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Human rights advocates often find themselves in positions to nurture and care about the well-being of those around them. But prolonged exposure to oppression and human rights violations can take a toll on their own bodies, minds and souls, too. Self-care is one of the most important aspects of human rights advocacy. Not only does it allow human rights advocates to continue their work, modeling healthy self-care can help those they’re trying to serve as well.

Cumulative Trauma

Human Rights Advocates are human beings, too, and often have their own instances of trauma and pain to work through. Even when they’ve done their best to address personal healing, continued exposure to the oppression and trauma of others can trigger old pains and unhealed wounds. In addition, the utilization of empathy skills can predispose HRAs to taking on the experiences and pain of others. Over time, this can lead to a build-up of unhealed trauma in their own bodies, minds and souls – otherwise known as cumulative trauma. It’s important for those human rights advocacy community to be able to identify the signs of cumulative trauma, so that they can address it for themselves, as well as help colleagues and co-workers seek help when needed. For those engaged in human rights advocacy, there are many signs that cumulative trauma may be present. Some of the most identifiable warning signs may include: 
  • Depression and excessive anxiety;
  • Loss of patience and compassion for self and others, sometimes known as compassion fatigue;
  • Overuse of drugs or alcohol, or developing and nurturing addictions; 
  • Loss of sense of self;
  • Increased bias development and engagement in permanent “othering”, particularly when coupled with an inability to work through these issues;
  • Feelings of being isolated and alone in their human rights advocacy journey;
  • A general feeling of burnout and disinterest in personal passions; and
  • Harboring hatred and resentment, or an inability to work through these feelings.

No matter what, as human rights advocates, our health and well-being is of the utmost importance. 

If these signs are present for you, it may be time to speak with a counselor, life coach, spiritual leader or mental health professional to help you regain life balance and work through your own pain and experiences. If you are suffering, please seek help right away. You deserve it. If you or someone you know is in a mental health or addiction crisis, please call 9-8-8. If you or someone you know is in an emergency, please call 9-1-1. 

Self Care Techniques

Self-care can help to prevent the build-up of cumulative trauma and ensure human rights advocates also have the opportunity to reach their own unique highest and fullest potential a human being. Remember, being a human rights advocate is part of who someone is, but not their entire identity. These techniques and tools provide a starting point for self-care, but it’s important for human rights advocates to explore many options to find what works best for them. For some people, that might be a weekly massage or acupuncture session, regular counseling, or even a weekly nature hike. The following are examples that are known to be among the most common best practices. 

Healthy Routines

Human rights advocates are often called to provide their full attention to important matters taking place throughout their communities. But in order to do that well, HRA’s have to make sure they have taken care of themselves first. Developing daily, weekly or monthly routines allows HRA’s to be intentional in creating healthy habits for their own health and well-being. Some examples include:

  • A daily routine that encompasses time and space to focus on one’s own body, mental and spiritual well-being before focusing on others. Such routines should make space for physical, mental and emotional activities that have nothing to do with advocacy work; 
  • A regular routine that allows time to ensure your their “house” or affairs are in order, including basic chores, grocery shopping and financial management; 
  • A regular routine that sets aside or ensures time specifically to build, develop and nurture personal, non-work-related relationships, such as with family, friends and intimate partners;
  • Establishing hobbies and regularly achieving annual goals for personal and professional growth and development; and
  • A routine that allows for the exploration and experiencing the joys of the world, such as going to concerts and events, traveling, exploring nature, and doing things that are interesting, joyful and bring about personal happiness and contentment. 

Professional Venting

Professional venting is an important tool for people in the helping fields, and particularly for human rights advocates. This is a process of expressing our feelings without limitation, and then intentionally recentering our thoughts, so that we can take action from our true beliefs and values. Professional venting normally takes place in private with a trusted partner, friend or colleague who has agreed to be a venting partner and who assures confidentiality. When this is not possible, seeking the aid of a counselor is recommended.

Tips for Those Needing to Vent

Ask for permission to vent. This allows the listener to prepare themselves to be in the role of a sounding board, rather than absorbing or processing the feelings and communications you about to express. 

State your intention for yourself and your professional venting partner. The purpose of venting is to get rid of, go through and process all of the negative energy, thoughts and feelings that have built up. It’s important for both you and the listener to reassert that your statements are not your conclusions about a person, issue, or situation, but that you are knowingly and intentionally processing your negative thoughts and emotions to achieve a better place of understanding and action. 

Don’t try to control your language during the venting process. Once you have created the safe place for venting, it’s important to allow the process to occur. As you release the negative thoughts and emotions, you will likely begin to regain your composure, and your core beliefs and values will help to recenter you. 

