divine intersect of what we love/care about with our actions related to this love. Its when we no longer can rest or yield; no longer see or identify or appreciate beauty; no longer can relate socially in our usual ways that satisfy our human longing and need for connection; lo longer fulfill simple daily tasks, activities, functions, relationships; no longer experience enthusiasm in our work or play or love; no longer find our self in the matrix of life as it is playing out around and within us. Lost, repressed, depressed, isolated, navigating unfamiliar and uncomfortable emotional, psychological, and spiritual waters. When the well begins to seem empty.

Self care is a human right, and it is a shared right---one we can provide for others who for any reason may be unable to provide or practice it for themselves.  And as has already been stated--it is not only in reference to leisure or pleasure or "down-time" activities--it is access to the basic fundamentals of life--food, water, shelter, relative safety, a means to support oneself (however self is defined) and family (however family is defined). In many cultures selfhood extends beyond the boundaries of the individual, and includes family, ancestors, the natural world, the cosmos. Nurturing, protecting and maintaining our place in this larger order is self-care.

Self-care, selfishness and selflessness

This is a great definition of burnout, thank you.

Thank you in particular for talking about self-care beyond the sometimes limited concept of 'self', when you point out that:

ambergray wrote:

In many cultures selfhood extends beyond the boundaries of the individual, and includes family, ancestors, the natural world, the cosmos. Nurturing, protecting and maintaining our place in this larger order is self-care.

This is an important point, because I think that one of the immediate activist reactions to the concept of 'self-care' is that it feels 'self-centered' or 'selfish' -- which grates against both the culture of activism, where we are meant to be 'selfless'. The idea of 'self-care' and seemingly such a focus on the individual can also be quickly rejected by human rights activists in many countries as a North American concept, as 'touchy-feely', 'soft' and all about the 'I', rather than the 'we'. 

So I really like that Amber has put self-care in this broad, encompassing context -- which also helps to answer the question of whether we are talking about individuals or organizations -- somehow, I see this description as helping us to understand that we are talking about both.

I also agree that many humanitarian aid workers are also activists (or human rights defenders), and that these discussions would resonate for them as well (this resonates with the thread around activist identity, as well). 

Signs of burnout

Hi Kristin,

A great question -- and I think many others on the dialogue are offering great answers and examples. 

I know that there are different instruments out there for self-assessment and measurement of burnout, compassion satisfaction, compassion fatigue and secondary trauma/vicarious trauma. I've also noticed that there seem to be different thoughts about these tools. So, I was hoping that other practitioners could help out by giving their thoughts on:

1. Clear explanation of the inter-related concepts of: burnout, compassion satisfaction, compassion fatigue and secondary trauma (and how they relate to each other)

2. Suggestions/recommendations around some of the tools that are used to help individuals and organizations assess them?

Thanks!

Peer Support

Medical Whistleblower is a network for advocacy for those who step forward to report patient abuse, patient neglect, medical fraud and human rights violations.  Most of our medical whistleblowers are from the medical community and often are licensed medical professionals.  Many have MD or PhD's and thus we have in our ranks those who are psychiatrists and psychologists as well as other licensed therapists.  But persons who have chosen these healing professions find themselves without support when they report on human rights violations against their employers or report rampant medical fraud against vulnerable populations  or step forward with allegations of abuse at the hospital or organization they work for.  Suddenly they find themselves no longer accepted by their peers and no longer supported by their colleagues.  Afraid to seek professional help for fear of damaging their professional reputation and the real reality that it would undermine their credibility, they instead "stuff it" and suffer in silence.  In Medical Whistleblower's Advocacy Network there are surgeons who reported deliberate homicides, psychiatrists who reported neglect of patients with mental problems leading to suicide, psychologists who reported child abuse,  nurses who reported elder care  neglect and abuse leading to death,   and anesthesiologists who reported experimentation on patients without their knowledge while under anesthesia.  And these ethical caring medical professionals find themselves facing severe retaliation for coming forward with their complaints - many times their medical professional licenses placed at risk by their courageous whistleblowing.  Thus Medical Whistleblower attempts to reach out to each person with individualized advocacy and support.  We have no resources other than our individual caring support but sometimes that is essential for providing emotional and spiritual support.

