Archives for posts with tag: burnout

I have been facing the reality recently that my transition is about to shift once again. I haven’t been entirely sure whether I’m ready for it, but then I’m reminded that transition is all about taking risks. And about letting go of what no longer serves us.

There are many aspects of my job that I have truly loved over the last few months. In some way this has been a surprise, after spending a year letting go of NGO work, of all the stress, disillusionment and trauma (some of the deadly ingredients that constitute burnout) that arise from it. I have been reminded that there are rewards to human rights and aid work, if we learn to accept our limitations and be proud of the changes we make, no matter how minor they may seem when we’re faced with so many stories of unimaginable hardship and injustice.

But my job was only ever meant to be short-term, and now the time is approaching when my contract will end and I will be thrust once more in to the uncertainty of not having a steady income. The last time I was in this position – when I was finishing my work for a human rights organisation in Palestine – I was in a very different place, both physically and mentally. I had no idea what I wanted to do next, and this was extremely frightening. I did not feel I had the resources to even consider my next move; I knew deep down that my next move would not be clear until I had surrendered to a period of being still, healing and letting go.

I am looking forward to another opportunity for stillness, in order to process what have been overwhelming experiences in the last few months. Self-care is a priority for me now, in a way it wasn’t for ten years as I struggled through one damaging experience after another in the aid and human rights sector, bottling up emotions for fear of seeming weak to my organisation or disrespectful to the victims we were assisting.

In addition, the stillness is an opportunity for me to reconnect with my creative voice. It has been whispering to me lately, filling me with ideas for a book, for a new website and for a new project to provide healing and support to other NGO workers in need of self-care.

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On days when I get embroiled in the politics of my work, or when I feel exhausted by my workload or disappointed with how management are treating staff, I remind myself that my creative voice is pushing for much more than this. To listen to the voice is to leave behind what is familiar and be willing to take big risks. It may well mean another period of unemployment and instability. But transitions are all about risk-taking, about being able to pursue one’s dreams even if we are being discouraged by our ego or others around us. It is about making a conscious choice to be led by our heart and not by our head, in order that we achieve our our true desires. It can be a frightening ride sometimes, but I’m glad I’m on it.

Rumi-drawn

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So, here I am on an early Sunday morning in Nairobi. Seated on my own at the hotel restaurant eating my second breakfast of the day; the first being the dissatisfying dried up morsels provided by Kenya Airways. There is a light, misty rain falling outside the window, but nevertheless a warmth in the air that is unquestionably African.

I feel calm, relaxed. Maybe the calm before the storm, as who knows how the next week will be as I navigate my way from meeting to meeting, most of the time on my own, with people I’ve never met and where we’ll be discussing the thorny issues of post-eleciton violence and extra-judicial killings. And then there’s the Nairobi traffic to deal with – the long queues of matatus (small mini-buses) and 4x4s and impatient drivers forever lurching forward and thereby adding to the bottleneck.

Nairobi Traffic Jam

Nairobi Traffic Jam (Photo credit: rogiro)

And the endless security regulations I have to remember the minute I step outside – don’t walk alone at night, make sure you know who your driver is, don’t carry too much money on you, call your manager each day to confirm you’re safe….

Whilst to some extent I do appreciate the strict security guidelines which assume human rights defenders such as myself to be a possible target of attack – whether by hostile authorities or a poverty-stricken opportunist whose perception of the wazungu (white people) is always clouded by dollar signs – I am overwhelmed by these rules and regulations. I have travelled to Uganda, Palestine and Sri Lanka on my own and never received such preparation. And I do wonder whether all the talk of security risks and the strict do’s and don’ts which accompany this type of work may at times instill fear rather than comfort in the traveller.

A walk around the grounds of the hotel and its neighbouring areas has reminded me of the real and immediate problem with crime in Nairobi. I have to let myself in and out of every entrance gate or doorway with my hotel swipe card, and the place is swarming with security guards. The crime levels now are no doubt as they were the last time I lived here seven years ago; so high that it’s almost certain that either you or another expat you know will be a victim of theft, robbery or car-jacking at some point. Which many would argue is the very reason why we need these seemingly melodramatic security guidelines when conducting business here.

But if certain external realities haven’t changed in seven years, there are a lot of inner realities that have. The last time I was in Kenya for an extended period, in 2006, I had become a tired, cynical and vulnerable person, who sought solace in cigarettes and several bottles of Tusker beer each night. Just a brief walk around the hotel grounds earlier brought back many memories, of emotions and attitudes I held at the time which were either destructive or misguided. I am now such a different person from the exhausted, disillusioned person who fled a disastrous relationship and unrewarding NGO work in East Africa seven years ago.

