Bethany Dearborn Hiser "From Burned Out to Beloved" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal, I’m the Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. I want to welcome you to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. Every week our desire is to bring you either a new interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri, or perhaps even a clip of Henri Nouwen himself. Because we’re new to the world of podcasts, taking time to give us a review or a thumbs up or even share this episode will mean a great deal to us. It’ll allow us to reach more people around the world with content that continually tells us more about Henri Nouwen’s writings, his encouragement, and of course, his reminder that we are God’s beloved.
So with that said, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. I’m speaking with Bethany Dearborn Hiser, the author of a wonderful new book entitled From Burnout to Beloved: Soul Care for Wounded Healers. How you can hear the echoes of Henri Nouwen in this title. Bethany’s been a social worker, jail chaplain and justice advocate, but in this capacity she pushed herself to the brink of burnout. Stress, despair, and compassion fatigue overwhelmed her ability to function. She was exhausted. This book captures Bethany’s story of burnout, self-discovery and genuine spiritual renewal. It’s such a good and helpful book.
Bethany, I needed to read this book. Set the stage for us. Tell us what caused you to write this book?
Bethany Dearborn Hiser: To be honest, I didn’t set out to write a book. Even doing a podcast is new territory for me. As you just mentioned, I worked directly with folks experiencing sexual domestic violence and navigating the various systems of immigration and incarceration for years. And as you mentioned, I experienced my own burnout. I had to do my own digging into my own unhealthy workplace co-dependency – one of the barriers as well as other barriers that were affecting my ability to take care of myself. And I started learning about secondary trauma and how much I was being affected by the stories that I was hearing. It was incredibly helpful to connect dots for me. But I wasn’t finding something that integrated what I needed in terms of spiritual disciplines, inner healing recovery work, and secondary trauma. And also my identity as God’s beloved.
So as I was taking one step after another in my own recovery and healing I eventually began doing training for others, sharing what I was learning. I realized that I wasn’t alone in this journey and I wasn’t alone in the challenges that I was experiencing. And that other people were needing the combination of tools and resources and learnings that I was gleaning from it. The material I wrote grew and grew into a 20- page handout. And I kept writing and kept sensing that still small voice saying to me, “write!” And so I wrote for people who wouldn’t normally pick up a self-help book (like myself), and I wrote for those who are engaged on the front lines of ministry, social work, helping professions.
Karen: You targeted a faith audience within the book – though I think it’s incredibly useful for everyone, but I’m thinking of people of faith, are they particularly vulnerable to burnout? I’m curious.
Bethany: Yes. I mean, that’d be a hard thing to analyze really, but I think there’s some particularities that make people of faith vulnerable to burnout. I think sometimes when we think we are doing our work or a ministry for God we press on and are not aware maybe how it might become self-serving for us. It feels good to be the helper, right? It feels more challenging to receive help. And so I think we can think you know, we get accolades for it. We think this is so right and this is God’s heart. Isn’t that God’s call to me? This can all be very true, and yet when we lose touch with how we might also be receiving from the work and then pressing on in unhealthy ways, then we can do damage to ourselves and to others.
Karen: You are so incredibly honest about your own misconceptions. I read here: For years, I believed I shouldn’t want or need things for myself. I had a hard time allowing myself to do life-giving activities. I unconsciously thought desire was bad, wrong and should be denied if I’m to be a loving Christian woman. I interpreted the biblical invitation to deny ourselves as always denying our needs and desires. My self-denial was partly due to my interpretation of the Bible. I thought that was interesting. I mean, we can all go there.
Bethany: Yes. I mean, I think that there are theological beliefs that can unfortunately get in the way and we can twist them and I think we forget what Nouwen so beautifully reminded us of in so many of his books, but especially in Life of the Beloved that we are beloved by God. And so we think that this call to sacrifice and to lay down our lives for others means at our own expense. And sometimes it does. And we are called to be sacrificial maybe with our time or finances or maybe with our whole selves. And yet sometimes we are also gaining a sense of purpose or meeting a need for impact or success. And Nouwen talks about that as well as the desire to be looked at well, to be received well. And so you might think that we’re laying down our lives, but we’re actually receiving something too from it. You know Philippians 2:4 – Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. And Paul, in that letter, calls us to take care of ourselves and to look to our own interests as well, though sometimes the sacrifice is putting other’s needs in front of ours, even our own need for intimacy and purpose.
Karen: It sounds easy to talk about it at a distance, but as I read your book it sounded like it was a pretty difficult journey. I mean, I think I kind of grasped that you almost thought you might have to just totally move away from this calling on your life and this work you are doing well, simply because you could not drown in it. How did you? What were the steps out of this? Take us along that journey a little bit.