We try to support one another, to pierce the isolation and provide friendship and to listen.  These are the ethical principles that we try to adhere to with our Peer Mentoring Support:

Medical Whistleblower

Peer Support Network

As volunteers of the Medical Whistleblower Peer Support Network, we are committed to the following ethical principles in our work with individual Medical Whistleblowers, who have experienced whistleblower retaliation trauma.  In addition, we have a dedication to each other as a supportive collegial network respecting all our levels of professional experience and training.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a natural emotional reaction to a deeply shocking and disturbing experience. It is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Any human being has the potential to develop PTSD.  The cause is external and causes a Psychiatric Injury not a Mental Illness.  PTSD is not resulting from the individual’s personality – the victim is not inherently weak or inferior. We use Trauma Informed Care Principles. 

Trauma Informed Care Principles

  • Problems/Symptoms are inter-related responses and coping mechanisms to deal with trauma.
  • Providing Medical Whistleblower’s choice, autonomy and control is central to healing.
  • Primary goals are defined by the Medical Whistleblowers and focus on recovery, self-efficacy, and healing.
  • Proactive – preventing further crisis & avoiding re-traumatization.
  • Recovery requires giving the Medical Whistleblower a sense of power and control.
  • Relationships should be respectful and support mastery.
  • Services should address all of the survivor’s needs rather than just symptoms.
  • Systems must discourage withholding information or keeping secrets from the Medical Whistleblowers.
  • Efforts should instill hope and have future orientation.
  • Support should be given with due consideration to cultural beliefs and customs and in recognition of the Medical Whistleblowers own Faith belief system.
  • Medical Whistleblowers should be encouraged to make their own choices and identify their needs.
  • Respecting the Medical Whistleblower’s right to open expression.
  • Acknowledging that the loss of human potential is incalculable if the person is not involved in identifying their needs and finding the supports they need and want.
  • Celebrating the infinite potential for human growth though the healing process.

We are dedicated to helping Medical Whistleblowers build on their unique strengths; to help enhance their coping skills, and, in the best possible time, encourage their strengths so that they once again become self-reliant and independent.

We utilize the Vulnerability to Strength Chart to assist individuals to identify where they are in their own healing process.  We recognize that each Medical Whistleblower will proceed to recovery in their individual manner and on their own time frame.

Principle I: Respect for the Dignity of Persons

As volunteers we have an abiding respect for individuals who are often experiencing devastating traumatic events in their lives. We are committed to recognizing the inherent dignity that people possess, with all the personal, social, spiritual and cultural diversity present in our society. We make every effort to provide peer support with respect to the dignity of those we serve as a primary ethical commitment. It is not our right to judge others, but rather assist them to understand and ultimately come to terms with the devastating events they have experienced. 

Principle II: Responsible Caring

Volunteers of the Medical Whistleblower Peer Support Network are dedicated at all times to approaches that are caring, compassionate, and positive.  Our dedication is to an atmosphere of non-judgmental support for the Medical Whistleblowers.  This commitment requires a dedicated sense of responsibility to those we serve.  We have an essential commitment to extend our caring to ourselves and our colleagues.

We insure that we remain personally healthy as Medical Whistleblower volunteer responders, and contribute in supportive ways to our own well-being as we provide social and networking support to others.   We are committed to engage in proactive self-care and on-going support and education. We are also committed to being available to provide cooperative support and help with the issues of personal stress associated with Whistleblower Retaliation. 

Principle III: Integrity in Relationships

We are dedicated to a strong sense of integrity in the relationships we develop with the traumatized individuals and groups, including ourselves. We insure that the right of confidentiality and privacy is actively maintained for those we serve. We have a positive attitude about the well-being of others to the point where we are confident that our interventions "do no harm," as we engage in providing help.  We believe in confidentiality as a guiding principle in the support we provide, and share information as directed by our clients. We are not afraid to indicate we do not have all the answers and will refer individuals to further support if needed.  We insure that we refer traumatized individuals to the appropriate resources, providing on-going liaison support for those who need it until additional support can be obtained.