Nowadays my concern with finding the nearest drinking hole to process the day’s traumatising experiences or drown my sorrows has been replaced by a desire to find a quiet place to meditate. I noted this with a laugh to myself at Heathrow airport, as I wondered on arrival there whether I could find a prayer room to have a  few peaceful minutes with myself before flying. Gosh, how times have changed.

A meditation room - every public building needs one!

A meditation room – every public building needs one!

Admittedly, the old habits have seeped back into my life since resuming human rights work. My coffee intake has tripled (I’ve had three so far this morning, which is particularly excessive for someone who’d reduced to about one a week in recent months), my sleeping patterns are unpredictable and I find myself craving a drink or three after a stressful day. But these habits and addictions are matched by another powerful force which, more than anything else, helps me meet the new challenges I’m facing. And that is a degree of inner peace. I say this cautiously, as inner peace is not an end game but a continuous and fluid process; there one second and gone the next. But since ‘waking up’ – connecting with my soul and becoming the consious observer of what I do, say and think and how it reflects on the deeper truth inside me – I’ve found some peace. Of course there are still times when I muddle through life unconsciously, careering from one problem to another, ignoring my see-sawing emotions, too engrossed in getting somewhere else. When this happens it’s usually a bad day, where I feel disjointed, unbalanced, insecure and irritable. And I know what I need to do to resolve it.

A conscious pause every now and again lifts this negative energy. It may be for 20 minutes in the morning before work, meditating by candlelight.Or  it may be writing Julia Cameron’s cathartic morning pages – letting my first thoughts and emotions of the day spill out onto the page. Or it may be connecting with my heart, and the heart of those I come across each day so that I can communicate better, even in the face of tension or hostility. Or, most powerful of all, I will do some chanting and gentle Qi energy movements which both ground me and fill me with nourishing, positive energy.

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These are all quiet, personal moments which help me to let go of the day’s or week’s troubles and anxieties, and truly touch base with myself; connect with my soul and remind myself of who I really am beneath whatever image I may have portrayed that day. And because of these new, essential habits in my life, I know this time in Kenya will be different. I do not yet know how it will be or what challenges I will face, but aside from the security protocols and institional procedures, I have my inner guide to give me real strength and resilience.

This week my thoughts have returned to the symptoms of burnout suffered by so many NGO workers.

We had a training in the week on how to interview victims of human rights violations. It at times felt surreal to be role-playing in imagined scenarios where we have to gather information from victims of torture or other forms of abuse, or their families. I could certainly see the value in it, but I also felt strangely detached, wondering how we can possibly understand the realities of people who have undergone treatment which is essentially alien to us in our comfortable democratic societies. We can show compassion, but we are not counsellors; we are not equipped to really support or offer help or advice to victims of human rights violations. Yet this is precisely what people often want or expect when they agree to share their trauma with a Western NGO worker. In hearing such distressing stories, it is no surprise that NGO workers suffer from feelings of guilt, helplessness and worse; they can end up feeling totally detached from what they’re hearing, unable to show that essential compassion, and they can suffer from exhaustion, insomnia, burnout.

These are conditions I’m all too familiar with. Only this week, my insomnia – which I thought I’d rid myself of months ago, returned. Although I felt I was working to my maximum potential each day – thanks mainly to daily morning meditations and Qi training – at night, all the latent thoughts and worries, some of them really quite trivial, came to the surface. This is not to say that I’m returning to the dark and frightening place I was in last year. But I am lapsing into familiar patterns which have affected me over the years of doing NGO work – of not sleeping well, of making up for it with several cups of coffee each day.

counting sheep

The other night, as I lay awake at two in the morning, I wrote the following piece. It should resonate with anyone who has suffered from insomnia.

Insomnia. That’s a condition I thought I’d done away with this past year. But apparently not. This is how it’s been. I turn my light out at 11, as I can no longer concentrate on even reading the Guardian tabloid. I feel tired after cycling to and from work, probably 16 miles or more. I lie there, with earplugs to block out the sound of the ticking grandfather clock in the hallway, a family heirloom which has woken me on many occasions with its persistent strike. I proceed to do as I do every night – a yoga nidra in which I gently tell each part of my body, from my toes to my head, to relax.