Bethany: Yes. I mean, definitely it was a painful, painful journey and there have been multiple steps and I feel like I’m still in recovery. I think people who are in recovery from substances say that they’re in recovery for their lives. And so I think that my hope for a framework for me actually in my own journey is to learn about recovery. And actually one of the beginning steps was learning about secondary trauma, largely from the author of a book called Trauma Stewardship. His name is Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. I took a class from her at the University of Washington called Self-care for Social Workers. And that really opened my eyes to how secondary trauma was impacting me. And then the second big piece was the Genesis Process, which is a relapse prevention program, and here we had to do our own work. I was being trained in that to help other people. Yet as a part of the training, we did our own work and sharing with other people and looking at our own false beliefs and receiving prayer. And I realized how co-dependent I was with the people that I was working with and with my own work and my workaholism. So I think those two things combined really started helping me to turn and say, oh, I’m not doing well actually. You know, I thought I was strong. I thought I was fine, that I’m here to help others. And yet I’m not okay. I’m actually quite exhausted and I’m not functioning very well. And I need my own care.
Karen: I would just like you to explain what exactly is secondary trauma. What does it mean?
Bethany: Yes. So the primary trauma would be the trauma that someone experiences to themselves. Secondary trauma would be hearing about somebody, hearing from somebody who’s experienced that abuse. And it actually can lead to very similar symptoms to PTSD: of sleeplessness, hypervigilance and inability to embrace complexity. Kind of a way that trauma impacts us. So, thinking black and white, inability to slow down are getting to us in a variety of ways. But the impact of secondary trauma is sometimes unnoticed and yet has some impacts and can lead to high level of stress and impacting our bodies as well.
Karen: It’s so good to be able to name something isn’t it? Once you hear it, you go, oh, that’s what’s been happening to me. That’s it. And then you said another phrase, you said ‘workplace codependency’. Can you just tell me what you mean by that?
Bethany: Yes, so I have a whole chapter on it in my book because I started by working with women who are experiencing domestic violence. And so it’s a common understanding with social workers to be talking about codependency in intimate partner relationships. And yet I never thought, and most social workers don’t think, that they’re codependent in their work. But I started realizing how my ability to be okay and when other people were being okay was not necessarily out of love and out of empathy but out of my own needs to feel better. So that impacts my work with other people in the way that I want someone else, I want them to change so that I feel better. That’s a significant difference, although it’s subtle, because it can look the same in what I’m doing, you know, being caring, saying yes to somebody who’s in need. And yet if I’m doing that for myself that I feel better, that’s codependency in the workplace.
Karen: That’s really great to understand. There was one other term I found in your book that I think really resonated with me too. It was ‘moral injury’. All these kinds of things compounded, give me a little sense of your experience with moral injury.
Bethany: So moral injury was actually something that I kind of came across as I was doing research for the book and I hadn’t heard of myself. But it’s usually talked about, or initially was talked about, in terms of people who are working with war veterans who had experienced war and it’s the psychological and behavioral aftermath of exposure to events. So there’s a similar component to PTSD. And yet, what’s key… the difference is that you’re doing it; it’s a response that goes against their individual values. So it can happen in workplaces you know. Even right now with the pandemic and what’s being asked of so many health care providers is they are having to make decisions I imagine, and to work at a pace that sometimes might be challenging. They want to provide more care for individuals but they are unable to provide it. So that can cause damage to themselves. That can be distracting to themselves when they’re not able to perform their job in a way that they want to perform it. And so for war, when we’re called to perform a duty that goes against our moral standings and beliefs it causes sort of injury inside of us.
Karen: I loved your illustration of firefighters rushing into the fire and then coming out with ash on them, with soot on them because that’s where they’ve been. I can’t get over the timeliness of your book here. We are in the midst of this pandemic and I’m sure there’s many, many, thousands and thousands and thousands of caregivers right now that are carrying the dust of where they’ve been, where they’re caring, what’s being demanded of them. You have so much to offer in this, honestly. I’m just thrilled for you that you did it at the time you did. And obviously you didn’t know a pandemic was coming, but you spoke out in a way that is so wonderfully helpful.
Now I confess when somebody comes along and says, oh, you need to take care of yourself. You know you’re so busy and they can see that and they offer that. That’s sometimes just so incredibly annoying. You go, oh that’s another thing to add to my list of all the things I’ve got to do. Help us to go into the self-care part of this, because that is what’s so rich in this book. There’s really tools that people can be introduced to and can be helped with. Tell us a little bit about how we go from being annoyed that somebody said, you’ve got to be taking care of yourself, to actually do that.
