A personal note:
I wrote this before Dallas. Before Alton Sterling. Before Philando Castile. Before Orlando, Dhaka, Istanbul, Iraq and so much more. I was responding to personal stuff – the loss of my mom, frustrations with work.
It’s hard right now, when it feels like the world is falling apart around you. But the truth is our work often deals with painful, overwhelming issues. We’re working to heal so much that hurts in the world. And it can be hard.
We’ve got to take care of ourselves, or we risk becoming numb and unable to help.
Handling emotional overload
Many of the nonprofit people I’ve known are highly empathetic.
That’s a big advantage for our work. Fundraisers especially need to be comfortable with emotions. They’re how we communicate – if we’re doing it well.
But empathy can also have its downside.
Some of us truly feel another’s pain.
And for most of us, spending all day thinking about all the hurts can take its toll. That’s before we layer, well, life, on top.
So I’m not surprised when I stare at a blank page and think: do I have to?
What happens when you hit that wall?
The advice I see online tells me to be aware of my emotions. Get centered. And meditate.
And if that works for you, awesome.
But if you’re sitting in the middle of a busy office, that might not be the easiest advice to take.
So when I can’t even, here’s what I usually do.
First, take time to deal with the emotions that are overwhelming you. If you’re tired, shut your eyes and just breathe for ten minutes. If there’s something bigger, consider if there’s any concrete action you can take.
That report or appeal you need to write? Maybe it’s just not going to happen today. (Although a deadline does sharpen the mind in amazing ways.)
That doesn’t mean closing down early and heading home. (Though if you can, go for it!)
For me, it usually means doing something different.
- If writing feels like a wall of impossible, find something simpler – stuff envelopes or catch up on filing. You have to focus on the task at hand. And there’s a calming satisfaction in completing a task like that.
- Sometimes, diving into a spreadsheet triggers a different, less balky part of the brain.
- Or doing something visual, for the same reason. Different part of the brain, different skills, less intimidating.
Get out of the office for a bit.
If you need inspiration, go to where your mission happens. Talk to the people you help.
Take a walk at lunch. Even once around the block can help. And moving can be helpful if you’re feeling blue.
Go check in with someone in your organization whose work is entirely different.
Fundraisers, you know how you should be talking with program staff? Maybe today’s the perfect day.
Or chat with the administrative or finance people. You might learn something useful to your own work.
Call a donor just to say thanks.
Or call your spouse or a good friend. Maybe you just need a comforting shoulder.
Sometimes, you hit a wall because you simply have too much to do or feel.
It’s OK to say no sometimes. If your workload is simply too much for one human – even a superhuman – it’s OK to say, “I can’t”. It’s also OK to ask for help.
And if it’s emotion, not workload, that’s overwhelming you, it’s OK to stake out some emotional distance.
Not forever. But for now, because that’s the healthy thing to do.
Do your tasks. Go about your business. But put up some (temporary) internal walls. It doesn’t mean you’re not a caring person.
It just means even superhumans need a day off.
Want to read more?
And here’s an interesting article about how our brains work. Maybe just knowing more about what’s going on under the hood will help you put things in perspective.
Photo thanks to Ryan McGuire at Gratisography