Climbing the mountain of international development (Washington, D.C.)
I remember when I climbed mount Ramelau, in Timor-Leste, back in Protected content .
I was happy but, by the time I reached the top, I was tired and a bit unsure of what it really meant to be there, except for the thrill of getting up at 3 am, making it all the way to the summit and, of course, all the indescribable beauty around me.
Climbing that mountain was hard, as it was hard to become an international development worker and complete several assignments in different countries.
I found purpose in international development when I was 32 years old and left behind a successful professional life in my home country. I also left behind my partner at the time, my friends, family and two dogs. Some “survived” the distance. Some didn’t.
In my first assignment in Guinea Bissau, I remember being totally in love with everything! The country, the people, the job, the bread that was sold in buckets by the side of the road, the heat, the dance…
However, what went up eventually came down and the fall was harder than I expected. On top of that I faced many personal dilemmas as well as a lot of compassion fatigue, which I was unable to identify because I did not know (at all) what it was.
Studies show that more than half of international development workers are afflicted by stress, anxiety and other forms of psychological distress. Based on my own experience, I would dare to say that the real percentage of stressed out- and possibly burnt out-international development professionals is even higher than that.
Just for the sake of it, let’s name 3challenges :
1 - Challenging environment: post conflict zones, unstable governments, a population affected by trauma, poor health facilities… you name it!
2 - Distance from your close network: friends, families, your therapist, your yoga class, your favorite coffee shop.
3 - Heavy and uncertain workload: it’s really quite common that you need to reinvent your job description almost every day, trying to adapt it to the culture, the communities’ needs and, especially, their willingness to engage and accept the agenda coming from the institution you work with.
Now, you will probably feel that people around you live much more difficult lives than yours, so are you really worthy of finding help to address your stress management & connecting with your purpose? Yes, you are. And you’ll be so much better at doing your job if you do.
After 7 years of stress and joy as an international development worker and almost 2 years of intensive coaching and conflict mediation training and practice, I now help international development workers who struggle with stress, demotivation and/or isolation to build resilience and thrive, especially while on assignment.
The main tool that I use is coaching and here are 3 reasons why it works:
1. Becoming aware of the challenges is really the first step to overcome them (or to better manage them).
I know, this is a cliché, but it is very true. There’s even a famous Einstein quote on this, saying that “problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them”. Coaching is all about becoming more aware of what you feel, learning exactly what you want and why you want it. A good coach won’t let you off the hook before you are crystal clear about your motivations, struggles and desires.
2. Talking about it makes all the difference in the world.
You might think you’ve read enough, know enough and have been around long enough to know what’s better for you. You probably have. But what happens when you talk to yourself over and over again about the same struggles? Does it help you or does it make you even more confused? There’s something called rumination, which basically means that you continuously think about the various aspects of situations that upset you without really finding a way out. Talking to another human being about it makes all the difference in the world, especially when the other human being is skilled and trained on how to ask you the right questions, i.e. the questions that will provoke insights and help you gain clarity.
3. Setting up a realistic action plan might actually lead you to change something significant in your life.
Yes… change is hard. But not trying to change is even harder. Maybe you won’t reach 100% of your goals, but how does 70% sound like? If you have 20% confidence in yourself at work to begin with, for example, and you reach 70% confidence by the end of a 3 months coaching process isn’t that a great investment?
The secret to be able to change is defining small steps and establishing those steps that work for you! Coaching will help you “smart”en (specific+ measurable +achievable +relevant +time-bound) each one of the steps.
If you are an international development worker and you feel stressed, look for help. Either with me or with another skilled professional: go get help!
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