Bethany: Yes, that’s a great question. And I resonate so much with that as I’m sure you know now after reading my book. I used to think self-care was just something I didn’t deserve, it was just going to get nailed down or just things that didn’t resonate with me necessarily. And it was just about physical things that I did. And it felt like one more thing to do that I didn’t have time for, I didn’t deserve, or just didn’t feel right in the face of so much suffering around me. And so for me I really had to reorient to soul care, to taking care of myself into what are those barriers that affect my ability to take care of myself. And to seeing that actually, if I am more grounded in my identity as a beloved one, that I live and breathe and move out of that place. And I interact with people in a different way. So I’m actually better able to be present to the person who is in front of me when I am living in a grounded way than I am when I’m all set up and I’m working, I’m thinking that I’m doing things that are well and healthy. So it’s not necessarily just doing things differently in my life, but it’s a different posture in which I live my life.
Karen: It sounds to me, even as we’re talking about it – I can’t help but ask you, tell me a little bit about your journey with Henri Nouwen. How has his writing helped you? What did he open up for you?
Bethany: Hard to know even where to begin when you think of that because Nouwen has demonstrated to me so beautifully an intimacy with God as well as a willingness to be vulnerable and accept one’s brokenness. And also, heart for people who are oppressed and marginalized by society. So that’s in Life of the Beloved, talking about being the beloved and becoming the beloved. I mean, actually I’ve just been listening to the podcast and you’ve been playing some of those talks that he gave about becoming the beloved and the way that he talks about being chosen, being blessed, broken, and given to people. He’s saying that it’s okay to be ourselves. So that not only is it okay, but God knows that we don’t have it all together and he comes, still chooses us and blesses us. And as we are broken, we are also given to others.
Another one of the keys that has stuck with me from Nouwen’s writing is the movement from solitude to community, to ministry. And, you know that has given me permission to say, I need time alone. I need time with silence, connection with God and that’s not selfish. I think that reorientation again from self-care to soul care and say it’s not selfish to say that I need care and that I need time to connect with God. But I also need community, we need support as caregivers and people who are on the front lines. Just like people in general, we need support from each other and then we are also able to be better present in ministry. And sometimes it’s not that direct of a flow you know. Our community is people that we also are loving and ministering with so that there’s a co-laboring and mutual transformation that can happen. And yeah, I accept now that’s the emphasis that we need: we need care in those ways. We need solitude; we need community and we are then able to also love people around us in a more healthy way.
Karen: I’m delighted. You have honored him, I think, in the title of your book, but obviously there’s little pieces within the book where I get a feeling for how Henri has impacted your life and helped you. And there’s nothing better in the world than be able to know you’re God’s beloved. In a way it’s such hard work. I think one of the great weaknesses is our tendency towards self-hatred when in fact God looks on us and says we’re beloved. And God doesn’t ask us to be anything else but beloved. But we keep thinking, well, do I need to dance for you? Do I need to perform, do I need to do a bunch of stuff? But what I found so interesting as I was reading your book was the many very healthy practices and exercises you have woven into every single chapter. Wonderful, wonderful resources of books that you’ve recommended. But also, you know, you’ve been generous. It’s a generous book. It’s one which I will gladly – I already thought of several people that I want to give it to. But it’s a generous book full of good ideas, full of how to, in a sense, feed that inner life. I sense that you’ve gone to some rules and some possibilities that probably weren’t part of your first tradition as a believer in Christ. But you really seem to me like you’re entering in. I mean, tell me some of the things that are helpful for you, what’s working for you.
Bethany: You’re very right and perceptive that I’ve kind of grown in my own practices. And again, not just as the things to add, but just as simple practices and ways to ground myself throughout the day. I think Centering Prayer is one that has been very helpful for me as someone who loves to do and to be successful and to feel like I’m helpful and productive – to say, stop and be still in God’s presence. You don’t need to do anything right now. I love you just for who you are and just be still and allow yourself to be in the presence of your creator. As well, there’s a practice connected to Sunday prayer called Welcoming prayer that was also developed by contemplative outreach where we practice in the moment, acknowledging what we’re feeling, welcoming God into our emotions. And then letting go of those needs for security, safety, power and control, affection and esteem. And so just even recognizing those are normal human healthy needs. Yet we can be invited to surrender them to God in every moment of the day. So those are a couple of practices.
You know, I have two little girls. I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old, so moments of stillness are hard to come by. And yet I find that even when I have five minutes or 10 minutes of quiet, I’m better able to interact and be present to them, to whatever comes at me in the day knowing that I’m held and cared for as I also seek to care for them and for other people.