But what is this? That intrusive voice telling me that I can’t sleep now, that my thoughts can and will take over, that I’m likely to be bothered for quite a while longer. What is this voice? Sometimes it feels like the voice of the devil; not part of me and with so much power to ruin my entire night in one foul swoop. Once the voice has made its presence known, it’s very hard to shake it off.

On this occasion, the yoga nidra does indeed help me to relax, and I feel myself slowly drifting off. But the voice wants a fight. Just as my dreams begin, I get shaken awake. I don’t know how, or when – maybe 45 minutes after turning my lights off. And then the real battle begins. I lie there, fighting the urge to take a herbal sleeping tablet, convinced I can do without them this time (having decided that my secret supply of stronger stuff was never again to be replenished once exhausted). Then, inevitably, I end up taking one. I lie there, waiting for it to take effect, whilst I choose this moment to focus on any niggling thoughts I may have – any insecurities or uncertainties. I toss and turn. I go to the bathroom. And I realise I have this awful feeling in my stomach – like a piece of lead has lodged itself there. I start thinking of all the possible causes – did I eat too quickly at dinner? Did I eat too much chocolate afterwards? Or is it something more subtle than that? Is this where my emotional turmoil has found a resting place – is it a build up of all the tensions and anxieties I’ve quietly endured over the last few days, whether they be at home or at work.

I toss and turn some more, then decide it’s no use; more medication of some sort is needed. I turn the light on again angrily, grab some medicine for indigestion, and take another sleeping tablet. But now I’ve gone way beyond the semi-relaxed state I was in earlier. Now I have acknowledged that I can’t sleep it has been translated into ‘won’t sleep’ somewhere in my psyche.

So now it’s time to start panicking about tomorrow – about the early start I have, about whether I’ll make it through the day, about whether I’ll end up an emotional wreck by the end of it, feeling like a desperate failure because my tiredness has rendered me unprepared for whatever challenges I may face.

Such worries are, as always, exaggerated. Because I know this situation, and how I respond to it: with lots of coffee. Which of course starts me on the cycle all over again a few hours later, when the caffeine hasn’t yet worn off and I want to go to sleep. But at least it gets me through the day.

There are not always quick fix answers to this condition, but I do feel I’m in a much stronger place to manage it than I have ever been before. By the end of the week I was actually very accepting of the fact I was not getting the full 8 hours I have come to expect each night. One of the best ways of beating insomnia is to accept, rather than resist it. So when I woke in the night, or at dawn hours before my alarm, I began to use the extra time I had awake to meditate, and of course to write. And because of that, it really didn’t feel so bad. By the time I got up to go to work, I had processed much of my anxiety and tensions, and let go of them. I was then ready for a productive day (with the aid of some strong coffee).

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Life is full of surprises. Just when you think you’ve worked it all out – mapped out the right path for you, cultivated and manifested your heart’s true desires, a gust of wind blows you in a different direction. The question is, how to interpret the gust of wind? Why does it come at that moment?

At the beginning of this year I was chanting every day with a wish in my heart; that all the months of effort I had put in to achieving my goals would pay off, and I would be offered a scholarship to study a Phd at one of my chosen universities. In the end, I didn’t get a scholarship, and instead I got a job back in the sector I’ve spent the last year gently extricating myself from. So now I’m faced with the offer to study a subject I already feel very familiar with – stress and burnout among NGO workers – at a range of Universities with admirable expertise on the topic, but no funding. And a job which takes me back to the heart of that world of stress and burnout, as an insider and participant, rather than an academic observer.

What should I make of this? I’ve been struggling with this question all week, since I received the bad news from the last University scholarship holder on my list. The job I’m doing now, likely to last only a few months and working in a region of Africa I’ve been involved with for years, just happens to be exactly what I wanted and wished for last year. I came to the conclusion that such a job – short-term and working on issues that have always been close to my heart – would be ideal after enduring months of unsuccessful job applications in long-term roles that would have further entrenched me in the NGO sector, at a time when what I really needed was a break from it. At the time I was cultivating greater goals – to write, and to study. But the greater goals have not entirely manifested the way I had expected or hoped for. I spent a year preparing to study a Phd, convinced that this path spoke to my soul, and was the perfect way for me to use my ten years of experience of working in conflict zones in a new, exciting and constructive way. But I did not get the funding I needed to proceed with these studies, and so now I’m faced with having to approach my desires from a different angle. Indeed, in the last few days I’ve questioned whether my desires are indeed true or heartfelt. Was all that effort, all that hard work in writing research proposals and applications a waste of time, or will they one day serve an entirely different purpose, yet to be discovered?