Within organizations we insure confidentiality for those we help and do not engage in practices that interfere with their right to privacy, respect and dignity. 

Principle IV: Responsibility to Society

The Medical Whistleblower Peer Support Network is founded on the belief that as volunteers of the Network, we are committed to responding to the needs of our peers at all levels, from individual events to the ongoing needs of traumatized Medical Whistleblowers within their community. In addition, we are committed to meeting the needs of our volunteers in the areas of continuing education including information on Trauma Informed Care, Bad Faith Peer Review, Medical Whistleblower Retaliation and Social & Legal Resources.  Our ethical goal is a strong commitment to a mutually supportive group of colleagues who can bring trauma informed emotional and social support to the Medical Whistleblowers we wish to serve.

As volunteers of the Medical Whistleblower Peer Support Network, we dedicate our responses to providing appropriate emotional and social support for individual Medical Whistleblowers and to enhance their ability to have meaningful lives and to provide information to State and Federal Law Enforcement about Medical Abuse, Fraud, and Neglect.
_____________________________________
Title / Organization 

Signed: _____________________________________

Address:_____________________________________

Date: ______________________________

Witness: ______________________________________

Address:______________________________________

Vulnerability to Strength

In understanding the retaliation trauma Medical Whistleblowers experience, it is necessary to look at Maslow's hierachy of human needs.  So to build personal strength one must first meet one's basic needs.  When a person's basic needs are not fully met then they do not have the personal or emotional strength to help another. I think of it has having a bucket filled with water - if there is a hole in the bucket draining all the water out, it will be difficult to transfer water to another person's bucket.  When facing life trauma, one's emotional bucket gets drained and one must fill it again before one can share with others.  One must first be on firm ground one's self to help another.  Unfortunately when you are confronting a societal evil as many human rights activists are, those who wish to prevent change will sometimes act against the person who is reporting.  Thus they attack the very base that provides strength to the human rights advocate.  I sometimes use this chart ( based on Maslow's hierachy of needs) to explain to Medical Whistleblowers where they are regarding meeting their own basic needs and to emphasize what they might need to do to place themselves in a place of greater spiritual or emotional strength. 

From Vulnerability to Strength

  1. Vulnerable
  2. Elimination of Danger 
  3. Denial of Vulnerability 
  4. Identifying Safety Needs
  5. Exploring Protection Needs 
  6. Sharing with Others (Sense of Belonging)
  7. Compensation –Self Esteem Needs
  8. Recognition
  9. Overcoming Vulnerability
  10. Celebration –Self Actualization
Caring for YOU - your most valuable resource

New Tactics promotes a methodology that is based on understanding three key areas of knowledge for sound develoment of strategy and tactics (key to moving any issue forward) taken from Sun Tzu over 2,000 years ago: Know Your Self; Know Your Adversary or Opponent; and Know the Terrain.

It follows that an essential part of "Know Your Sefl" for effective activism is understanding how to care for the most valuable resources in doing human rights work - each person. And remembering that includes ME - all of mebody, mind, and spirit.

I am always struck by the airline message each time I fly:
“In the event that oxygen masks may be needed, place the mask over your own face before assisting others.”

It is a powerful reminder that I can't help anyone else if I do not make sure that I have taken care of my own need to breath. The air I breathe is basic to sustaining my very life. Taking time to ask myself, "what stops me from taking in the air I need?"

A formula that we have found helpful comes from "The ABCs of self-care are Awareness, Balance and Connection" (Saakvitne & Pearlman, 1996 - see the reference below).

The ABCs are as follows:

Awareness: You must first be able to identify the signs and symptoms of unhealthy stress and the effects of trauma (whether experienced first- or second-hand). This requires awareness.

Balance: Seek balance among a number of different types of activities, including work, personal and family life, rest and leisure.