Karen: One of the things I enjoyed about your book is where, when you come to the end, you talk about thriving. Thriving is a great word. And in that portion of the book you give the tools for finding the rhythms of rest and renewal. And I mean, that’s one of the things that you’ve just hit on now by these two kinds of prayer. I just thought there was something in that, that I really appreciated. And it was- start to try and take a little bit and do it daily. And then you can think out farther. What has been your experience because it’s so easy to change back? You know, change is really the question at the root of this. You came to burnout and you knew you needed to change, but how do you not relapse?
Bethany: Yes, I mean, it’s interesting. So the daily practice idea actually came from the Trauma book. We talked about morning quiet time or the different rhythms. And yet there’s not just a spiritual benefit of connecting, but it’s an emotional, psychological benefit of having these daily practices. And so when I asked the author, Laura, in my class, How do you not accumulate trauma? she said, What’s your daily practice?- do it twice a day. And so that was her kind of remedy. For me not accumulating trauma was, make sure you’re grounding yourself. You’re creating space to let go of what you’re carrying. And even though she wasn’t talking about it from a necessarily Christ-centered perspective, just for me it is a surrendering invitation.
And so yes, that movement. I had to have a reorientation for me that it’s not just something to do that I should feel stressed about. Even reorienting of Sabbath, that it’s a day of delight, we get to choose what delights us, what calls us and delight in God and experiencing God’s delight in us. And there’s so much freedom in that. And there’s so much just living into that truth that God moves outside of us too; that God is not just dependent on us, that God moves outside of us. So I think there’s a rhythm of a Sabbath rest and a rhythm of daily rest. I also love the Ignatian practice of examining in the evening – to look back at the day and to see, Where was I? Was I drawn to God’s presence with me? Was I experiencing a lack where I moved away?
And I just reflect in that way on my day. Another simple exercise that takes five minutes sometimes at the end of the day, something I talk about in the book, is choosing one thing, like you just said, that you can commit to for a certain time period. What works for your life, your stage of life, what’s going on for you and your personality that’s manageable. Because sometimes we can push in like the New Year; you can choose these lofty goals or resolutions. And then we get disappointed and we revamp and we think, oh, I can’t, you know, I can’t do that. That’s too hard. And so just choosing small steps with change. And maybe even in terms of the relapse question is telling somebody else about it, having support around you, having connection and community again, around our desire to change.
Karen: Well you’re a great blessing to me. I have loved the book. I’m going to be passing it on. I’m going to be encouraging our listeners to buy it. Yet, what timing! You must find yourself going, oh my goodness, God, did you ever go ahead of me in this! The reality that you’d come out with a book on soul care for wounded healers? And right now we are surrounded by people of whom so much is being asked. And it’s easy to be burned out. Henri Nouwen had so much to say to caregivers. We have a number of other books available on those subjects because he really understood what it was he could offer. And he wanted to offer that. Your book is rich and it’s a treat. And I’m so, so glad, so honored to have the chance to chat with you.
And for people listening you can go to our website and there’ll be the links to the book and links to Bethany’s site. And I would encourage you. I would say all of us know somebody who’s burning out right now in the task of caregiving. Sometimes it’s just at home because suddenly you’re doing so much more. And one thing about the book, it’s an easy book. It’s a very easy book to read. It’s one where it makes such good sense. But then you get to some very practical things and you give those as exercises and you can take it in little chunks and it’s not a big, heavy duty book of, I must do this and I must do that. I just found it life-giving and I’m so grateful that you took time to write it, thank you. Thank you, Bethany.
Bethany: Thank you. That means a lot. I really wanted it to be something that was life-giving, that kind of shepherded people on their own journey of exploration and healing, that didn’t re-traumatize people. Just kind of a fellow person on the journey in work that we need to do.
Karen: You know, it’s interesting because this is the thing that caught me. I’m a workaholic. I think there’s even a fabulous quote you say about yourself. You wrote, “When I view needing help as a sign of weakness, I perpetuate my Messiah complex and disempower others”. And I just thought there’s such honesty in the book, that’s why, in a sense, people can dive in and go, if this girl got help, I can get help. And I think you’re very honest about the journey. So thank you so much for talking with us today. Good to have you on.
Hi folks. I just want to thank you for taking time to listen. I hope you came away from this interview with Bethany as moved as I was. This is such a timely book here in the midst of a pandemic that’s impacting us all. Burnout is a reality for so many on the front lines of care.
I want to encourage you to get Bethany’s book it’s full of good advice and helpful practices that you can bring into your life. If you did enjoy this podcast again, we’d be so grateful if you’d take time to give it a stellar review or a thumbs up, or even share it with your friends and family .As well you’ll find links in the show notes for our website and any content resources or books discussed in the interview, and even a link to books to get you started just in case you’re new to the writings of Henri Nouwen. Thank you again for listening, until next time.
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