When the Professional is Also Personal: Self-Care and Compassion Fatigue

People involved in advocacy and social justice work know well the potential psychic toll of those jobs. “Burn-out” and “compas- sion fatigue” enter the cultural lexicon more often as we become increasingly attuned to the impact of working in help- ing professions. Even more complicated, it seems, is the result when the work one does is directly tied to a marginalized iden- tity one personally occupies. If you are gay or lesbian and work in a role directly con- fronting issues of homophobia, if you are a person of color grappling each day with anti-racist efforts, or if you are a woman professionally involved in identifying and fighting gender discrimination, there may be compounded stress responses in addition to routine job pressures.

University of Michigan staff, students, and activists gathered in October and March to discuss these dynamics with an eye toward reducing compassion fatigue. “Out at Work: Navigating Multiple identities and the Academy/Workplace” was co-sponsored by CEW, The U-M Spectrum Center, and the School of Social Work’s “TBLG Matters” Initiative. Each session drew 50+ participants from a variety of career and lifespan perspectives, and the discussions were both heartening and galvanizing.

Panelists spoke about intertwined experiences of passion for one’s work, commit- ment to one’s community, and the personal toll such work can take. When you have lived through discrimination or identity- based suffering and have continued to realize your own goals, there is often an impulse to reach back and try to pull others along. When pressing social justice issues, sometimes described in theoretical or large scale ways, are evidenced in your own daily affairs, they often compel action in a more direct way.

Human compassion moves us to concern and action, but not without cost. The emotional residue of personal and profes- sional involvement with issues such as racism, violence, hatred, and discrimination can manifest in emotional exhaustion, somatic disturbance, and traumatic response.

Additionally, it is the helpers, those who are providing care and advocacy on behalf of others, whose needs are most often forgotten.

For people who are both living the effects of one or more marginalized identities and immersing themselves in the daily work of social change, where is the restoration? Who or what will help the helpers? Activists involved in the panel discussions outlined various strategies and advice related to maintaining sanity and personal wellness while staying engaged in the work:

  • Build and maintain a support system. Seek and accept validation. Seek out people who are sources of help and assurance for YOU.
  • Cultivate self-awareness and compassion. Know how your body and spirit reveal exhaustion, and listen to those signals.
  • Prioritize your own wellness. Take care of your own physical, spiritual and emotional needs, even if this means backing off from public engagement.
  • Set and keep boundaries. Spend energy wisely. Take time “off” from public struggle.
  • Seek professional assistance as needed. See yourself as worthy of the support and assistance you provide to others.

Panelists and audience alike agreed in the end that despite the personal toll, there is much work left to do in combatting barriers to equality. Similarly strong was the final message that for every look outward toward all that remains undone, we must also look inward toward our own wellness. In the words of poet-activist Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Carrie Ross

Carrie Ross is a social worker and educator who joined CEW’s counseling and programs staff in 2013. Her background includes direct work with LGBTQ and other marginalized communities seeking personal wellness and civic advancement. Since joining our staff, Carrie has helped renew CEW’s commitment to collaboration with other campus units such as The Spectrum Center, highlighting the ways in which social identity shapes our ability to advance and flourish in career and educational environments.