Connection: Build connections and supportive relationships with your coworkers, friends, family and community. All the work you do to create a better society will have little meaning if you don’t experience positive and healthy connections along the way to this better place.

The New Tactics in Human Rights: A Resource for Practitioners has a brief section on "Self-Care: Caring for your most valuable resource" on page 164-165 of the book. You will find some questions that can be used to open discussion in pairs, in small groups or within your organization to take time to discuss the ways in which you are coping — individually and collectively — with the stress of doing human rights work. 

In terms of resources - I have found these two books incredibly helpful. They are both now well over 10 years old - in fact one almost 20 years old. It was "In the tiger's mouth" that saved me and my passion for activism in the 90s. I think it is still an excellent resource for activists and the other book is the original source for the information I shared above:

In the tiger's mouth: an empowerment guide for social action, Katrina Shields, 1991, Millennium Books, Newtown, N.S.W ISBN: 0855748923 (pbk.) This book uides you through the big issues that show up in activism: how to avoid burn-out, network, create stable groups, as well as how to approach listeners with bad news that they may not want to hear. The guide includes exercises that encourage discovery and growth, both for individuals and groups.

Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization. Karen W. Saakvitne, Laurie Ann Pearlman, and the staff of the Traumatic Stress Institute. Published by W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.: New York, 1996. A practical, how-to guide on secondary traumatization designed for all levels of professionals, paraprofessionals, and volunteers who work with traumatized persons. Contains exercises for individuals and groups that come from the authors' experience giving workshops on this topic.

Thanks for the great

Thanks for the great resources.  In regards to Awareness.  Many of the people I work with do not recognize the ravanges of stress on their own lives.  So occupied with the day to day challenges and fighting a battle with the establishment that will not give in, they are so immersed that they do not realize what is really happening to them personally.  So I have provided a variety of simple one sheet brochures to help them understand PTSD better and to see if that applies to their situation.  You can obtain copies of these Medical Whistleblower brochures free on line. Please click on brochure name to go to the slide share web site to down load it.

Medical Whistleblower Brochures

Medical Whistleblower PowerPoint Presentations

Linking to post on organizational Support for self care

I'm so pleased that others have found these resources critical for their work - and I wanted to especially link my post to Holly Hammond's great post:

Role of organisations in activist self-care

She provides wonderful links to resources on the Change Agency's website that include materials from Katrina Shields book, "In the tiger's mouth".

The discussion thread on What can our own organizations do about self-care? is providing a very examination of issues, challenges and resources.

self care and trauma; the challenges

Hello Nancy, everyone. It is a pleasure to finally be joining this conversation. As I reflect on the entries contributors have offered so far, I am humbled and inspired by the fierce dedication and commitment to human rights expressed here. Thank you. I humbly share a few thoughts from my years as a traumatologist and trainer. I address the ill effects of trauma on people and workers of many ages and stripes.

I very much resonate with what Nancy describes above. Laurie Ann Pearlman and her associates provide a profoundly useful, non-pathologizing, approach to understanding how trauma can negatively affect workers; and they offer a very useful framework for understanding how to counter these ill effects. I especially like Dr. Pearlman's attention to a systems-oriented model of coping well, where she suggests the need for personal, professional, and organizational strategies to counter vicarious traumatization (and related but different problems, including secondary traumatization, compassion fatigue, and burnout). Given what I am learning about the realm of human rights work, I would add two additional categories--strategies for the community and for movements!