Allow yourself to gather your thoughts. You may achieve a better place of insight and understanding immediately during the venting process. However, it’s important to let things settle. When you’re ready to move forward, let your partner know that you are ready to take some time to consider your thoughts and actions for next steps. 

Thank your professional venting partner. After you have completed your venting process, it’s important to officially close out the session. Thanking your professional partner is an important acknowledgement of the time and space they have helped to create for you and lets them know the session has ended. 

Self-evaluate. Once you’ve had a chance to process the issue or situation after your professional venting session, check in with yourself to confirm your professional venting session has helped you to recenter, gain clarity and understanding and operate from a place of your normal beliefs and values. If your professional venting session has not helped you, it may be necessary to seek professional help to help you work through your negative thoughts, beliefs and emotions. 

Follow up. Reconnecting with your professional venting partner after you have successfully come to a conclusion or taken action on the issue or situation can help to close the communication loop. It provides reassurance to your venting partner that you were truly venting, and not beginning to operate from a place of negative energy, thoughts and beliefs. It also allows you to mark the milestone and move forward from a place of growth. 

Tips for Venting Partners

Human rights advocates might also find themselves in the role of the professional venting partner. If you are the professional venting partner, there are few tips that can help you in this role. 

Agreeing to hold the space. As a professional venting partner, our role is simply to create a private, confidential safe space for processing. It’s important that we only agree to be a professional venting partner when we are physically, mentally and emotionally able to do so. It is always okay to say no, or to set a future time when you are more likely to be able to do so. 

Refrain from processing. To best of our ability, it’s important that we try not to absorb or process the communication ourselves. Remember, in the professional venting setting, we are not there to discuss the issues, but to simply to hold the space for venting to occur. 

Get permission to provide advice or input. Remember, in a professional venting session we’re not necessarily engaged in a two-way communication. We’re allowing the person venting to express themselves. If you do have a piece of advice or guidance that you strongly feel can help the venter, ask for permission to provide it. This allows the person to be in a place of absorption and listening rather than expression. Remember, they are also allowed to say no.

Withhold judgement. When we agree to be a professional venting partner, we acknowledge the person is intentionally processing their feelings, thoughts and emotions in order to achieve a better place of insight and understanding. We also recognize the words and thoughts they express are not necessarily their true beliefs, but a manifestation of their temporary response to the issue or situation. We understand the venting process is an intentional process for learning and growth. 

Accept gratitude. Professional venting sessions can play a major role in the growth and development of friends, partners, and colleagues. Holding the space for professional venting is an important role and is worthy of appreciation.

Ask for follow up. After some time, it’s important to follow up with the person who engaged in the venting process to check in on their conclusions and overall well-being. Acknowledging and congratulating them on their progress is helpful. In addition, if the person shows signs of continuing to be stuck, it is a good time to recommend they seek professional help. 

Counseling and Coaching

Professional counseling, mental and emotional health services, and health and wellness coaching can also be useful services for human rights advocates. These services are generally available in local areas, and national resources can often be found online. Working with a professional can help to ensure human rights advocates maintain their own health and well-being while fulfilling their role. Dialing 2-1-1 can often be helpful in finding a local provider. 

Online Tips and Tools

Searching for other self-care tips and tools on the internet is also a great way to find self-care techniques. In addition to formal counseling and coaching services, many people find holistic opportunities such as massage therapy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, or other complementary services beneficial. Similar to counseling and coaching, these services are normally available locally, or can be found through national online searches using keyword searches.


Taking a sabbatical – time off from the role as a human rights advocate – can also provide important opportunities for personal growth, self-reflection and rejuvenation. For those that find they need to “refill their cups”, a sabbatical can help provide this opportunity.

Create or Join a Network or Group of Like-Minded Individuals

Human rights advocates often find themselves being the lone voice – even among peers with whom they generally find agreement and common causes. One of the most important things HRAs can do to maintain their own health and well-being, as well as avoid common pitfalls, is to connect and be surrounded by other human rights advocates who understand the uniqueness of their role, and are able to provide friendship, support, accountability and connection.

Remember – even though it may seem like it sometimes – you are not alone. 

Key Pitfalls to Avoid

Avoiding pitfalls that can take human rights advocates off track is also an important part of self-care. The following are a few of the most common pitfalls for human rights advocates to avoid whenever possible.