These uncertainties – what we may at times interpret as disappointments or setbacks – are all part of the game of life. We cannot resist the challenges that are thrown at us; with each challenge we have to decide whether to view it as a disaster, or an obstacle, or a new lesson in understanding who we are and where we’re going.

This is what I’ve been trying to tell myself these last couple of weeks. I have been acknowledging that sometimes we can cling on to one dream whilst not letting others arise. And we can try too hard to define our purpose in life, and fail to enjoy the uncertainty that is at the heart of our existence.

Existence is uncertain, insecure, dangerous. It is flux — things moving, changing. It is a strange world; get acquainted with it. Have a little courage and don’t look backwards, look forward; and soon the uncertainty itself will become beautiful, the insecurity itself will become beautiful.

Osho

So what next? I truly do not know. But then, I have had the same response to that question for over a year; I have grown used to not having the answer. All I can do is keep watching and listening; allowing a bit of time and space outside the busy-ness that so often renders us unconscious, to check in with myself. To keep asking, is this what you really want right now? And remain confident that whatever arises is helping me on my true path.

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Living with Uncertainty

Phew, it’s been a while. There are times when creativity – whether it be writing, singing, dancing, admiring a beautiful landscape – suffers in the pursuit of specific goals. My blog has been temporarily abandoned whilst I’ve had my head in piles of University application forms, each with different guidelines and requirements.

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Why did I decide applying for a Phd was a good idea? At times I’ve forgotten myself; then I remember that my research idea  – stress and burnout among international humanitarian and development workers – is one that is close to my heart, and drawn from personal experience.

But like most decisions in my life, it seems with this one I’ve hardly chosen the easy route. In 2012 – a stormy and soul-searching year for many – I could have done many things after returning from a difficult year in Palestine. What I craved the most was stability and safety. After all, up to this point my life had been far from settled or grounding: four years in East Africa, ending in a dramatic escape from a slightly psycho Ugandan boyfriend; four years in a squat in Brixton, wondering whether we were next on the eviction list; a year in Palestine, forever fretting over the possibility of being ‘found out’ by Israeli intelligence, and deported for daring to do human rights work in the West Bank.

An image from Banksy which poignantly depicts the reality of feeling constantly under scrutiny in the Occupied West Bank

An image from Banksy which poignantly depicts the reality of feeling constantly under scrutiny in the Occupied West Bank

I’ve had my fair share of uncertainty. And 2012 was no different, despite returning to England and the suburban bliss of my parents’ neighbourhood. I’m still there, at the start of 2013, still not knowing what the future holds. This has to be one of the biggest skills to hone when undergoing a big transition – embracing uncertainty. That and the essential antidote to uncertainty: patience. There’s always a point during a transition where you have to accept that you do not know, and will not know, your destiny for some time. There’s no use in forcing the future, although there’s certainly no harm in building the path you wish for. That is indeed what I’ve been doing the last few months – practising my writing skills with the quiet wish that one day I will write a book; reading journal articles on burnout and writing my research proposal with the quiet wish that one day I’ll be offered a scholarship to study a Phd on the subject (hhhm, maybe ‘quiet’ isn’t the right word, given it’s all I’ve really been talking about to anyone I’ve spoken to recently).

But it’s taken a long time to get to this point of acceptance. When faced with a big transition, the urge is to run to whatever is familiar, even if it’s no longer nourishing or fulfilling. If I’d persisted with chasing familiarity, maybe I would have got that job working with a humanitarian organisation or an international development agency.  I’m glad I didn’t, because I doubt I’d be sitting here now, writing this piece; judging from previous experience, I probably wouldn’t have had any time for self-reflection whatsoever…and I would have been miserable.

Instead I’ve chosen a path of further uncertainty, where there’s no guarantee I’ll get what I wish for. Will I be accepted on my University course? Will I be given a scholarship that will enable me to study the course (I certainly won’t be able to do it otherwise)? I won’t know for some time yet, and meanwhile I have to live with the unknown and trust that whatever the outcome, I will gain something. And herein lies another major challenge for transitioners – learning gratitude.

Gratitude is a learned skill. And as gratitude becomes a habit, so will happiness.