As many of you have named, the notion of "self care" can be problematic in human rights work. First, with all that others need, attending to oneself seems inappropriate at best, selfish at worst. Nancy's reference to what airline wait staff tell us do when there is an emergency, is one I also refer to regularly, because it underscores the critical relationship between the life endangering moment, and the idea that taking care of yourself first is not just preferential, but necessary, that is, if you want to be effective. Secondly, the way that "self care" is described in western societies does not translate well in other cultural contexts. The egocentric quality of this term is not helpful. Thirdly, the nature of human rights work requires that the stratagies used be functional in real world crises--very accessible, affordable, teachable, and effective. Many models of self care translate poorlly in such settings. Fourth, focusing on yourself can seem like one is distracting oneself from more compelling, important duties; or like one is admitting to weakness; or that you will be put in more danger if your guard is softened in any way. All of these beliefs/concerns can serve as deterrents to taking care of yourself. So, in the face of these concerns, I suggest that human rights workers consider becoming "wellness activists", and to motivate that activism with the concept of being a "warrior of the heart," a concept borrowed from Buddhist psychology. The combination underscores a powerful mix: strong motivation to be of service to others and the community; a fierce, steady conviction to take care of oneself as a vehicle of transformation; and a firm commitment to build skills that promote both.

Powerful idea of wellness activsts and warriors of the heart

Deborah,

I was especially struck by your idea of becoming "wellness activists" and being a "warrior of the heart" - you wrote:

Deborah Rozelle wrote:

I suggest that human rights workers consider becoming "wellness activists", and to motivate that activism with the concept of being a "warrior of the heart," a concept borrowed from Buddhist psychology. The combination underscores a powerful mix: strong motivation to be of service to others and the community; a fierce, steady conviction to take care of oneself as a vehicle of transformation; and a firm commitment to build skills that promote both.

This reminds me very much of Angeles Arrien and her work and resources. I'm attaching below an "unofficial" excerpt regarding "the way of the warrior" from and link to a page that provides a brief highlight of her book The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary

THE WAY OF THE WARRIOR

The task of the warrior is to show up, to be visible and empower others through example and intention.

Through the archetype of the warrior an old-fashioned term for leader indigenous societies connect to the process of empowerment and to the human resource of power. Universally there are three kinds of power:power of presence, power to communicate, power of position. Shamanic societies recognize that a person who has all three powers embodies "big medicine."

Every human being carries the power of presence. Some individuals carry such presence that we are drawn to and captivated by these charismatic people even before they speak or we know anything about them.

A warrior or leader uses the power of communication to effectively align the content, timing and placement to deliver a message at the right time in the right place for the person involved to hear and receive it.

A warrior demonstrates the power of position by the willingness to take a stand. Many politicians have great presence and great communication, but lose power when they allow constituents to wonder where they stand on specific issues.

Examples of individuals who carry all three powers and who access the mythical structure and archetype of the Way of the Warrior are Mother Teresa, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Each has been committed to aligning the power of presence, communication and the willingness to take a stand in arenas that have heart and meaning for them.

Cross-culturally, the posture of standing meditation in one position with arms at sides and eyes open for at least fifteen minutes is used in the martial arts, spiritual practices and in the military as a way of reinforcing and coalescing the three universal powers and of connecting the practitioner with the greater being of who he or she is.

Most native peoples attribute the Way of the Warrior to the direction of the North, the home of Father Sky and of all the winged creatures. The belief is held that during challenging times, it is essential to face our challenges with the grace, power and dignity of the "winged ones." It is important to remember that when challenges present themselves, it is the warrior's way to embrace them with full-bodied presence rather than to constrict in fear.

The idea of being a "wellness activist" and "warrior of the heart" is a powerful challenge. For me personally, it is a constant struggle to be aware that I need to continue to put my own air mask on first. Perhaps if we began looking at being this kind of example, neither we, nor others, would see that path as selfish anymore - but a powerful example of "showing up and empowering others through example and intention". 

Tooker's story

Thanks a lot for sharing the story of Tooker. To hear the real story and words coming from the person who experienced the burnout was very powerful. I even wrote down the advice Tooker gave to activists, just to remember:-) It is sad so considering the end of his personal story.

Thanks again, for sharing it with us.

What is self-care? What does this term mean to me?

