You’re listening to Episode 24 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. In this episode, we’ll learn more about the self-care and improving your anti-trafficking work.
In all of our episodes so far, we’ve learned about a specific form of human trafficking and we can do about it. Of course, it’s important to keep ourselves informed and focused on specific actions we can take. But our team wanted to use this episode as a chance to pause and talk about a topic that is too often put on the backburner in any field of human rights work, like the anti-trafficking field. I’m talking about self-care.
In a field that is so focused on helping others, it can seem weird and even wrong to talk about caring for ourselves. I mean, self-care? Doesn’t that mean we’re wasting time focusing on ourselves when we could be using that time to work with victims and survivors? Well, not quite. If The Trafficking Dispatch team has emphasized anything in this podcast, it’s that human trafficking is a complex issue that comes in many forms. Because it’s such a complex issue, we need to take specific and concrete steps that will actually improve the circumstances of victims and survivors and reduce the number of human trafficking cases overall. But to create and produce these sustainable solutions, we have to think long-term so that we can work long-term.
Of course, I don’t want to make it seem as if you have to commit your every waking moment to fighting human trafficking. If our Audible Audience participants have shown us anything, it’s that even small changes in your life will eventually add up to a bigger change. But if you are considering making fighting human trafficking your full-time career, or at least a long-term commitment, then you’re going to have to confront the challenges that come with joining the long-term fight. And this is where self-care comes in.
Self-care, according to PsychCentral, is “any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health.” You’ve probably heard of the term before, whether it’s through self-care suggestions on social media or even memes that poke fun at the concept. Regardless of how you’ve encountered the term, it’s a legitimate way to help you prevent or fix some of the issues that come with working in the anti-trafficking field.
Anyone who works in any human rights advocacy or helping profession is at risk for the following “conditions”: burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary trauma. These conditions are different than just a temporary change in your motivation due to your current life circumstances. They also often go hand-in-hand, but they’re distinct conditions too. Burnout is when you become physically and emotionally exhausted by your work and start to have a negative view of what you do and even stop caring about the people you work for. It can happen for a lot of reasons, but one of the most common ones is that you feel as if your work isn’t actually helping anyone. Burnout is a slow process that often builds over time, so it can be hard to notice at first. But if you don’t prevent your exhaustion or help it if it happens, burnout can cause you to leave the anti-trafficking field forever.
Compassion fatigue is another condition that is more common in anti-trafficking advocates who work directly with victims and survivors. Compassion fatigue happens when you’re overexposed to the suffering of others. For example, therapists who work directly with survivors can undergo compassion fatigue because they’re constantly exposed to their client’s suffering and always have to respond with empathy. Over time, this constant emotional labor can wear out the therapist.
Finally, secondary trauma happens when you become traumatized by someone else’s trauma. This sounds pretty similar to compassion fatigue, except that secondary trauma hurts you more directly. As a personal example, I was once given the assignment of telling survivors’ stories in English since they were originally written in another language. Although I had been warned about the content of these stories, I didn’t take the time to prepare myself and decided to read through the drafts at a public bus stop. This was a huge mistake. The stories made me want to cry, but I couldn’t because I didn’t want to attract any attention to myself. This wasn’t a repeated issue that led to something bigger like compassion fatigue or burnout, but it does show how someone else’s pain can hurt you too if you’re not careful.
Burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary trauma can all affect you at a very personal level and can prevent you from helping others. This is why self-care is important, not selfish. If you can’t help yourself when you need it, then you won’t be able to help others, and what’s the good in that?
There’s a good metaphor for self-care in the anti-trafficking field, and I learned about it last year at the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference. One of the conference presenters, Dr. Tanisha Knighton, gave a speech called, “Put Your Oxygen Mask on First”. In her speech, she said that self-care is like an oxygen mask on an airplane. If you’ve ever flown in a plane before, you’ll know that the flight attendants always tell you to put your oxygen mask on first before helping someone else. That way, you can make sure that you’re alert enough to help others. If you try to help someone before your mask is on, there’s a good chance that you’ll pass out before you can help them, and then they’ll still be helpless and eventually pass out too. Ignoring self-care works the same way. If you try to help others while you’re still hurting, you won’t be able to help them, and they’ll still be hurting and might get even worse.
I’ve said self-care nine times already and even defined it, but how do you practice it? The first thing to do is to look at how you’re coping with any stress related to your anti-trafficking work. Are your outlets healthy? If you cope with the stress by overeating, for example, then this is something you’ll want to get help for. But if you cope in healthier ways, like meditating or doing something fun that you love, like drawing, then this is okay. The second thing to do is to look at what you’re not doing. Are you so wrapped up in your work that you don’t hang out with your family and friends? Are you neglecting sleep, healthy eating, and exercise? Are you pushing all of your hobbies aside to focus on your advocacy? If so, you’ll want to reevaluate your schedule and find time to engage in healthy and self-sustaining activities.
You can practice self-care by setting specific goals for yourself, like taking 20 minutes every day to read a good book or following a regular workout routine. You can also reach out to loved ones for support and to keep yourself accountable with your goals. Seeking professional help is also great if you think you need extra help and feedback on your goals.
But just as important as setting goals is setting boundaries. It’s okay to turn down a few anti-trafficking projects so that you can focus on your current work and don’t spread yourself too thin. It’s okay to take time away from your email, club, team, whatever, to make sure you have time to rest and recharge. For more information about the three “conditions” of advocacy work and self-care, you can check out the presentation that is linked in our shownotes. Remember, by practicing self-care, you’ll not only keep your self in the fight for the long run, you’ll also improve your overall ability to create positive change.
In our next episode, we’ll be interviewing an anti-trafficking advocate who has directly confronted human trafficking in Sierra Leone for many years. We’ll learn more about her work and also what has kept her going strong all this time. In the meantime, we have the next installment of our Audible Audience segment, which comes again from a listener in Indonesia. Alifa Salsabila is a recent graduate of the Students Opposing Slavery Summit at President Lincoln’s Cottage, which is where I met her this summer. Let’s hear what she has to say about how she fights human trafficking. Take it away, Alifa!
Alifa: Hi, I'm Alifa from Indonesia. My country has a concept of traditional/cultural heritage named batik, used to give art motifs and senses in many forms of fashion. It is difficult to make a handmade one and it does take time to have it done. But in these days of fast fashion era, the process of making batik instantly is involving children to work in the supply and distribution of batik raw materials with only little pay. Partnering with my local college student organization, I [inaudible] a building to raise awareness of child labor.
This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on October 14th at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at thetraffickingdispatch.org, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.
Conditions and self-care: http://ufsac.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Gilbert.Trudy_.11.pdf