Flickr: Funky Tee

Us aid workers often over-identify with our work and this doesn’t serve us.

It’s normal to respond emotionally to what we do and to the people we serve, especially when we meet them face-to-face and see the environments in which they live and the massive challenges that face them and their families. This is empathy at its most important and motivational. But the feeling that we can impact these environments and “help these people” can be a slippery one, easily intertwined with ego and an over-investment in outcomes.

You cannot “fix” poverty, or suffering, or injustice. You can try, making your work an offering of service, compassion, intelligence, empathy and respect. But however hard you work, however much you give, and however many years you deny and sacrifice yourself for the sake of your work, the outcomes of that work are not up to you.

Let me repeat this, because it’s important.

We can determine our contribution to the world, but never the outcomes of that contribution.

This can be difficult to hear. I’ve always found it painfully difficult to hold space for disparity, poverty, suffering and injustice without jumping in and trying to fix everything. But there is wisdom in maintaining a compassionate distance, in embracing empathy without jumping in to try to “save” other people from the challenges offered by their lives.

Over-identification is a psychological defense mechanism, a way to put up walls and distance, to avoid confronting uncomfortable truths about yourself and your position as an aid worker in relation to the people that you serve. Maybe it’s a reaction to constantly witnessing the suffering caused by economic disparity. Maybe it’s a result of seeing inefficiencies in an aid industry that tries to accomplish such ambitious, lofty goals.

While over-identification is a normal response to being of service in challenging environments, it’s not necessarily in our best interests.

See if these phrases sound at all familiar:

  • “I can’t take time off. These people need me.”
  • “I have to work late and through weekends. My project impacts poor people’s lives.”
  • “I’m the only one who cares in this office. If it wasn’t for my hard work, we wouldn’t be as effective as we are.”

Even if you are the best person in an office of deadweights, loaded with unrealistic deadlines in the middle of a chronic humanitarian emergency, I would like to suggest something to you. It may come as a relief.

Over-identification does not serve you.

I’ve been examining the shapes that over-identification can take, and I see three key manifestations of this defense mechanism: martyrdom, mothering and madness. The images of aid workers we see in movies or read about in the news often reinforce these behaviors, and in the name of happy, healthy and sustainable aid work, I suggest they be uprooted and avoided at all costs.


1. Martyrdom

Martyrs are the aid workers who see themselves as indispensable, either because they feel everyone around them is less competent or because they feel they care more than others do about helping the people they serve. This feeling of indispensability may come from firsthand and emotional experiences of just how big the issues are they’re trying to ameliorate, and it is often rooted in a sadness and a grief at the immense suffering caused by poverty and violence.

While these feelings are valid and important, slipping into martyrdom is miserable and exhausting.

Symptoms include:

  •  Working late hours, holidays and weekends and responding to requests from your partner/friends/children that you spend more time with them by saying, “But the people/[insert the community you serve here] need me.”
  • Using work as an excuse to miss out on important social events, including birthday parties, goodbye parties and family or holiday celebrations, then resenting that others can celebrate when there is so much to fix in the world.
  • Panicking and self-berating that you’re not doing enough at your job to fix a huge global issue, like maternal mortality or the spread of HIV.
  • Feeling like you will never have a “normal” enjoyable life because you’ve chosen to be an aid worker.
  • Feeling uncomfortable about celebrating and celebrations in general, feeling like levity and joy can’t belong to you or shouldn’t belong to others.

When I examine times when I’ve felt like a martyr in my work, I see that I am unwilling to experience deeply and sit with a basic truth: in this case, that the world is full of people who are suffering and who I won’t be able to help. This can be physically painful to realize and to absorb, but once you do, it’s harder to punish yourself for the way the world is.

And martyrs: the flip side of this is good. Each one of us has the ability to effect massive, global, illuminating change. That’s what I’m all about, here at Expat Backup—helping you be the best at doing what you do: fixing massive global issues. But a good starting point for the deep work this involves is recognizing that we can’t fix everything or everyone. Sometimes, we need to let ourselves grieve and then gently let it go.


