Self-Care for Activists: A Guide to Clearing Yourself of Trauma While Working for a Better World by Erik Marcus

“An essay by lifelong animal advocate Erik Marcus on how to overcome the various personal challenges that confront activists.

Essential advice for avoiding burnout and being a more effective advocate. Also has excellent advice that will make you more productive in other areas of your life. He addresses an important issue with finesse and compassion.”

From the book:

Practically everyone who takes animal advocacy seriously runs the risk of becoming traumatized and emotionally damaged. To seriously commit yourself to animal advocay is to wade into a sea of misery that can easily engulf and overwhelm you. It’s not just the animals who get traumatized by abuse - everyone who works to protect them is likely to be traumatized as well.

Are your days full of unpleasant thoughts, and your nights full of frightening dreams? Is your general view of the world increasingly dominated by feelings of scarcity, anger, sadness, and hopelessness?

Psychologists have a term for this sort of thing: secondary trauma refers to the emotional duress that results from witnessing another being suffer Secondary trauma can affect any person who is devoted to offering care or remedying injustices: animal activists, drug abuse counselors, prison reform advocates, caregivers for the elderly, and so forth. One symptom of secondary trauma is “compassion fatigue.”

The good news is that trauma is preventable and reversible with certain tools.

On Opening Jars & Self Compassion

[I sent this as an email this morning to @merlin​ Mann & Dan Benjamin about recent episodes of their podcast, Back to Work. I want it to live here, too.] 

Hi Merlin and Dan. I’ve been thinking a lot about something you said, Merlin, on last week’s Back to Work, and it just combined with something you said a long time ago in a really helpful way.

The idea from last week was that when we look back at our past selves with regret or frustration, we should remember—or at least consider—that we did the best we could. We did what we could. I’ve been struggling lately—i.e. my whole adult creative life—with focus. I lose time on twitter or trawling the internet, and then I get really mad at myself. Right now I’m working on a big writing project under a tight deadline, and this idea of “Hey, I did what I could” sounded, rather than resigned, very compassionate to me. (It’s a good counter to the narrative that we procrastinate so that we can say “Well, it’s not my best, but I finished it,” to have an excuse for failure. Instead, this reminds me to say, “This was my best, and it happened the way it happened.”)

This connects, for me, with another hugely useful thing you’ve said. It might not even have been a metaphor, but it’s become a very important metaphor for me. It’s your instructions for opening jars. Basically: don’t just grip tighter, focus on your shoulder (or something), etc. This has become a guiding metaphor for me in thinking about habit-change. I can’t just buckle down harder. That’s often my instinct. NO TWITTER TODAY FROM 9AM TO 6PM. I do this—lots of us do this—with food, too. NO JUNK FOOD. SEVENTEEN SERVINGS OF VEGETABLES. TRY TO HAVE ONE PERFECT DAY, JUST ONE. And, duh. It. Does. Not. Work. Because we’re just trying to grip the lid of the jar harder and harder and harder.

The thing I realized from putting these two ideas together is that sometimes our arms just aren’t strong enough yet for a particular jar. If I can’t lift a heavy weight at the gym, I don’t get mad at myself for not being strong enough. But if I can’t write for five hours straight, or if I long for twitter, I get mad at myself. I feel like a failure. But my brain-muscles just aren’t there yet!

So, what are my options for opening this jar of focus? Focus on my shoulder instead of my grip—dig deeper to change the habits, change my approach instead of forcing it. Grab a grippy thing or run the lid under hot water—find other strategies that scratch the twitter itch but don’t derail my writing. Build up my arm strength—meditate. Etc. And, through it all, be compassionate toward myself. Because I’m obviously not not-trying. I’m working really fucking hard. But working hard at being mad at myself and comparing myself to other people sucks and I’m going to keep trying to stop.

If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. Self-compassion is also critically important, but because shame is a social concept-it happens between people-it also heals best between people. A social wound needs a social balm.
—  Brene Brown, Daring Greatly p. 75
You have to be brave. You’re never going to be ‘ready’ to do something that is difficult, yet in your best interest. I wholeheartedly believe that courage already exists in you; it is waiting to be set free. If you can’t trust yourself now, trust yourself who lives on the other side of courage. They have a faith in you that is authentic and reflective of your true being.
—  Balanceandblessings
Don’t wait for permission to love yourself; there will never be a right time. There will always be some flaw, some insecurity, some failure, some factor that seems reason enough not to accept who you are. Self-love is not a destination: it’s a moment to moment, day to day, year to year journey marked by small victories and grand failures; facing choices that catalyze change or predicaments that paralyze progress. Don’t wait for circumstances to change or for yourself to be different to accept who you are. The time is now.
—  self-love is not a flowery, improbable, narcissistic concept; it’s life force. It’s energy. It’s empowerment. It’s essential. And you’re worthy of it. 
No matter how your day is going, you are growing. Repeat to yourself, ‘I am growing. I am learning. I am being. I am. That is enough.
May you feel the sun within you. May you notice the present moment. May you nurture thoughts of blessing and gratitude. May you cultivate compassion for all living beings. May you accept and love yourself just as you are.
—  Balanceandblessings
One of the hottest topics in psychology is self-compassion and how a lack of self-compassion is driving anxiety and depression. People need to be kinder to themselves and not blame themselves for things that are beyond their control. Life is hard enough.
—  Gordon Flett, professor at York University

You are not your flaws.

You are not your mistakes.

You have good qualities. 

The good things about you are not trivial or inadequate.

Your good attributes are worthy of attention. They should not be ignored because you have problems.

The bad things about you do not mean you should be ignored or used or discarded.

You are not an apple ready to be throw away because it has damaged and bruised places.

If you must compare yourself to an object, you should think of yourself as kintisugi, a bowl that has been dropped and cracked, and now your cracks are being filled in with gold, making you more interesting and more valuable than before.

You are living in a sick society that uses sarcasm and criticism and verbal abuse in an attempt to create positive results; a society that has not learned throwing negative attention and punishment at a problem does not make it go away; a society that has not learned that good qualities need to be appreciated and nurtured to grow, not simply taken for granted or to be taken advantage of.

As moderator of this Tumblr blog:

I will repeat these statements as often as necessary.

I will repeat them patiently as many times as you need to read them.

I will do this because you live in a society where stigmatizing statements are repeated endlessly by other people.

It is my desire to undo some of the damage done to vulnerable people who hear this stigmatizing statements and believe them.

There are no “throwaway people” in my vision of the world.

I want you to remember that no matter how many times media and advertising and other people tells you that you have to be a certain type of person to be important - that there is still a appreciation for real people in others that allows them to love and care about people who are massively imperfect. It might even be a complete surprise to them who they fall in love with. This love for what is real doesn’t mean that they are wrong to love you. It doesn’t mean they are making a big mistake caring about you. It means you are worthy of being loved.