When Compassion Hurts: Self Care For Queer Activists of Color

Mentally and emotionally drained, I review my weekly calendar.  A page of rainbow colored blocks displays a 60- to 70-hour work week: The Office for Diversity and Inclusion; the Women’s Center; the Department of Human Development; the Family Therapy Center, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Ally (LGBTA) Support Group; Queer People of Color; research teams; professional meetings; job interviews; and finally the two classes that will conclude my doctoral coursework. I am exhausted before I even begin.  However, this has all been a labor of love. Black, queer, and female, I navigate spaces in which the intersection of my identities are overtly or covertly stigmatized on a daily basis. It has been my mission to create safe and brave spaces (environments where our perspectives can be shared and challenged without conflict) for faculty, staff, and students like myself.

Colleges and universities can be stressful environments for LGBT individuals (Connolly, 2000; Rankin, Weber, Blumenfeld, & Frazer, 2010), and are even more taxing for those who identify as LGBT students of color due to balancing multiple marginalized identities (Hwang & Goto, 2009; Rankin et al., 2010). A number of studies have shown that such individuals have experienced verbal taunts, exclusion, and sometimes violence on college campuses (Rankin, 2005; Rankin et al., 2010). Some researchers have focused on LGBT faculty members across universities and disciplines and have reported that this group has had similar experiences, irrespective of their physical location, due to the stigma of sexual and/or gender minority status (Bilimoria & Stewart, 2009). However, despite frequently confronting multiple sources of marginalization and oppression, queer individuals of color do develop strengths, resilience, and ways of coping. These mechanisms can include self-advocacy, self-restraint, spiritual coping, honesty/integrity, help-seeking, or emotional release of any kind (White, 2013).

Vaccaro and Mena (2011) tell us that queer college activists of color have to navigate their complicated social identities while dealing with competing demands and their desire to help others, which often leads to exhaustion and/or personal crisis. Their study highlighted that such individuals regularly feel frustrated or overwhelmed in their efforts to succeed academically, while simultaneously helping others. These feelings are often intensified by a lack of awareness of personal limitations, internal and external pressures to succeed, and self-sacrificing behaviors. Silently dealing with burnout and even more severe mental health crises, such as compassion fatigue and suicidal ideation, this population perceives a constant pressure to make successful change happen. In describing burnout among the general population, Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter (2001) have contended, “the three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment” (p. 399). Compassion fatigue represents a level of emotional and psychological distress and deterioration that goes beyond burnout (Sparang, Clarck, & Whitt-Woosely, 2007). As Figley (2002) has explained, “Compassion fatigue, like any other kind of fatigue, reduces our capacity or our interest of bearing the suffering of others” (p. 1434). We are only as good to others as we are to ourselves. Therefore, queer college activists of color must set limits on the responsibilities we undertake and attend to our chronic lack of self-care.

As black feminist scholar Audre Lorde (1988) has observed, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This sort of subversive self-care has risen to the top of my to-do list. Shanesha Brooks-Tatum, a blogger for The Feminist Wire, has offered guidelines for such radical and intentional self-care (p. 2):

  • Do what you love: What brings you joy?  What you’re passionate about? Take time to tap into your humanity and your creative side, every day.
  • Reevaluate where you are in your life.  Is this where you want to be?  Shape your own career path.  Academia is not the end all be all for any of us.
  • Set priorities and boundaries – without apology. Remove toxic people from your life. Block out times to take care of yourself and make self-care just as much of a priority (or perhaps even more so) than other aspects of your life.
  • Get new role models not role-martyrs. Stop glorifying women who gave it all until there was nothing left a long time ago.  Make your role models women who make time for themselves, for family, and for friendships.
  • Create a wellness manifesto and community. Hold yourself to this mantra, and check in with a community that keeps you accountable.

Mentally and emotionally drained, I review my weekly calendar. I scan the rainbow colors for the purple blocks reserved for honoring myself: therapy, mediation, Netflix, music, Facetime-ing with my family, date nights with my partner. I allocate time to be my own diversity project, so that I can provide my whole and authentic self to the battle for racial, gender, and sexual identity equality.


Bilimoria, D., & Stewart, A. J. (2009). “Don’t ask, don’t tell”: The academic climate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender faculty in science and engineering.    NWSA Journal, 21, 85-103. doi:10.1353/nwsa.0.0077

Connolly, M. (2000). “Issues for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students in traditional college classrooms”. In Toward acceptance: Sexual orientation issues on   campus, Edited by: Wall, V. and Evans, N. 109–130. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Figley, C. R. (2002). Compassion fatigue: Psychotherapists chronic lack of self-care.  Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 1433–1441. doi: 10.1002/jclp10090

Hwang, W. & Goto, S. (2009). The impact of perceived racial discrimination on the mental health of Asian American and Latino college students. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 1, 15–28. doi: 10.1037/1948-1985.S.1.15

Lorde, A. (1988).  A Burst of Light: Essays. Firebrand Books: Ann Arbor, MI.

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. and Leiter, M. 2001. Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397–422. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397

Rankin, S. R. 2005. “Campus climates for sexual minorities”. In New Directions for Student Services Edited by: Sanlo, R. L. Vol. 111, 17–24. Gender identity and sexual orientation: Research, policy and personal perspectives

Rankin, S., Weber, G., Blumenfeld, W. & Frazer, S. (2010). The state of higher education for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, Charlotte, NC: Campus Pride.

Sparang, G., Clarck, J. & Whitt-Woosely, A. (2007). Compassion fatigue, compassion satisfaction, and burnout: Factors impacting a professional’s quality of life.  Journal of Loss and Trauma, 12, 259–280. doi: 10.1080/15325020701238093

Vaccaro, A., & Mena, J. A. (2011). It’s not burnout, it’s more: Queer college activists of color and mental health. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 15, 339-367. doi:10.1080/19359705.2011.600656

Natasha CoxNatasha Cox is a third year doctoral candidate in Family Studies within the Department of Human Development. Natasha’s research focuses on informal support systems of and minority stress faced by Black LGBTQ+individuals. In 2014, Natasha was named a semi-finalist for the POINT Foundation Scholarship for LGBTQ students of merit and is the recipient of the Virginia Tech Graduate Student Service Excellence Award.

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