Advocacy and Burnout


Until you have experienced violence or abuse firsthand, it can be difficult to understand the people who have; arguably, it’s impossible. People who have never been raped, for example, often will say things like, “If that had been me…” or “I would never have done X”. The truth is, until you are put in that type of situation, you have no idea how you will react. Judging someone for their response is a form of victim blaming and, frankly, it’s pretty arrogant (and shows a complete lack of knowledge about how trauma affects the brain).

Similarly, until you have experienced advocacy work, it can be difficult and/or impossible to understand the toll it takes on a person. Advocating for victims of sexual violence (and the other forms of abuse that often accompany that) is a form of secondary trauma so it can affect the brain in similar ways. Plus, it can feel like it never ends; like you’re trying desperately to stay above water and then someone pours a bucket of more water on your head and you go under again.

I sat on a panel recently and one of the questions was “what’s a typical day look like for you?” It was myself, a child abuse investigator, and a forensic nurse and we all laughed because “typical” rarely holds hands with advocacy. Predictability is not something I expect when I come to work in the morning. Especially if I’m on-call, my 9-5 schedule can be easily disrupted and elongated at a moment’s notice.

I’m convinced that 95% of adulthood is paperwork. Advocacy involves a lot of paperwork but it’s also a lot of time spent providing direct victim services: accompaniment during a forensic nurse interview and exam or a police interview, accompaniment to court for a trial or to get a protective order, providing transportation or things to address basic needs like clothes and food. When an advocate has a case load of 40-60 people at any given time, burnout is a very real possibility when self-care is not being practiced (and, honestly, even when it is).

Everyone has the potential to experience burnout and burnout can manifest itself in different ways. When an advocate is burnt out, it prevents us from doing a job that (hopefully) we love: helping people and standing up against injustice. If a match has burnt out then it cannot provide light. If a person is burnt out, they lack the very things they are trying to give to others.

When an advocate is also someone who experienced abuse in the past, the work becomes a trigger. Being triggered badly enough or often enough can quickly lead to burnout. Advocates have personal lives outside of work; maybe someone you love is diagnosed with cancer or your dog dies or your kid is sick or your husband is laid off. Those things don’t exactly help you avoid burnout, either.For me, I battle chronic pain which can also be a big piece of the burnout puzzle.

A counselor once told me, “Learn to let yourself off the hook” (okay, she told me that once a week for several months). Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself for your own shortcomings and imperfections because that’s part of being human. You can’t empty yourself and expect to just keep going with the same kind of momentum.

Advocacy burnout is often called “compassion fatigue“. It’s when you are too exhausted to actively care. You begin to feel jaded  or angry or cynical (to an extreme). You feel a weight of hopelessness on your shoulders. Cognitively, of course you still care. But you’ve reached a point where your mind and body desperately need a break. The joy you once found in what you are doing has been eaten by that secondary trauma.

Self-care is just what it sounds like: taking care of yourself. Combating the joy-stealing evil that you see on a daily basis. It’s remarkable how many of us don’t know what that is supposed to look like or feel like! Or is it, when we see busyness and invulnerability idolized?

My coworkers can tell you that I have struggled with self-care. I grew up in a culture that discouraged people – women especially – from taking care of oneself. It’s also part of the overall society I live in: we work around the clock and praise workaholics. We are addicted to being busy. The healthy relationship between work and life is too often off kilter and, therefore, very unhealthy.

I love how Aliya Khan approaches this topic: she uses the term “coping bank”. I picture it as a savings account for your mental health. In her piece Activist Burnout is Real, Khan says:

A coping bank is your go-to list of activities and behaviors that give you a sense of fulfillment, relief, and replenishment when you’re feeling burnout.

It can be very simple, like a list on your computer or phone, or more creative, like a jar full of ideas that you can literally draw from.

Fill your coping bank with things that you’ve tried and that have worked, and things that you haven’t tried yet that might work. Sometimes we need to switch up our responses, so don’t get discouraged if usually taking a long hike rejuvenates you, and today it doesn’t. Be prepared to experiment and have some fun trying different, new things.

