From the looking glass of a humanitarian

Compassion, connection, and companionship can fuel us with the energy and confidence required to heal and thus reach out for help to be able to reach out to more people in need.

Volunteers serve free meals to the needy at Khulamanch in Kathmandu. (File photo)

Mona Sherpa

  • Read Time 4 min.

Every time, I read about people and their suffering, the humanitarian worker and activist inside me feels guilty for not doing enough, and my mind is on a constant time loop thinking of strategies, ideas, and opportunities to support people in need. Crisis, disasters, violence, and people’s suffering make me feel powerless. But then the humanitarian inside me gently reminds me that amidst the conundrum of adversities, I, along with thousands of humanitarian actors, can make a difference, and be there for people in need and help them face adversities with dignity and respect.

However, despite my best effort of helping people, there’s always a part of me that takes a guilt trip reminding myself that more needs to be done. This thought is often so overwhelming that in the past few years, like many of my fellow humanitarian colleagues, I too have suffered from serious burnouts and mental turmoil. But then the thought of being there for people keeps us going—often undermining our physical and mental wellbeing.

My humanitarian journey

When I started my humanitarian journey along with the step in the development world, I believed that despite the evolving conflict and fluid crisis, I had to stay put, remain resilient. I used to think that as a humanitarian actor, I was an anchor for people, an idea of self-assurance that despite the hullabaloo or juxtaposition of life, not all was lost. This wasn’t a ‘hero complex’, or I didn’t think of myself as the ‘ultimate savior’, but like many humanitarian workers, I too signed up to support and be with people, most in need, and inspire them to believe in their voice and agency in the greatest of tragedies. But lately, I have been reflecting upon our role, and critically analyzing the guilt trips that I have when I cannot help people completely or always.

The feeling of being powerless, and the constant reminder of being there for people have challenged my sanity. The role that we have undertaken is so challenging, and at times emotionally draining, that we mute the need for self-assurance, self-care, and reflection to heal, celebrate ourselves, and revive.

While having conversations with friends from the humanitarian world, one thing has become clear: We all suffer from guilty consciousness. There are instances when we are on a trip or a family vacation, and our mind is thinking of emails, or the call of action to support and help people. One of the recent examples of how a guilt trip cowers your confidence and doubles the anxiety that is boxed in one’s deepest corners was while supporting the unfolding Covid-19 crisis layered with flood and landslides. As a front-line worker, I have been coordinating with staff, technical experts, donors, vendors, and suppliers to ensure that the most required life-saving tools were meaningfully diffused to the most at need communities. The ever-growing numbers of Covid-19 cases frightened me and made me anxious. But then a question kept taunting me: “Do I tell people I am anxious?”

Like other people, even my family was impacted by Covid, my daughter was home asking what will happen next, and I had close friends who had family members with underlying health conditions to support. But then the classic humanitarian solution prescribed to us all kicked in ‘resilience’ or the thought of it, and despite the mental doldrums, I, as many of my humanitarian colleagues, continued. But I was not completely right. 

Our commitment as humanitarian workers cannot be challenged, as we have in all battles, crises, and fluid situations been on the forefront, working with and for people in need. But in the quest of humanity, we have forgotten one crucial lesson which is the foundation of all humanitarian actions: To empathize. As we empathize and work for people in greater need, we also need to take a step backward and start empathizing with ourselves, and our mental and physical needs for having gone through cyclic disasters. As bottled-up anxiety, fear, and trauma might severely impact our decision-making and often compromise the quality of assistance.

If you are a humanitarian worker, remember that it is okay to feel anxious, to flinch during a disaster, to feel afraid for yourself and your loved ones.

During conversations with my colleagues, one of the reasons I have uncovered for humanitarian workers to rely on stress as motivation to work is due to the falsified notion of being strong and not weak. But then, where is it written that humanitarian workers cannot take a step back, and discuss their feelings of anxiety, trauma, or uncertainty openly? Is discussion of your mental and physical well-being a sign of weakness? The answer is clear: One cannot fathom in fear, and model yourself in ideas and ideals of being the perfect humanitarian. As humans, we are entitled to express, emote the deepest of our feelings, and most importantly, we are entitled to seek help.

So, how do we start from here?

Be honest to thyself

The first step is being honest to oneself and abandoning the ‘hero mentality.’ There’s no doubt that our work as humanitarian workers is important. But we too need to be taken care of and supported, and while we verbalize the call for support, it wouldn’t make us weak. It is important for us to realize and remember that the strongest people that we have met in our lives are those individuals who have called upon our support, our help during a crisis. So, what makes us different? We too are the same people!

As I dealt with the maze of self-consciousness and battled with fake resilience, which was breaking my confidence, I decided to take professional help. The first few sessions were overwhelming, but they instilled a sense of evenness inside me. The realization that my mental and physical being was a priority, and if I don’t take care of myself, treat myself with respect and empathy, I would never be able to work for the people who I am determined to help and support. Also, the greatest of battles is half won when you have people around you to support, both mentally and physically. Therefore, it was with friends I felt solace, I spoke to them of my fears and anxiety, and the guilt trips that I was witnessing. Their narratives were the same, and it helped empower me and normalize the conversation of help-seeking behavior. Compassion, connection, and companionship can fuel us with the energy and confidence required to heal and thus reach out for help to be able to reach out to more people in need. If you are reading this, and if you are a humanitarian worker, remember that it is okay to feel anxious, to flinch during a disaster, to feel afraid for yourself and your loved ones, because remember, if you cannot be honest with yourself, you cannot be there for others.

Mona Sherpa is a development and humanitarian worker, feminist, and writer.

[email protected]