After Burn Out – Forging a New Path of Healing
After Burn Out – Forging a New Path of Healing
How do you know when you have crossed the delicate line in your professional life in which you need to make a drastic change? What needs to change – the work, the way you do it, the way you are running your life? Despite your passion for the work you do, there are so many messages our bodies, our minds and our spirits can and do send us to gently and sometimes not-so-gently inform us that the work is taking a toll. For many folks working in the anti-violence movement – who are often survivors or secondary survivors to violence themselves – this line or threshold of when it has become too much is more like a watercolor painting that bleeds during the difficult phases and dries when things temporarily settle. However, the slow momentum of your accumulating exhaustion spreads deep into your psyche and into your cells. One day, you realize the edges and lines of the colors of you have even become blurred, clouded and your spirit feels like thin paper that could be punctured with the lightest touch.
Vicarious trauma is an insidious and under-acknowledged “side effect” of working alongside and on behalf of marginalized, oppressed and disenfranchised populations as well as socially taboo issues (i.e. sexual violence) in a societal system that tries its best to convince us that these social injustices will always be the status quo. While vicarious trauma can be a deeper manifestation of burn out – since burn out can occur in any work setting – it may just simply be a pace or a field or an environment that is no longer sustainable – in the sexual violence movement specifically, they often come together. Our personal tragedies are triggered by the stories we witness at work. Our nervous systems constantly operate on overdrive carrying a pager we can never turn off. Our minds are always distracted holding the memory of what we witnessed at 2am last night/last week/last month in the police station, and those moments spin like a record time and time again.
It is heartbreaking to witness the loss of many inspired, innovative and passionate people from the anti-sexual violence movement due to a combination of burn out and vicarious trauma. Not only does the movement as a whole lose since it is challenging to find folks with the insight, courage and resources to join this very difficult work – but our society loses as well. Our movement fractures around the so to speak “elephant in the room” when we lose sight that the ones beside us in the office, at the training, on the other end of the pager – they were survivors, too – the center of our supposed mission. They still are surviving, yet they’ve felt the pressure of a system that rewards toughness and feels uneasy around, if not outright discourages, weakness (otherwise known as the natural emotional, physical, and energetic responses we have to witnessing the darkness of humanity day in and day out) to close down that part of themselves, to prioritize the larger needs of the organization and the “survivors” first (drawing that murky line between their identity and those they serve) and to be “strong”. Most of us do this for far too long because of our loyalty to the cause and because it is our calling. For many, we stay in this impossible and sometimes toxic environment because we don’t have the financial or social resources to stop. We also aren’t sure what we will do, or what might come up for us, or what it really means if we choose for ourselves, intentionally and consciously, to leave a field that matters so much and where we’ve demonstrated such nuanced skills.
What might manifest if you could move away from this work? What new and creative way of working might emerge? How could you be in this field in a way that uplifts and nourishes the systems of your body – what would that look like? What other passions or people have you been neglecting until you can find the time? You know as well as anyone that you don’t have to be in the ER to be part of the movement – it takes all of us from our myriad social, political, institutional and cultural locations. You positively impact society by simply claiming your right to be here, to feel valued and grounded, to ask for and receive support and to follow your intuition. You are so much more than an advocate or a counselor – you are a microcosm of the movement itself – advocating, listening, challenging, growing, evolving and healing. If you forged a new path for how you wanted to be in the world, where you drew the route and you set the pace, what might unfold? What if that album you were finally able to write and record became the soundtrack of a survivor’s heart mending. Your healing touch might create a somatic breakthrough during a massage that allows a survivor to safely return to the embrace of their loved one. Your stand-up routine might cause a deep and unfiltered laughter that cracks a frozen spirit wide open and allows them to feel – good, bad, raw and real – but they feel again, at last. Your kind smile and the grace of your ever-softening face on the street might make a survivor feel like someone has truly seen them for the first time in years. This all matters. You matter. It doesn’t matter how you engage with this work since both education and healing happen in countless ways, it matters that you take care of you and that will ripple out into the world. Your healing helps all of us continue to trust the possibilities of our own healing. What could be more important?
