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How an Activist Headed toward Burnout Can Change Course: Four Ways to Cope with Compassion Fatigue

By Piper Hoffman — May 20, 2013

bonfireIt has taken me until 5 p.m. to write a word of this column. It was due yesterday.

I feel like I’m burning out. It’s not the common kind of working-too-hard-and-needing-a-break burning out. This is different, unique to activists and advocates and caregivers and whoever else cares that something really terrible is happening to someone.

This is compassion fatigue.

I can’t pinpoint exactly which story of abuse or picture of zoo cages set me on the path toward burnout, but there were two that made me realize what was happening to me; I had to close them as soon as they flashed across my screen. Yesterday there was the photo of the koala who wandered off for a couple of days and came back to find his home razed to the ground by loggers. The caption said he sat on the wood chips for an hour – just sat there.

Today it was a photo of a baby elephant trying with his little trunk to revive his dead mother. She ate rat poison that palm oil producers put out to kill elephants who were eating the palm fruit. I don’t know what happened to the baby.

When a picture of a severely burned and broken cat popped up on my Facebook feed today, I scrolled down past it like my life depended on it. Well, maybe not my life … but my spirit? Definitely.

To get away from the horror, I surf the web, or I read “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Bizarro” strips I’ve read 10 times before, or I nap. I’ve been napping a lot.

In a way I created this situation. I follow people and organizations on Twitter that tweet articles and photos about animals in unthinkable distress. I “friend” people on Facebook who post more of the same. I have created a pipeline to gather all of this toxic stuff and dump it into my psyche.

On the other hand, I don’t have much choice. This is the work I do: I write articles about issues that people should know about – things that people need to change – and a big chunk of those articles are about animals. I can’t write about petitions that need signing or products that need boycotting if I don’t know about them. I also can’t write about them if I’m sapped by despair.

My perfectionist tendencies don’t help. Whatever I do doesn’t feel like enough, so then there is guilt, too.

I’m sure many of you have been where I am now. Maybe some of you even know how to manage it. Not me. So to the web I go, on a quest for feel-good solutions that will get me writing again.

A quest – that reminds me of the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail and its fabulous killer rabbit. Because rabbits are so helpless in real life, it’s restorative to see one ripping warriors’ throats out, laughable effects be damned. You should watch it.

I digress, but that is how I cope. (Rather, it was how I coped, pre-quest.) Back to the point, here is the story of my quest.

The Quest for Coping Mechanisms

Before I started out, I had to look up the script of Holy Grail to revisit the killer rabbit scene. In short order I was laughing and reciting lines (pretty poorly, as my husband helpfully pointed out, but having fun anyway). Not 10 minutes before, I had been crying about that baby elephant. Thus Coping Mechanism #1 was born.

Coping Mechanism #1: Read/watch/remember something that makes you laugh. Or talk with someone who makes you laugh. Just laugh.

When I got over my killer-rabbit-induced guffawing, I started to look for some more serious approaches to the topic. I quickly discovered that the advice out there on compassion fatigue is mainly for direct service providers like therapists and nurses. In my experience, those of us who read, write, lobby, organize, fundraise, and otherwise indirectly engage with beings in trauma are also vulnerable and need help. I sifted through for recommendations that also apply to us.

An example is the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. Of course, it is for people caring directly for humans, not indirectly for non-human animals, but some of the information and advice is useful. Some affirming tidbits include the following:

  • “Caring too much can hurt.” So I’m not just a wuss. Good start. (Not loving the “too much” though. How much is just right, exactly?)
  • “When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface.” Like, maybe, napping every few hours? Wearing pajamas for days? Check.
  • Compassion fatigue is what’s called a “secondary traumatic stress disorder.” Having an official label makes this feel more concrete and legitimate. Again, not a wuss.

Unfortunately, this website was light on solutions beyond self-care. Here are some of the more useful suggestions:

Coping Mechanism #2: Take care of yourself.

  • Live a balanced life.
  • Exchange information and feelings with people who can validate you.
  • Clarify your personal boundaries. Identify what works for you and what doesn’t.
  • Develop a healthy support system: people who contribute to your self-esteem, people who listen well, people who care.
  • Keep yourself healthy: eat well, drink water, exercise, meditate.
  • Take vacation time (this one is actually from a different website, Psychology Today).

There was one more tactic here that I really like:

Coping Mechanism #3: Choose your battles.

I work on this one a lot, and it can help. Because of this adage, I narrowed down to three the number of animal-related nonprofit organizations I donate to, which helps me recycle the other envelopes bearing heartbreaking photos of needy animals without (too much) guilt.

There are many worthy, pressing, non-animal-related causes that I have consciously decided not to get into a lather about. I try to think about them abstractly when I think about them at all. It can feel callous and selfish, and I think about that quote – “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.” True, all true, but I have to preserve myself. When I try to change everything, I can’t change anything.

