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How your values and strengths can put you at risk for burnout


One of the reasons I love teaching multi-week classes and half-day workshops is they give me the chance to have more complex conversations with folks about what gets in the way of self-care.

We talk about the barriers we encounter that are rooted in broken and exploitative systems, our socialization, and toxic workplace cultures.

We also get to explore how we’ve internalized those barriers. They might show up in our self-talk, beliefs, and values, preventing us from caring for ourselves.

Many of the people I’ve worked with in animal welfare have similar values, such as service, compassion, loyalty, selflessness, stoicism, integrity, altruism, excellence, justice, and kindness.

These values are beautiful.

They give us the strength to do hard things and to persevere in stressful, emotionally painful work.

These values and strengths serve as our North Star, helping to guide our actions and live a life of meaning and purpose.

Yay for values, amirite?


Every one of these values and strengths can also become vulnerabilities if we’re not paying attention.

Here’s what I mean:

Our values and strengths help us to push through difficult situations, to do what’s right, be of service to others, and remain loyal to those we provide care for.

And those very same values and strengths can also prevent us from taking care of our own needs, reaching out for help, and accepting our human limitations.

They can leave us feeling like we should always be doing more and we’re never doing enough, no matter how hard we try or how depleted we become.

If we’re not careful our values and strengths, when taken to extremes, wind up increasing our risk of stress injury, including empathy fatigue and burnout.

Our values drive us into this work and our values can drive us out of the work.

When we’re surrounded by the pain and suffering of others every day, many animal care workers, myself included, feel compelled to take on more and more responsibility.

Propelled by our values and strengths, we can tip into something I call “lone hero mode.”

Lone hero mode might sound like this:

  • I’m the only one who can handle __ [insert the hardest tasks or cases].
  • I’m the only one who can be relied upon to get ____ done right.
  • I can’t depend on anyone else, so I’ll just handle it myself.
  • I can’t take a break because lives depend on me.
  • The needs of the animals are more important than my own needs.
  • It would be selfish of me to take a break.
  • I’m fine!

These thoughts are not facts; some are outright lies. But what makes lone hero mode so seductive is that these thoughts are often based on degrees of truth, so they feel accurate and objective.

And because these thoughts are connected to our values it’s easy to believe they’re helpful thoughts. We automatically accept, rather than question this perspective.

I’m speaking from experience.

For me, lone hero mode looked like coming in to work at the shelter an hour early every morning, before anyone else arrived, so that I could take better care of the dogs.

Exhausted, I snuck into the building (with my opening shift key and alarm code) and worked alone and off the clock (because overtime wasn’t allowed) before my real shift started.

In truth, it was my favorite hour of the day. There was a lot of joy in that quiet time with the dogs.

But I was also being driven by a need to alleviate my increasing levels of empathic distress AND by (a distortion of) my values - excellence, loyalty, service, and compassion.

I wanted to do right by the dogs and valued caring for their needs over my own. So despite becoming physically and emotionally rundown, I kept overworking.

This ultimately led to empathy fatigue and burnout. Back then, I couldn’t see the connection between my values and vulnerabilities.

Like me, lots of us stay in lone hero mode, even when we know we’re not okay. Why?

It might be because:

  • Staying busy feels more comfortable than slowing down; it helps us avoid our emotions.
  • Being the helper feels stronger, more in control, and less vulnerable than needing and receiving help.
  • Being needed - the one everyone turns to - validates our self-worth and sense of purpose.
  • Our job is our identity and we don’t know who we are when we’re not helping others.
  • We’ve been conditioned to believe that our worthiness is directly tied to our productivity, so much so that taking care of ourselves feels foreign, selfish, immoral, and lazy.
  • When it feels like everything is riding on your shoulders, taking a break feels dangerous.

So we keep pushing ourselves until we get sick - mentally or physically - and then we have no choice but to rest.

Or, as I did, we quit our jobs.

Values draw us to the work, they help us to persevere, and they can also prevent us from doing the work sustainably.

It’s not just our personal values; it’s our organizational values too.

What makes someone a good employee in our current workplace systems may also be what makes them most vulnerable to the risks of the work.

So what do we do about it?

We start by recognizing how our own values and strengths might also be vulnerabilities that increase our risk of stress, distress, empathy fatigue, and burnout.

The more we are aware of this connection, the more we’ll be able to recognize, in real-time, when we’re standing on that edge.

Then we’ll have the chance to recalibrate our approach so that we include ourselves in our values. We can offer ourselves some of that kindness, compassion, and loyalty.

Both because we inherently deserve it, just like the animals do, and because the animals need us to be well, so we can keep helping them for as long as they need us.

We can allow ourselves to ask for and receive support. We cannot do this work alone and we were never meant to. We can right-size our individual sense of responsibility.

We can learn to tolerate the discomfort of setting boundaries when the animals’ needs are neverending.

We can support staff in setting healthy boundaries while also honoring their need to connect with and do right by the animals.

We can question why we cause so much harm to ourselves in the very places that are supposed to be about compassion, care, and healing. What might we be perpetuating when our values only flow in one direction?

There’s more to it than that of course, but it starts with awareness.

If you find yourself on the edge, I urge you to take one small step back toward caring for yourself because the lone hero is a myth, not a role model.

“If your compassion does not include yourself it is not complete.” - Jack Kornfield


My 8-week course, Compassion Fatigue Strategies, Plus! through The Shelter Medicine Program at UFL is starting October 16, 2023.

If you were thinking of taking the class this fall, please register early to save on the course fee! The current cost of the course, if you register by September 1st, is $299. Afterward, the registration fee is increasing to $349. You can register here.


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