Self care from my perspective begins with clarifying my relationship firstly with/to/for Self then with/to/for others. In other words, it is deeply relational in that I need to relate to my-Self in far more complex ways than having my identity tied only to the activist work that I do. It begins with knowing “I am” a woman person with fundamental equality, this I need to know for my-Self to do the work that I do which is working with women mainly who have suffered non-state actor torture inflicted by parents and like-minded others when they were girls or later in life by a spouse for example, and who commonly do not perceive themselves as human or as persons because of the torturer’s aim at the destruction of their girl/womanhood. I need to know my womanhood firmly or else their needs can overtake me, not intentionally but passively. Therefore, I have to say ”No” when necessary and without guilt. Saying “no” is a relational contract I have with my-Self for this work or for other demands in my life such as family, friends and social connections.

Self-care is about having respect for my-Self, acknowledging my limitations to my-Self at any moment in time. Relationally in connection with/to others, including the women so harmed, it means speaking truthfully explaining my reasons for saying “no” because then they and I learn/uphold boundaries which are essential to recovery and for maintaining safety.

I also call Self-care a relational responsibility. I have to practice relational responsibility in order to model it, not only with/to/for my-Self but with/to/for all that I share my life with. This is why and how I need to talk about Self-Care because the word ‘Self-care’ is relational –it is the caring of Self, it is a relational praxis issue.

Respectfully,
Jeanne Sarson, Canada

all of the above

I do agree with all that is being said about understanding 'self-care'...  especially the balance that must be found between the "self" and all our living contexts and relationships.  It confirms me in the symbolism of the "I" and the "WE"  that I read being mentioned - I think by John Fawcett - in another thread of this dialogue, that is an inspiration to my colleagues and I in our organisaiton (IWE: Institute for Women's Empowerment).

Our sub-text is:  "Re-claiming  the 'I' while re-defining the 'WE' " . We still have to understand the depth of that simple sentence and to find the ways to grow our organisation true to this aspiration.

What is more complex though, is that "self-care" is essentially based on the care that each individual, group, entitiy... takes of itself... it assumes a consciousness of the importance of doing this, and it assumes the knowledge and capacity to be able to "self-care".  It does not work through "taking care of others"  - as we now know, after decennia of un-enabling, un-inspiring, un-all of the positive elements mentioned above....  processes that still are promoted as  education, development, protection, even counselling and mentoring ....

How do we make a step to change gears....to go in the direction of encouraging, enabling, enlightening, growing  - that will lead to people wanting to and being able to 'care for themselves' - and to make - again John's words - thriving and creative societies?

What is self care -- integrating security

I would like to add one key component to self-care that has not yet been raised in the dialogue -- and that is security of activists. Through our discussions with hundreds of activist around the world, we've realized that security and self-care are inextricably linked, and joined women human rights defenders from Colombia, the Balkans and elsewhere in coining the term -- integrated security. This is an idea that, among other things, recognizes that security is linked to all aspects of an activists' life -- their physical, emotional, spiritual health, their families, their friends. We recognized that how you feel when you wake up in the morning directly impacts your decisions about how you think about your own security -- so if you've been up all night working on reports and worrying about how to feed your family, you are far less likely to take a security threat seriously than if you are rested and have perspective. And if you are living and working with all types of insecurity and threats -- whether it is defamation in the press, rejection by your family, aggressive graffiti by your home -- or direct threats of arrest or attack -- your well-being, is of course, directly affected as well. 

So when we speak about self-care, we are speaking about security as well. When we speak about security, we are speaking of self-care. They are two sides of the same coin. 

This is a particularly important point when we think about how to talk with activists, human rights organizations and donors about self-care -- for some, the clearer 'entry point' to the subject is security -- because at least some aspects of security are considered acceptable to discuss within the activist world. In some cases, if we begin with security, and expand outwards and incorporate self-care, we will have more success. But it all depends on the group -- in other cases, the opposite may be true. 

Integrating Security

I also do believe that security comes into play with Self care. The difference that I have found though is that if the 'attack' or the challenge to one's security is system based for example, then powerlessness feelings can result because of the loss of control, i.e., one cannot control the system because of the positional power a system holds. Conversely, when one is caring for one's Self, for instance, deciding that one must rest and go to bed then this decision is in a person's control so powerlessness is not present.