Contemplating the challenges that face many of us working in the movement to end sexual violence, I reached out to Rachel Durchslag, a trusted friend and colleague in the movement. Rachel is one of The Breathe Network’s board members and also a practitioner, and she graciously shared with me the story of how she transitioned from that of a full time, non-profit Executive Director of a thriving anti-violence organization, into a phase where she needed to drop everything and re-center herself in her work and in the world. Amidst her own reflection, rest and healing, she re-emerged rejuvenated and with a clear vision – to assist others in healing which is a reminder of the deep value of listening inside, and trusting the language of intuition, even when it asks us to make difficult choices. I wanted to share her thoughts with you as a very personal reminder that you too have permission to draw boundaries and to re-direct the trajectory of where you are right now. Here is what Rachel had to share:
“I was sitting across from a good friend over lunch a few years ago sharing feelings I actually felt guilty for feeling. After six years of working in the anti-violence community, I was struggling with a lack of inspiration and not being connected to my work. My heart felt less open to what my organization was striving for, and I was beginning to dread going into the office in the morning. Though nothing had changed in my work situation, I could tell something inside of me was changing.
I looked at my friend, unsure of how she would respond to what I shared, and with a beautiful note of compassion in her voice she said to me, ‘Rachel – you’re burned out.’
Burn out is not something we often discuss for those of us working in the field to end sexual harm – although we absolutely should! Unfortunately, it is something that is almost expected as part of the job. But once I was aware of how burnt out I had become and how it was impacting the quality of my work, I started to have similar conversations with my staff. Every one of us was feeling the intense impact in our personal lives of the work we were doing professionally.
For those working in nonprofits, self-care can often be a challenge. Limited or no organizational funds dedicated to self-care are a reality for most grass-root organizations, and the salary for nonprofit jobs is often not enough to access the necessary healing work to sustain oneself in the field. This is why I strongly believe that the holistic healing arts must be made available to not only those engaged in healing from a sexual assault, but also for those working in the field. When I finally did leave my job I decided to dedicate my time and focus to providing energy healing to those doing healing work for survivors. As a practitioner I feel it is a privilege to support those working through personal pain along with supporting the advocates and counselors who themselves often experience vicarious trauma through their work.
I believe that as awareness of the healing arts and their great capacity to nourish us – physically, emotionally and energetically – becomes more prevalent, more individuals will seek out these services. As practitioners we are in the advantageous position to connect nonprofit employees with information about and resources to the holistic healing arts community. I wish I had known about energy healing years ago when I began my nonprofit career, but at least I can now be part of a more sustainable movement by helping connect others doing this difficult and essential work to the wonderful, rejuvenating resource of holistic healing.”
Rachel’s journey and the way in which her role in the movement evolved demonstrates that there is no failure in saying “this is too much” and moving on. In fact, that is exactly what this movement needs – honesty, vulnerability, and a commitment to resource ourselves. No more pretending that we are superheroes when we are regular people with our own stories, wounds and tenderness. Let’s all commit in our own way to recognizing how we can re-center ourselves, remembering that no change is too small and transformation is incremental. We can also do better in tending to each other, validating each other’s experiences and showing up for our colleagues with the same compassion we bring to our clients. We cannot do this alone, and we don’t need to – however, we do need to take the risk to communicate honestly about our experience. Instead of resisting the complexity that is brewing inside, allow it to begin to flow. It may require massive changes or it might be immediately soothed with more consistent body-work, either way, making space for and valuing your true nature will empower you to live from a more authentic, embodied and balanced place. The totally full presence of you is a gift beyond measure – to you, to the movement, and to everyone around you. You deserve nothing less.
After Burn Out – Forging a New Path of Healing was written by Molly Boeder Harris, Founder & Executive Director of The Breathe Network. Learn more about Molly’s work teaching trauma-informed yoga and offering trauma-informed yoga teacher trainings by visiting her practitioner page. Additionally, learn more about the beautiful healing arts practice Rachel created when she transitioned out of the advocacy movement, EMERGE Asheville by visiting their website. EMERGE provides sliding-scale healing services including Reiki, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and Hypnosis in Asheville, North Carolina. You can also visit Rachel’s practitioner page with The Breathe Network here.