Like Walking Through Water Without Getting Wet, Part 1

We'd love to know whether you agree or disagree with this interesting assertion:

Those who are best at true peacebuilding are also the most at risk for burnout, depression and other negative effects of peacebuilding work that would threaten to pull them off the field.


What about being tough, experienced and equipped to deal with all the challenges that 'normal' people can't cope with? After all, not everyone is cut out for this work. Very few are, in fact.

Yes, I agree with the need for mental toughness, no question. But I agree much more with the initial assertion.


The False Message We Hear and Believe

I often feel like we all (which includes the onlooking world, the peacebuilding & humanitarians sectors, and even ourselves) expect peacebuilders to do their work without being traumatized, whether directly or vicariously, in the same way that we'd expect people to walk through a waist-high flood of water without getting wet.


That's ridiculous, and impossible.

But this seems to be the subconscious belief most of us hold once we dig below the surface and talk about what we really believe about post-traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, intervention, counseling, or our general attitude toward any kind of help.

Yes, of course we need the qualities of experience combined with toughness in order to survive...absolutely! But being tough mentally and being tough emotionally are two different things.


Mental vs. Emotional Toughness

The problem comes when we value 'toughness,' thinking we need it to survive, but we confuse mental toughness with emotional toughness. Before you know it, we are sacrificing that soft lining around our hearts, the one that makes us deeply empathetic...and vulnerable...and open to being hurt on a very deep level.

These emotional attributes are actually great for positive peacebuilding, and they work precisely because we don't wrap ourselves in all kinds of protective emotional armor when in the field.

Yet we are well aware of the emotional dangers we face, and we won't be caught being naive about them.

So how can we combine mental toughness with continued emotional vulnerability? Is this combination even possible?

I believe it is, and my experience has led me to believe that the most effective, the most 'human' peacebuilders, have found a functional balance between the two. The open-hearted risks they take in their work leave them open to emotionally and even mentally wounding. And they often are wounded, even though they're not idealistic or naive. It's simply the price they're willing to pay for the work they do (a price not every peacebuilder is willing to pay, by the way). The effects of this sacrifice of sustained vulnerability is seen in the wounds and scars they bear.

This doesn't make them bad or ineffective or incapable peacebuilders. In fact, I believe it's quite the opposite, that those who have this kind of capacity are amazing peacebuilders.

At the same time, their wounds also need important attention.


Tough-Minded, Open-Hearted

It's similar in the world of mediation and negotiation, isn't it? Those leaders who take great risks for a dialogue with the enemy -- the ones who really stick their necks out politically and socially -- are the ones who we remember as the brave heroes without whom peace wouldn't have been possible. They are also the ones with much to lose, however, since they take the risk of being vilified by both sides even when the outcome is eventually positive!

Courageous leadership: Always aiming to reach out

Courageous leadership: Always aiming to reach out

The world might see a strong, fearless risk-taker who took a gamble that eventually paid off. But I would venture that there is a lot of woundedness behind the scenes.

Yet that's what courageous leadership does: It takes wise, calculated, well-informed and eventually bold risks from a place of competence while remaining soft and supple enough to reach out to all sides with compassion and empathy, for the good of the whole community or nation.

In my opinion, the best peacebuilders know how to work both oars on that boat equally well.

Our job at Petra is to tend to your wounds as best we can. If it's beyond our capacity, we'll help you find someone who can.

And we aim to walk with you until you're in a place of effective, ass-kicking peacebuilding again.