Archives for the month of: October, 2012

I’ve made an odd and unsettling discovery these last few weeks. It’s that I can’t watch or ready anything that reminds me of Palestine, and my time there.

It has been a year, almost to the day, that I left that place. I walked away from my beautiful flat overlooking a valley in Ramallah, with tears in my eyes. I knew my time there was up – on many levels, it was simply not sustainable, or fulfilling, for me to be there. And it appears that I am still getting to grips with that fact to this day, one year on.

The view from my apartment in Ramallah

They say that grief comes in five stages – first, denial; then anger; followed by bargaining; followed by depression. Then, finally, acceptance. Well, as some of you may have noticed, I’ve certainly been dragged – kicking and screaming – over the steps of anger and depression these last few months. Bargaining is a more obscure concept, but I can see that’s what I’ve been doing as I’ve slowly pulled myself away from further job applications for human rights or humanitarian positions.

And before these stages, I guess I was in denial; this is the emotional tool we use when living in an environment of intractable conflict, grinding poverty or blatant injustice. We withhold, and deny, the tears when we see another victim of human rights violations, or another humiliation or indignity meted out against an innocent civilian – who may well be a close friend or colleague – because to cry would reveal a disrespectful weakness in front of those who remain stoic and steadfast in the face of adversity. To cry would also suggest we cannot cope with living and working in such an environment, which would then beg the question, why are we there in the first place.

Perhaps the tears I’ve shed the last few months have made up for the restraint, and resilience, exercised through all those years of fighting an idealistic battle for justice and en end to poverty and inequality without daring to admit either distress or defeat. Or maybe the tears were for bigger and deeper sorrows and regrets – I’m still not sure.

What I do see now is that I am far more vulnerable, and far less resilient. I made this discovery last week whilst filling in a survey put together by a group of academics from the U.S., on the subject of stress, burnout, trauma and resilience in human rights workers. The survey provoked in me a mixture of feelings, which raced through me like a torrent – sadness, anger, hopelessness, anxiety. Some of its questions included:

Have you personally witnessed serious violations of the right to shelter, food, water, and other basic rights?

Have you worked with someone who has suffered serious reprisals or threats of reprisals for their work?

Have you personally witnessed disaster or conflict affected communities?

I found myself answering yes to so many of these questions, in reference to so many incidents and situations I’d come across in my working life. This is not a normal way to exist! I was thinking to myself.

Then things got worse – I was then asked about coping mechanisms, and how I respond to difficult situations. And with each answer I realised that my way of dealing with so many difficult situations has been to normalise it – because any other reaction, such as crying, or getting too angry, would appear disrespectful among friends or colleagues in such environments, who live these experiences every day or week or month throughout their life.

If I wasn’t normalising it, I was certainly having an internal battle against my emotions – not letting myself grieve and instead distracting myself with more work or drinking copious amounts of alcohol. It is only now, after having some distance from these events and situations, and whilst I’m spending so much time confronting my emotions, that I realise how much I internalised – whether it was the trauma of witnessing human rights abuses, or of friends being arrested or injured, or simply feeling under-appreciated and worthless at work. This might explain why when I go through a survey like this now, I feel my heart rate increasing, and start to panic. Feelings of hopelessness and self-doubt stayed with me for the rest of the day.

The next day, I had the same reaction when watching a trailer for a new documentary film released this week, Five Broken Cameras, about the nonviolent resistance in Bil’in, a village in the West Bank. As its soundtrack of solemn, urgent Arab oud music played to footage of the village under fire by Israeli soldiers, I started to panic. I had to switch it off before the five minute trailer finished. Great, I thought to myself, in a state of disbelief – I can’t even watch a video clip. In it were the faces of people I may not have known directly, but I saw them every day in the campaigns we ran, in the press releases we wrote demanding their release from prison or for the Separation Wall to be dismantled. What then followed was a sad emptiness and feeling of guilt. This is the same guilt one gets when being faced with untold human suffering, when one chooses to turn the page instead of reading on. I seem to have leapt from one extreme to another; from reading every news item on Palestine and the Middle East, and every article on detention, or torture, or any other realities that have informed, and inspired, my activism – to not being able to look at or engage with anything.

Yet this is what we have to do once we allow in the grieving process; once we recognise that we are not the superheroes or pillars of strength and determination we thought we were. We have to do whatever it takes to recover, and to heal. But NGO workers and activists, and anyone who is working on human rights issues, can spend years denying themselves this recognition that maybe they cannot cope with all that they have seen; that maybe they need to look after and love themselves as much as they try to do the same to others. We instead hold the anger and grief of what we see and experience inside us, and live to fight another day. And yet I’m learning now that the biggest and most challenging confrontation we have is ultimately with ourselves.


I was meant to be writing about burnout this week. Well, actually, I have been writing about burnout, for the last two weeks. It’s taken up most of my day, and my thoughts and energy, as I wade through books and articles detailing the whys and hows of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. I’m applying to do a Phd on the very topic, which requires me to get to know my subject, before I’ve even started studying it in the academic sense. And in getting to know it, I’m also confronting it head on, accepting it into my life as a personal experience that I am living.

But before I stray too much into the subject, which I have no doubt I’ll be returning to, I will mentally drag myself back to this present moment. Today I’m having a break from burnout, and I’ve taken a walk in the local park. And as I was walking, I was reminding myself of the importance of attention – of forgetting about what I was doing or thinking yesterday, what I read this morning or what I’ll be doing tonight – and taking in my surroundings.