I thought that this strategy was helping me with specific animal issues, too. For instance, I decided, fairly arbitrarily, not to educate myself on or follow the ag-gag travesty. Too many issues, not enough time. That was fine for a while, but it didn’t last, as ag-gag became too big and outrageous and dangerous to stay ignorant about. Now I can’t imagine trying to ignore something so important. Where animal issues are concerned, I can’t tune out.

So choosing my battles helps a lot when it’s feasible, but sometimes the choice is out of my hands.

Psychology Today, which already recommended taking vacation time, came through with this last bit of advice:

Coping Mechanism #4: Adopt a Positive Attitude

  • A sense of humor about life
  • Self-confidence
  • Curiosity
  • A focus on the positive
  • Gratitude

This seems like a good idea generally, and particularly when you need to counteract some seriously negative stuff.

Now I think I’ll take a shower, put on some real clothes, and pop Holy Grail into the DVD player.


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(25) Readers Comments

  1. May 20, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    It's great you bring this topic up, because I think it one that is not talked about enough. I have felt altogether consumed, at times, by dark and difficult emotions related to suffering I cannot immediately stop (and beyond). I would love to gather more tools (in my coping toolbox). To that end, I hope others will share what is helpful for them. Going for a hike, working in the garden, belting out a few tunes at the top of my lungs can help me keep some balance in my life, but nothing brings light to the darkest spaces within me more than reading (learning of) animal welfare success stories. It turns everything around for me. Perks me up, puts me back on track, et al. How great would it be to have a resource that only shared this good news? In fact, this very thought makes me want to carve out such a space on my website. I'll work on it! Thanks for the inspiring, helpful heartwork work you do! I am grateful.

  2. May 21, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    What a wonderful idea! I would love a website full of good news about animals. And thanks for the great ideas about keeping ourselves sane. Piper

  3. Abby Marean
    May 21, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    Thanks so much for this post - I've struggled a lot with sad, dark, depressing thoughts about animals' situation in the world. I agree - hearing good stories is often helpful. One source I've found is the Facebook group "Real Men Are Kind to Animals" - the group posts stories about people helping animals. Many of the stories are very heartwarming.

    • May 23, 2013 at 10:44 am

      @Abby Marean, I follow that group on FB too! Two other places with good news are DogHeirs.com and Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, bestfriends.org. Wishing you the best, Piper

  4. May 22, 2013 at 10:23 am

    What a brilliant post - as I read it I could feel myself identifying with every single point - in fact I came here by way of removing some of the many animal welfare pages from my news feed. So many relate to American kill shelters with urgent pleas to share before yet another dog gets put down. I live in Scotland and sharing wouldn't make a damn bit of difference and so I read the articles, tear up at the injustice of another poor innocent dog let down by mankind and feel guilty that I can do nothing about it. Again - choose your battles. I volunteer twice a week at a rehoming shelter near me - that is my battle, giving love, affection and exercise to the dogs and cats who pass through those doors until they can find a forever home. I will still follow the animal welfare issues and I will still continue to sign every e-petition I come across but having a continuous loop of abuse and graphic photos does not help me to help the animals - I can still care without drowning in these articles. Thank you for letting us know it is okay to feel this way at times.

    • May 23, 2013 at 10:49 am

      @Nic, it sounds like you have found a good balance. Congratulations on finding your battle and letting others go. Thanks for your comment -- it helps me to hear others confirm that it is okay to pull back and take care of yourself sometimes. BTW, I can't wait to visit Scotland some day! Piper

  5. May 22, 2013 at 10:39 am

    Thank you for writing this article. It defintitely hits home for me. I have been struggling with burn out for about a year now after years of intense activism. Along with a feeling of depression I also feel left out. I have been involved in various activist groups and I just can't seem to find my niche. Petty arguments and backstabbing don't help either. I have turned to solo activism for now, postering, leafletting, etc, but it can sometimes be difficult to stay motivated. I'm working on it, and your article will help. Thank you.

  6. May 23, 2013 at 10:55 am

    @Eric, thank you for all of your work for the animals. You have every right and every reason to care for yourself. Congratulations on finding a way to do what you can. I think that you will feel more motivated if you feel happier and more balanced in general. Getting to that place is a tough journey, and unique to you. I'm still working on the same thing. Be well, Piper

  7. May 23, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    Such a great article, thank you for posting x

  8. June 3, 2013 at 1:53 am

    I recently started a Facebook group to help/support people with compassion fatigue that work in animal care. It's still growing but there are some helpful links, articles and a discussion group to vent or share stories. https://www.facebook.com/wrongsideoftherainbow

  9. January 23, 2014 at 4:01 am

    Very good article. Thank you very much

  10. January 23, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    Thank you for this article. It makes sense and made me feel a little more normal.

  11. Alice Susan
    January 24, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    Prayer helps me. If I couldn't turn to God to help me through the emotional rollercoaster ride of animal abuse, I don't know what I'd do.