2. Mothering

Mothering is a tricky one, a sort of hangover from colonial paternalism and good intentions. Aid workers who have slipped into the clutches of mothering are often over-identified with the beneficiaries of their work, justifying their excessive involvement with the rationale that they know best and that everyone else would do well to listen. Motherers often have overly personal relationships with their beneficiaries, investing not just their professional time and expertise, but investing heavily with their emotions as well. This can make professional—and rational—work decisions, including leaving, unnecessarily difficult.

Symptoms of mothering include:

  • Jumping to the impassioned emotional defense of beneficiaries and partners whose conduct and decisions are under review.
  • Patronizing junior and local staff and beneficiaries with too much advice, preferring to lecture instead of listening, since you believe that you know best.
  • Staying too long in a country or with a project because you love the people, at the risk of stagnating your career.
  • Encouraging colleagues to vent emotional baggage while you spend your limited energy trying to make them feel better.

Emotional identification with your work is essential to staying motivated and to ensuring that you make a difference, but too much emotion will sway your professional judgment and lead to bad decisions. Sure, you might love the Mother Superior who started the leper colony, but do you love her so much that you don’t mind that a bit of money went missing last month? An extreme example, but you get my point.

Emotional distance through healthy detachment is a good solution to people stuck in a mothering rut. This is so much easier said than done, but setting small boundaries that create healthy distance between you and the people you work with—and sticking to them—can be a good start. Motherers are often lonely, so reach out to people outside your professional circles and forge friendships that broaden your viewpoints and bring you new experiences. It’s important to have friends and comrades where you work, but keep those friendships healthy and notice when you’re wading too far into others’ personal lives.


3. Madness

You can’t really advise people away from going truly crazy; so that’s not the type of madness that I’m going to talk about. I want to consider the madness of sinking into apathy, cynicism and resignation. Some people arrive at the idea that their work will never make a difference or that the people they try to help are comprehensively undeserving. These people can be unwilling to resign from their jobs to seek more satisfying lines of work, and can easily poison a work environment with their negativity and bitterness.

I’ve run into a lot of over-identified aid workers in the madness stage, over my 15+ years in Africa, and let me tell you, people like this can be bullies and they can be very intimidating. The important thing to remember is that this is also a form of over-identification, one that is covering up a lot of suffering and a lot of pain. I see this most often in emergency and humanitarian response staff who work—and burn out —in crisis situations. Have compassion, and try to find the idealist who wanted to help in there somewhere, even if it takes some looking.

Symptoms of expat aid worker madness include:

  • Acting out when new people join the team, trying to “warn” them about how impossible/difficult/corrupt/dysfunctional the office/country/government/project is.
  • Shooting down new ideas and approaches with a reference to their decades of aid work and country experience and a variation of “that’s nice, bright eyes, but that will never work here.”
  • Pointing out “there’s a pecking order,” and generally trying to enforce hierarchy and seniority without a clear professional reason.
  • Bullying, yelling at and generally intimidating co-workers and beneficiaries with a temperamental and short temper.
  • Becoming preoccupied with a grim and depressing narrative about the merits and future of aid work, and losing touch with forward-looking and solution-minded thinking.

Aid workers who have ventured into the territory of madness usually started out alright, with their priorities in the right places, but something went wrong along the way. Maybe they trusted and got burned. Maybe bureaucracy or legislation prevented them from helping someone in a painful situation. Maybe all the suffering broke their heart too many times. Whatever it is, usually a long vacation is in order—and a serious attitude readjustment, oriented towards building a foundation of gratitude through daily practice. Sometimes, it’s just time to move on.


In summary

If you notice symptoms like this in yourself, please be gentle. It’s natural to respond emotionally to the stresses of our work and the suffering we see on a daily basis.

But over-identification can lead to some bad habits, since by nature overworking and over-investing emotionally are unsustainable. I sometimes fall into the ruts of martyrdom, mothering and madness, and the best thing to do is to recognize it or to notice when friends are gently trying to point it out, laugh about it, and get some help shaking it off.

I’ve found professional coaching and some therapy to be great tools in helping me break harmful habits that affect my professional choices. I’ll write more about how to organize long-distance therapy in my next post.

Until then, remember: you are enough, you have enough, and you do enough.

Thanks for reading.


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I’d love to hear from you about the challenges you face staying healthy and happy while being of service in the world’s most challenging environments—just email me at elie at expatbackup dot com. I read every email and promise to write back.

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