Lists of ideas for self-care can be helpful but they tend to look very generic when what might help one person won’t help another person. So make your own list, as Khan suggests. And make it when you are not already feeling burnt out. When I’m burnt out, my list is going to look like:

  1. Drink wine
  2. Eat ice cream
  3. Sleep all day
  4. Binge watch Doctor Who

None of those are bad things, necessarily. But they could be signs that I need more help than I’m giving myself. Let me illustrate. In the 2010 movie How Do You Know, Reese Witherspoon’s character gives a very depressed Paul Rudd a piece of advice from her father: “Never drink to feel better. Drink to feel even better”. When I’ve had a hard day, I say that line to myself. I know that, while a glass or two of Moscato can make a bad day feel much better, it’s not a long-term solution and it is probably my attempt to escape rather than face what I’m feeling.

When I’m in a healthier place, my list looks a lot different. It will likely still involve wine and ice cream, let’s be honest, but it will also have things like: go for a hike, write, read a book that is NOT related to abuse or advocacy, etc. Debriefing with my coworkers is a big piece of self-care; I cannot necessarily go home and tell my husband why I’m crying because my work is confidential. He has an idea and he’s very good at helping me care for myself but sometimes I need to have two or three other people who can empathize with me, get mad with me, cry with me because they know exactly what I am experiencing. Making time to be with friends is another big one for me. It’s easy when I get home from work to not want to go out again. Often, I don’t. I spend the evenings with my husband and then make a point to spend time with close friends every weekend. And when I’m not on-call, I try to just set my phone down and walk away.

What works for you? Make your own list! Adult coloring books stress me out but maybe that’s just what you need for a way to let your brain rest. Keep a journal. Paint. Learn how to swing dance or make pottery. Do yoga. Play video games. Volunteer at a local animal shelter. Call your mother. Clean your house. Wander around Target. Join a book club. Pray or meditate. Sip a cup of tea in silence. Knit your dog a sweater. Get a massage. Listen to music. Create music. Go off-line for a day. Figure out what works for you and then have a plan for when you need it.

And learn to say “no”. The type of personality that often enters advocacy is the one too often unwilling to say “no” because they either hate to disappoint or they really don’t  mind stretching themselves too thin.

There’s no magical formula for self-care but it is an important aspect of avoiding – and healing from – burnout.

Okay, so what happens when you’ve been practicing self-care and you still burnout? Excellent question. I’ll admit: I’m pretty burnt out right now. This blog post is a form of self-care. Don’t let the self-care stop! Tell someone you trust and who knows you well that you are feeling burnt out. Listen to your body and try to meet its needs: sleep, eat healthy, exercise. If you are prone to forget to eat, set an alarm on your phone so you know when to stop and refuel. Debrief often. Seek professional help through a therapist or counselor. A lot of agencies who employ advocates will provide free counseling services for a certain amount of time. It may mean you swallow your pride a bit but it’s worth taking advantage of that service. Maybe you talk to a therapist once. Maybe you go three times or five times or you make it regular. A counselor can help you identify better, healthier coping strategies. If you are triggered, practice grounding exercises or let a coworker know about it. As an advocate, you may also have a certain number of mental health days. Use them! I never wanted to ask for a day off when I first became a full-time advocate but the longer I do it, the easier it becomes to say, “Yep, I need a break.” Life sucks sometimes. Take a break.

Like most things in life, taking care of yourself is a process. You won’t master it overnight anymore than you will jump back from burnout overnight. As you age and change, so will your self-care strategies. You will figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. And you can pass that on to the next person. Because advocacy – life as a whole – doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We need each other.

If you’re interested in more reading on the topics of self-care and burnout, here are some articles I have found helpful:

Activist Burnout is Real – and You Probably Need to Read These 4 Ways to Manage It

Burnout Prevention and Intervention

Taking Care of Yourself as an Advocate

How to Avoid Burnout When You’re Saving the World

What I Wish I Had Known: Burnout and Self-Care in Our Social Work Profession

10 Ways to Avoid Burnout (I have this list  – its printable! – hanging above my desk at work)


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