  12. January 25, 2014 at 6:38 am

    Thankyou for this Piper. From now on when I am feeling compassion fatigue, I will read your article .. wonderful and really helpful piece of writing xxx

  13. Denise Wilson
    January 25, 2014 at 7:03 am

    Yes, thanks for the article. I would be interested in being a friend of the Facebook group mentioned above. I am a widow living on my own and don't really know anyone who feels the same grief and compassion for animal suffering as myself. I feel overwhelmed at times. I can relate to someone above who says that animal cruelty makes her hate the human race. I think the idea of selecting two or three organisations is good advice but almost impossible..some issues need immediate attention but long term lobbying for others is the only way to go. But as you say if we don't care for ourselves we render ourselves ineffective. Thanks again .

  14. January 25, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Thank you! I'm glad it's not just me! I have not been able to turn my head for 3 days now, I think the stress from worrying about animals and kids I work with is why my neck and shoulders are in so much pain. I try not to look at pics or read post that I know are going to mess me up but it's always on my mind. The need to save them, help them, and the helpless anger in not being able to. I often feel like I must be feeling their pain. On my days off I have a hard time getting anything done because I'm pooped out and over whelmed . A friend told me to take the time to find the good, read some happy rescue stories. I will have to try that too. Last week I almost broke my leg sneeking into someone's yard to give the dog straw so it wouldn't freeze to death. I had stopped the day before and offered the man straw for free and he said no. I couldn't stop thinking about that dog and went back the next eve. The dog was barking, my straw fell apart as I was running it to the fence and fell in the ditch, lmao The things we do!! God Bless and peace to all of you!!

  15. Georgina King
    January 27, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    This article should be sent out to all animal right activists as the issues are overwhelming and you will burnout if you don't have mechanisms to deal with the anger, sorrow and frustration.

  16. January 27, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    Is it moral to be happy in a world of so much suffering? (My facebook status not long ago.) This is what I have been wondering for quite awhile now. Struggling with actually. I am definitely going through a bought of compassion fatigue. With all the animal lib and against cruelty pages that show up on my news feed constantly educating about the sadness and suffering that all the poor innocent animals endure, I too, feel burned out. Especially since there is not a lot I can do to stop their suffering, other than sign petitions, share urgent messages and educate others. Never feels good enough. Yeah, it's heartwarming to see animal anarchy victories won and justice done, that helps to soothe the broken heart ....but for the most part, thing seems to be getting worse in the world. To me, it seems like a loosing battle as our beautiful creatures go extinct, ect. For a moment or so I actually thought about hiding those pages from my news feed, to take a break, to stop being reminded, in hopes to regain some faith in humanity by ignoring the sad facts . In hopes to stop feeling so much hate in my heart for all the abusers and exploiters out there, and for those who stand by and do nothing. But overall, ignorance is not bliss, only in oblivion. Our ignorance is definitely not bliss for those poor animals. They need us. So then what? I do not want to become a bitter person, so full of contempt for humans. I can see how depression becomes very common. And I can almost even see how one can go crazy, enough to set out on a mission to exterminate the demons on earth. So many sickos out there who do not deserve to drink our water and breath our air. Grrrrrrrrr. So much hate is Not good for the soul. I'm so tired. Yup. One must find a balance. So true. And what better medicine than laughter? Watching comedy on youtube has helped me though some pretty tough times. I have read that the more you help, the better you will feel. It may take time, but eventually will feel some sort of gratification. One thing is for sure....We Can't give up!!!!! Anyways...THANK YOU for this article Piper!!! I read this awhile back and also found it interesting.... http://alwayswellwithin.com/2011/03/26/why-sadness-is-the-key-to-true-happiness/

  17. January 30, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    I have three like pages for animal networking, and Yes I have seen a lot of horrible photos and stories of animals crudity, I wont share the story if I need to I do so by taking out most of the horrible photos or details, I net work for cavalier dogs Ragdoll cats and have a animal page on any topic :) https://www.facebook.com/CavalierKingCharlesLouis?ref=tn_tnmn here is my cat page >https://www.facebook.com/RagdollIvy here is my animal page you wont find horrible photos on here >https://www.facebook.com/betheirvoice2?fref=ts <3 Remember animals don't have a voice so they need help sometimes and it's not their fault that at times things can go wrong for them. Thankyou

  18. January 30, 2014 at 10:27 pm

    Cruelty :) spelling mistake

  19. July 31, 2014 at 2:23 am

    I want to thank you for your brilliant and poignant article. Its great to have a term that can identify how I am feeling. I can agree with many of the points you made. I have seen so much animal cruelty and now in an effort to keep sane I don't always look at the never ending emails about animal protection issues that pop up on my email, FB or twitter. I am managing a new Centre called the Centre for Compassionate Conservation that undertaking research and advocating for more compassionate and peaceful coexistence with wild animals. I really try to promote the good news stories and the efforts that are being made to find solutions to human- wildlife conflicts and projects that look for synergies between animal welfare and conservation. When you are a passionate individual with a genuine desire for transformative change it can be draining. Your advice was very relevant and helpful. Laughing really helps as does dancing! I just want to thank you again and thank all the readers who posted similar comments. Its great to know that we are not alone. It seems that there is a real need to have a greater resources devoted to this very important area.