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Burnout, guilt and shame

‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. (Leonard Cohen)

The title of this post was inspired by Brené Brown’s book on shame resilience: I thought it was just me (but it isn’t). Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power. This is a book that those working for ‘a cause’ may want to read, as it shows how it is really only by cultivating a healthy relation with ourselves that we can hope to serve others. It’s cliché, I know, but it’s a true cliché.

Brené Brown looks at power, one of the ‘philanthropic taboo’, as if power was not part of what good people engage with. She looks at perfectionism: often people get into ‘doing good’ out of a sense of ‘idealism, hope and urgency. Ironically, our own sense of mission may heighten our intolerance for imperfections’ (Westley et al. 2006). Allowing for imperfections in ourselves and others is a good way to de-stress, be constructive, and possibly more effective in our work. At the core of the book is the concept of shame, and  the author explores how by denying our moments of shame, we not only feed the ‘shame web’, but we also become unable to feel empathy for others.

For those who do no want to give in to cynicism, empathy is crucial. I don’t think I’m very far from reality by saying that for most humanitarian professional shame is not ok. It’s unspoken, denied, and there is no time for it. To speak shame we have to show our vulnerabilities, and in my experience and research of humanitarian work there is an unwritten rule which leaves many casualties behind: ‘don’t be weak’, which often equates with ‘don’t let yourself be seen when things are though, and you need help. So keep a stiff upper lip. There is war, poverty, natural catastrophes to deal with’. This is what the little voice in our head often say, doesn’t it?

Compassion fatigue and burnout often stem from a lack of empathy (driven by guilt and shame) for ourselves. Many NGOs ‘have become embarrassed by real emotions and genuine passion as they have become more professional’ (Westely, 2006). It is crucial to rekindle the flame and passion that people into ‘doing good’. This may also mean overcoming the shame of real emotions.

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Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.