 Julia Cameron

This week I’ve been meditating on gratitude. It’s not easy! Sure, it’s not difficult to be grateful for friends and family, and all the good things in your life. But try reflecting on all those things that have made you unhappy, or angry, or fearful – and find something positive from them. It’s a difficult exercise, but an essential one for transitioners living a life of uncertainty. Each setback, each disappointment, is something we can potentially gain from if we have gratitude for all experiences, good or bad.

So 2013 may have started with further uncertainty; I still don’t have the stability I crave, I’m not yet settled in any way.  But living with uncertainty has given me an inner strength – an inner certainty – which has helped me see clearly what is right and good for me, rather than what is familiar.  And for this new sense of power and courage, all I can feel is gratitude.

Dear Gaza

It is with great sorrow that I hear the latest news about another massacre, another bombing, another retaliation. I feel sorrow for the rising death toll, the pictures of weeping mothers and wives, the murder of children too young to even understand the struggles of their parents, families and neighbours. And I also feel sorrow becuase I know that each death, whether it’s in Gaza or in Israel, will only fuel further hatred, and further violence. I watch as the vicious pattern unfolds once again – attack and counter-attack, claims and counter-claims, threats and counter-threats. A new generation growing up with nothing but anger in their hearts.

In fact anger is everywhere; from the Government ministers to the international solidarity activists holding demonstrations outside Israeli embassies throughout the world, from one Facebook wall post to another, anger is pervasive. It is behind every political statement on Palestine, and every military action on either side.

I know this anger, and I’m by no means immune to it. It is anger that has spurred me on in Palestine, that strengthened my resolve to work there after witnessing the Wall, the settlements, the aggression of the Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. I am only now just processing that anger, releasing it in waves of sorrow and distress after holding it in the pit of my stomach for so many years as a Palestine activist. I am familiar with the anger I hear in the voices of commentators, and even my own father – so incensed is he by what is happening in Gaza right now.

But this time round, dear Gaza, dear Palestine, I am not one of those angry voices. I will not be attending any demonstrations, and I will not be writing press releases or political statements. And I will not be engaging in any of the aggressive political point-scoring, some of it between friends on separate sides of the fence (both politically and physically). I don’t say this with pride, and I do say it with more than a little guilt. My decision doesn’t come from a place of pure wisdom or higher authority, but from a place of accepting one thing: I don’t see the purpose of my anger anymore, and if anything I’m fearful of it – of what this negative emotion does to me, and to anyone engaged in the Palestinian situation. Does Gaza need my inner conflicts, confusion and frustration leaking out into any action I take for the so-called good of Palestine? Because anger often comes from this deeper, more obscure place of inner turmoil. It is not always constructive, or effective – I question now whether my anger over Palestine has really achieved anything over the years except perhaps alienating a few people and breeding further hatred. And what can hatred ever achieve? With anger, and hatred, we lose all sense of balance or compassion. It is easy for our emotions to take over when visiting Palestine, but how often do we stop to question their source and their purpose? It is only once I find the  meaning behind my own emotions and actions that I can understand the emotions and actions of others.

And so, dear Gaza, this time I stand back. I read what I can, and I’m screaming inside. But I will not be expressing my grief on the podium, or in the newsletter or conference room.  Please don’t mistake my non-action for apathy. My non-action comes from a place of understanding that clinging on to anger will serve no purpose except greater suffering. There are many positive actions that can be fuelled by people’s anger over injustice. All respect, and my most sincere wishes, go to those who transform their anger into something beautiful and empowering for the human race. I would one day love to join those who are mindful of every action and reaction, and who have a clear vision of what peace can and should look like, regardless of race, ethnicity or political positioning. But for now, my silence is the strongest thing I can offer as a  sign of love and compassion in this mixed up world.

For more reflections on Palestine activism, anger and mindfulness please read this blog piece from Mindfulness for NGOs: blog « Mindfulness for NGOs.

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.

Summer is drawing to a close already – the weather appears to be changing, after a brief Indian summer which we’d been promised since a very rainy June. This summer, as everyone gave in to Olympic fever, there has been a real buzz in the air; an atmospheric lift which has seen most Londoners being more friendly, more laid back, and living more in the moment – apparently putting their worries on hold to enjoy this most unique of holiday periods. They’ve put aside the cynicism for which us Brits are famous, and embraced new experiences and interests, the most notable being the unequivocal support which has been shown towards athletes of all races, backgrounds and physical abilities, whether at the Olympic Stadium, from the sofa at home, or in conversation on the train or in the pub. We all hope that the mood, and attitude, will last and be utilised meaningfully on a political, social and economic level.

