Why is it such a crime to be an emotional humanitarian?

I’m an emotional person. My star-sign is Cancer, who are apparently notoriously emotional; all crabby and feisty claws on the outside with a soft underbelly, vulnerable to harsh words and fishmonger’s knives. For as long as I remember I’ve been that way; it’s a part of myself that I have found hard to accept as anything but weak for a very long time.

Humanitarians don’t cry. Humanitarians see other people suffering all day long and remain impassive. Humanitarians listen to strangers, their co-workers, their lovers and their friends describe the turmoil and the torment they have suffered at the hands of others, and the hands of Mother Nature, and in people’s stories and remain impassive. They have a job to do, and that job is professional. There’s no room for crying. To cry is to be emotional, and to be emotional is to be unprofessional, and to be unprofessional is to fail.

One evening, a colleague of mine and I stood on a balcony in Madagascar admiring the beautiful views across the rooftops of Antananarivo. After a few moments I noticed tears falling down his face. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me that he was thinking that it wasn’t fair for a country with such beauty and with such inspiring, intelligent people as our Malagasy colleagues to know such poverty; For its people to be denied opportunities that they so richly deserved simply because of the failings of their systems, their climate and their leaders. He was crying because the world was unfair on a colossal level and Madagascar screamed the fact into his face for the first time in his life.

A friend once told me how she had undertaken anthropology work in Vietnam. She recalled days sat with women describing their lives during the war and their lives now, and she wept as they told her their stories. She told me that some of the stories they told her made her feel so desperate to take their pain away, so saddened about the cruelties men can inflict on each other, there was no other way to process the information except through her tears.

I cried when a mother in Syria carrying her child came over to me to ask if I could provide baby milk. I told her that I couldn’t but asked how old her child was so that I could refer her to a service that could support her. She told me her child was three, but her 3-year old was smaller than my one year old nephew. Her baby was skinny, disinterested in interaction and terribly pale. With my colleagues we walked them to an infant and young child feeding clinic – the only one we knew of – which was closed for the day. As the mother walked away from me, I felt as though I had been punched and I cried, because I couldn’t be professional and do my job to help.

I cried after undertaking an assessment in Liberia of the worst slum I have ever seen in my life. I was asked to provide emergency sanitation for families quarantined as possible Ebola contacts. I worked with colleagues through the night to devise a response plan and pass it through the various echelons of decision making. I cried when I was told no, we could not respond, because of larger organisational considerations that I was not – and would not be – party to.

Emotional

If you want to be a humanitarian, best get yourself a stunt double for the emotional parts (credit: memegenerator)

I cried when after months of work supporting Jordanian colleagues to design and create a children’s club, I was invited to a caravan one afternoon to find 30 small boys, dressed in uniform t-shirts and hats enjoying a game about water conservation. I was overwhelmed with joy, both for the children who loved their t-shirts but were too busy enjoying the activities to talk to me much, and for my colleagues who saw their hard work translate into something powerful and real.

These people – including myself – were not unprofessional, nor were they weak. They were being human. Because I cry, I’m labelled as being ‘too emotional’. I’ve been given this feedback multiple times by the same person; my manager. It seems that if I connect emotionally with the work I’m doing – out of sorrow, out of frustration, out of empathy, or out of sheer joy – I’m not performing well in my job.

I accept that I am an emotional person, and I also know that I’m fucking strong. I will fight my corner like a one-eared tom cat, and the corner of people I love – hell, the corner of people I’ve only met once on an assessment – until I’m so frustrated by apathy, bureaucracy and ineptitude the only outlet my feelings can manage is through hot and angry tears running down my face. If you’ve bought me to tears you can bet that you have exhausted the very last of my strength and resilience. Congratulations.

Too often I hear from colleagues that displaying their emotions is considered negative, and too often I hear that emotions rise up when individuals are so frustrated with their situation, there is no other outlet. A friend told me recently at an event that she didn’t want to do any presentations, because if she did she, ‘may start crying out of sheer frustration and anger.’ How is this perceived a healthier situation than a few tears?

There has been significant attention paid over the past couple of years to the state of humanitarian workers’ mental health, and the amount of support they receive for processing distressing sights, sounds and stories every day. Not surprisingly, most studies have found that they do not receive adequate support, but in a context where to connect and display emotions is deemed to be weak, or even unprofessional, it is unsurprising that many humanitarians keep their emotions locked down, only to have them explode at a later and – most likely – highly inappropriate point in time.

We need to stop the culture of associating emotion with weakness. Of course we must maintain professionalism, but we should remind ourselves that we too are human beings, and human beings are emotional buggers who need to feel listened to, appreciated and sometimes need to have a little cry. We are experts at writing guidelines to ensure we respect the emotions of the people affected by conflicts and disasters we work with, but we seem to fail at translating those to each other. If I ever found myself requiring humanitarian assistance, I would want to speak with someone who tried to connect to how I was feeling, rather than a cold, emotionless, humanitaro-bot.

The clue is in the title. Humanitarian. Our emotions are the things that connect us to the people around us. If we don’t have that, what do we have?