And there, suddenly, I remembered it was Autumn. Had I not noticed before? Sure I had, but there’s little recognition or appreciation when you’re locked up in a room typing or reading off a computer all day. Beautiful, colourful, glowing Autumn – that brief period that only lasts a month or so, when the trees are rich in vibrant colours of green, orange, yellow and red; when the leaves literally burst out at you, vying for attention. All the seasons are playful in some way, and allow us to remember our childhoods as if they are now. In the case of Autumn, it is the crunch of the leaves under your feet, or the look and feel of a soft, mahogany conker, which prove particularly satisfying.

Getting out of the house and walking around the park is a healing process because amid all the chaos, the busy lives, the self-doubts and fears, it’s a space to breathe. I’ve felt blocked the last few weeks, struggling to write or to find the words to express myself. The thought of returning to more writing on burnout was also too difficult, and too painful. It encourages me to be stuck in my own mind and thoughts, when actually it’s just as powerful and inspiring to see what’s outside myself. The beauty of Autumn doesn’t last long. In fact, the large globules of rain which are now pouring down, smattering against the windows, are a reminder that we have to snatch those moments of pleasure outdoors when we can. So go on, pay attention to the Autumn!

Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.

Henry Miller

In the last few months, the term ‘burnout’ has cropped up in many conversations, particularly those with fellow NGO workers. It is a term used to describe the physical, emotional and mental exhaustion felt by any ‘human service’ professionals – carers, doctors, teachers. Less is written about burnout among people in my sector – development and NGO workers (click here for a previous post on who I mean by this). Over the next few weeks, my aim is to bridge this gap in an accessible way and hopefully generate some discussion around what we as development workers mean by burnout.

Without going too far into semantics, I’m talking about those who as part of their work are tackling issues of world poverty or injustice – whether it be campaigners, aid workers, volunteers or activists. There is much analysis and debate about the development sector – whether it is effective; whether it is actually more the development worker that benefits as opposed to the communities they are supposedly trying to help; whether the needs of people living in poverty or victims of human rights abuses are really being met. Furthermore, entire narratives are constructed and deconstructed concerning who we mean by ‘the poor’ or ‘victims’.

But what of the development workers themselves? How much do we know about them? There are two common interpretations – one that is the general public perception, that they are doing a good, or even heroic, job under difficult circumstances; the other, more academic and critical, that their ideals, actions and interventions are doing more harm than good. But rarely are their personal and individual identities acknowledged or assessed. There is much analysis about those at the receiving end of international aid, but little with regard to the ‘aid giver’ – their background, family history, or the expectations which lead them into development work and their particular job. Some go into this kind of work with idealism – because they studied development at University or have been politically active on different causes. Others want the adventure of living and working in challenging contexts, and would rather be ‘on the frontline’ than in an office. And there are some, believe it or  not, who are simply doing development work with career interests in mind; who seek managerial positions in head offices of big charities and at the United Nations where they’ll secure a hefty salary plus considerable benefits.

Is our level of burnout determined by our reasons for doing this kind of work? Some would say that the more idealistic we are, the greater the chance of burnout. That is because if we enter the development sector with too much self-righteousness and confidence that we can make a difference, we’re likely to be sorely disappointed in our achievements after a year or so. Conflicts will still rage on, poverty will still surround us, and human rights abuses will continue – and meanwhile we’ll have been reduced to half our former selves. With this in mind, those with a concern for the coping strategies of NGO workers, particularly those working in the field, have emphasised the importance of self-reflection and knowing oneself and both one’s limits and limitations.

Those who want to heal the world may need healing in the first place. By not acknowledging this, we risk projecting all our vulnerabilities, and unwanted “shadow aspects” onto others (the poor, the oppressed, the sick etc.)….for many healing oneself and others can truly happen only when we look within, before we plunge into action.

Alessandra Pigni, Psychologically Equipped: Practical Recommendations to Better Prepare Humanitarian Professionals for Field Missions, White Papers Series #5

Burnout can manifest itself in various way: ‘physical depletion and fatigue, (..) feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, (…) emotional drain, (…) the development of negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people ‘ (Combatting Burnout, Ayala Pines and Elliott Aronson, 1983). It can be a daily struggle to fight against these feelings, especially when up against poor work practices, long hours and heavy workloads with little appreciation from managers; let alone the challenging environments that one finds oneself in when working in conflict or poverty-stricken areas.

Development workers with the local population in northern Uganda

It is not unusual for foreigners, particularly development workers, to be disliked by the local population. And this is no surprise, when people living on a dollar a day are watching white folk drive around in large land rovers and dine in fancy restaurants whilst discussing how best to help the poor communities around them. With more aid money each year apparently disappearing down a black hole and never reaching its intended recipients, and with our national identities often associated (sometimes mistakenly) with our own Western Governments’ disastrous foreign policies, we are not necessarily seen as heroes in the politically volatile environments we work in, even if we are among our friends and families.  Whilst our job may be campaigner, humanitarian officer or programme manager, our task is also to build trust with the communities we work with, and this can be a major challenge in itself.

Burnout then, is as much to do with the disappointment and disillusionment we feel when we realise that our good intentions are not always fully appreciated, or even appropriate, as it is to do with exhaustion. We have to learn each day about the people we are living amongst, and how they view us. And in order to learn about others, we have to learn about ourselves – to question why we have chosen this type of work, and what we hope to achieve from it, and what our insecurities are and why we have them. Can we give as much time to understanding ourselves as we do to trying to understand others? Our motives and intentions when doing development work need to come from a place of love, not just for others but for who we are, warts and all.

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