Embracing the summer spirit: Notting Hill Carnival

Now it’s time to knuckle down and prepare for the autumn. Many view this with dread, as the season signals an end to outdoor parties and socialising and the start of more time spent at home, with oneself. It is a time to go inward, and reflect. Well, this is no new activity for me – I’m actually wondering how I embark on the autumn’s self-reflection when I seem to have spent a whole lot of my summer navel-gazing.

For thirty-somethings like myself, it appears that this whole year is one of change, which is sometimes frightening, sometimes exhilarating. How many people do I know who are questioning their life, where they’re at, where they’re going? Who, fearing the great unknown, are either continuing to be stuck in a job they don’t enjoy, or are unemployed and fluctuating between moments of excitement and moments of utter self-doubt. Sometimes it seems so much safer to stay in the former situation in order to avoid the ramifications of the latter – the highs and lows which I’ve talked about over the last few weeks. I certainly feel like I’ve learned a huge amount about myself – my fears and insecurities, my anger, my resentment – over the course of my transition, and none more so than in the last three weeks, when some gentle massaging and prodding from an acupressure practitioner seemed to open up a whole new chapter of my journey. Perhaps this would never have happened if I wasn’t out of work and forced to dig deep in order to make sense of why I’ve turned my back on old habits and old identities, to face a life of trying to be more honest about who I am and what I want.

When you embark on a transition, you don’t necessarily realise that it’s not just about leaving one career behind to try and build another. A transition goes to the very heart of our emotions and our identity. If we want to really feel happy and fulfilled, we have to do more than find a different job; we have to confront ourselves and ask, from one fleeing moment to another: How does this make your feel? If you’re feeling down, or agitated, or anxious, why is that? What is it that gives you confidence right now?  What is it that nourishes you?

Perhaps we need to remember that tears, like rain, play a nourishing role. They help us to grow.

We also have to admit to those negative emotions, which we try so hard to fight or to brush under the carpet. If we don’t want them to fester inside us, leading to illness and dis-ease, we have to do more than admit to them; we have to accept them into our lives, as part of us. It’s only by doing this that we can learn from them and learn about ourselves and who we really are. In my case, I’m beginning to realise that there’ve been many times when I’ve tried to ‘rise above’ a difficult situation, when in fact what I’ve probably done is buried it deep inside me, bottled it, instead of fully processing or even feeling it. This is understandable when you’re doing human rights or humanitarian work – we wouldn’t be very effective at our jobs if we were constantly in tears at every injustice we witnessed or experienced. But also in our everyday personal lives, it’s difficult to stop and confront our feelings. Whilst living under the same roof as my parents, I find myself hiding my emotions all the time in order to try and maintain a harmonious environment in the house – one that doesn’t upset or offend my parents, or lead to an argument or tensions. But this is not natural – we cannot remain strong and stoic all the time – and sooner or later the real emotions come flooding out, and our vulnerabilities and fears are laid bare. It is only once we fully release those emotions that we can really heal.

Why did a few sessions of acupressure unleash such strong emotions in me, causing me to cry on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis? Some of my friends have laughed when I’ve questioned this; You were working in Palestine for a year, you’ve been doing human rights work and activism for ten years, and now you’re living with your parents and trying to manage their emotions as well as your own – and you wonder why you’ve been crying?? It’s very hard for us to see these things for ourselves, much like it’s hard to admit to that term used to describe the emotional turmoil felt by development workers and activists – burnout. But if we see burnout as it’s described by the Activist Trauma Network – symptoms of irritability, feelings of hopelessness/helplessness/cynicism, non-enjoyment of activities enjoyed in the past, difficulty in making decisions, inability to stay focussed, and fatigue or other physical effects – we realise that such emotions are common, and likely to be experienced by every person doing this kind of work.

Were my tears an expression of all of the above? Perhaps. Or perhaps I was crying over the heartache of failed relationships, or over the difficulties of my childhood, or over the hurt I’ve felt whilst dealing with each family crisis. I may not have the answers, but I do believe that the tears were necessary as part of the journey of transition. It is only once we have truly uncovered our emotions that we can begin to heal.

And so as we embark on the season of reflection, I think it’s important to try to embrace whatever comes, good or bad, much the same way we embraced the joy of the summer. It is only from truly experiencing darker moments, living and feeling them, that we can better understand ourselves, and appreciate the happiness that follows.

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