Also, if the system is attacking and one must 'fight' back then the schedule that is set for fighting back is generally set by the system thereby adding stress and often loss of personal Self care. For example, if that system expects a written response to a professional complaint for example, such as in response to whistle blowing which is being talked about in this section, then an individual has little choice other than to meet these demands which may mean staying up all night to write a response report. There is really no alternative therefore the struggle against abuse of power and powerlessness carries the decision to let go of sleep and personal Self care which can trigger increased powerlessness feelings.

To add to this example of professional whistle blowing comes the ethical shock and violation of trust and a sense of secondary victimization/loss/grief. Therefore, I do agree that maintaining a sense of security is connected to and can result in a serious challenge to the praxis of Self care.

Thanks for speaking of this link between Self care and security.

Respectfully,
Jeanne Sarson, Canada

Resources on security for human rights defenders

Thank you Jane and Jeanne for addressing the relationship between self-care and security.  I have been thinking about Jane's idea of talking about security in order to eventually get to the self-care talk.  It's making me wonder if New Tactics should host a dialogue next year on self-care and security -- all in one.  It also makes me think more about effective approaches to talking about both of these issues in 'trainings,' workshops, gatherings, etc.  It's not the easiest thing to talk about - I'd love to hear the ways that you all have approached this discussion with defenders/activists.

For those of you interested in exploring a collection of resources for human rights defenders and security - check out our past dialogue on Staying Safe: Security Resources for Human Rights Defenders.

Burnout

The irony of working in the not for profit world (as I have always done), is that it attracts the most selfless individuals who care about the common good. But at the same time, the work can be so all consuming that we lose sight of our own needs. So yes, we do also have to take responsiblity for saving ourselves so that we can save the world. I have a number of friends that have suffered burnout, at least to the point where they have had to quit working for a while and it can all be traced back to lack of resources and overwhelming issues to grapple with. Until there is some method of funding for not for profits that not only provides program funding, but also infrastructure and staff funding it seems that this vicious cycle is likely to continue. So, in the absence of institutional fixes, back to our own personal responsiblility to stop sometimes and smell the roses. Surround yourself with good friends and family who work in different sectors; enjoy hte arts, enjoy nature. Embrace the reality that while each individual makes a difference it can only be done by large communities and that sometimes the biggest contribution we can make is to turn off the computer and leave the office at the office. We all in theory acknowledge the importance of self care, but all too seldom practice what we preach. Love yourself as well as others.

.. while working for more structural solutions

...amen, Susan!  Each of us must anyway, care for ouselves, but not stop trying to find more sustainable ways of making resources more widely accessible.  I certainly intend to, and hope that I can get back to you all for more tip and support! This has been a most stimulating and fruitful experience.

Self pitfall

satwood wrote:
The irony of working in the not for profit world (...), is that it attracts the most selfless individuals who care about the common good. But at the same time, the work can be so all consuming that we lose sight of our own needs.

Good observation!

Another possibility of interpretation for what you said is that, psychologically/symbolically, it may  suggest a symptomatic relation of looking to solve own problems by solving other’s problems. I “am” only when you “are”. – when this is the symbolic “master”, it may lead for a self pitfall coming back as burnout. I have several considerations when the activists – whoever it may be – simply disappear helping others. Sometimes, the analyses of the oneself in relation with activism, may bring surprising and useful findings.

practice what you preach

satwood wrote:
We all in theory acknowledge the importance of self care, but all too seldom practice what we preach.

So true! in fact in participating in this debate and reflecting on it has made me look at myself and question whether I am experiencing some of the symptoms myself! gulp..... The challenge can be that when one becomes very active, a level of expectation then arises from those around you and before one realises it, one has taken on more than one should, with the result that the downtimes get squeezed.

Finding the right person to turn to and open up to can be hard. "Oh so you're human after all" was one response I got from a friend to whom I suggested I wasn't just a bit tired. 

One approach adopted by Transition Totnes is for each member of the core team to have an assigned mentor allocated to them as a mentor to keep an eye on them and to be easily available. Prevention is much better than cure!

 

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