Public Venting

While professional venting is strongly encouraged, public venting (particularly on social media) can be counter-productive to one’s goals. Those who HRAs are likely trying to reach may misconstrue their venting as their actual opinion or conclusion, and can become angry and defensive with HRAs, or afraid or ashamed to engage with them further.


Tableization is a term used to describe a common phenomenon for issue advocates and activists who have struggled hard to gain a place at the table. When tableization occurs, advocates and activists may find themselves losing sight of their original mission and goal and begin working instead to maintain their space at the table. In some cases, they may even begin to allow forms of oppression against others – as well as their own group – in order to satisfy the status quo. Human rights advocates are called upon to support one another in rising above the pitfall of tableization. 


Martyrdom is a common phase of human development in which a person recognizes their own unique gifts and talents, but also comes to believe they must sacrifice their own well-being – including economic security, intimate relationships, general enjoyment and entertainment, and other facets of life – in order to meet their mission or purpose. Human rights advocates must also recognize their own value as human beings worthy of the same rights, basic needs and opportunities they’re working to secure for others. Experiencing the positive results of work-life balance, identifying and setting healthy boundaries, and developing a commitment to self-care can help to alleviate martyrdom phases. 

Unconditional Partisanship

While it’s always okay for human rights advocates to have a political party preference, it’s critical to remember that – at the writing of this training – both major political parties in the United States make at least some use of oppression and authoritarianism in their policies. It is important for human rights advocates to amplify and celebrate human centered policies – as well as sound the alarm or engage in escalation techniques against human rights violations – regardless of the originating political party. 


It’s important to remember that “having a conversation” is not the end goal of human rights advocacy. HRAs are called to empower learners by engaging in education and asking for specific changes. Gimmicks or demonstrations that do not provide a clear call-to-action can backfire. For example, in the early 2000’s a campaign known as the “Moo” campaign was launched in Colorado Springs. The goal of the campaign was to raise awareness about LGBTQ people by introducing the community to Norman, the dog that moos. He was just like other dogs except he mooed like a cow. Ideally, everyone loved puppies like Norman. Recognizing that he was just a little different would encourage people to be more accepting of LGBTQ people and move them towards promoting equal rights. Except, it didn’t work. Research after the campaign revealed that the gimmick did not move people’s thinking and beliefs. Rather, it further polarized and cemented people into their current positions. 

Education and raising awareness about human rights violations, their impacts and proposed solutions are all integral to achieving the human rights advocacy mission. 

“Means Well” Advocacy

There are many people who have excellent and well-meaning causes. However, many “means well” advocacy agendas tend to overlook the impacted stakeholders and focus on the movement leader’s personal prescription for how another person should live their lives. 

For example, a group might want to encourage people to stop smoking by starting a petition to stop the sale of cigarettes at large chain stores. However, this policy proposal would also have a disparate impact on those who choose to smoke, and particularly for those who choose cigarettes as a form of medication or harm reduction. While helping people who want to stop smoking do so is a noble goal, this strategy is not human rights advocacy; In fact, it could be seen as a form of oppression and authoritarianism – particularly if the group’s members are not stakeholders themselves (i.e. they do not smoke). 

Calling Out “Privilege”

The current use of “privilege” in modern contexts is widely misused and can even cause revictimization for people with unhealed trauma. It’s common today for some activists and advocates who focus on any particular group of people’s experiences to say that those who are not within those group’s identifiers are “privileged”. While other people may not experience the same trauma as members of that particular group, all human beings experience traumas. Calling out “privilege” can often have the following negative consequences:

  • Devaluing the trauma and oppression a person may have experienced outside of the particular group’s identifiers; 
  • Devaluing the accomplishments and experiences of those within the group identifiers who have overcome marginalization and disparities; 
  • Devaluing basic standards of equality, equity, accessibility and inclusion by equating them with “privilege” rather than focusing on the need to ensure all people are able to be treated with higher standards; 
  • Causing guilt and shame with no opportunity to make amends; and 
  • Leading learners to believe they have inherent privilege, without a clear or specific call-to-action for a policy or system change. 

The role of human rights advocates is to educate and inspire learners towards a specific policy or system change. Generally speaking, calling out “privilege” does not consistently lead to this outcome.

Other Pitfalls

As HRAs move throughout their human rights advocacy journey, they are likely to become aware of other potential pitfalls for themselves and others. Helping other human rights advocates understand and avoid issues that can take them off track is an important part of the HRAs role and self-care overall. 


Check your baseline knowledge and explore a few questions to prepare you for your journey as a human rights advocate. You can answer these questions in your head, say them out loud, or type them in. If desired, you can also print your answers, and/or enter your email address to have them sent to you for future reference.