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

By Piper Hoffman — October 09, 2014

bonfire Not only do we at Our Hen House aim to help you find your way to change the world for animals, but we aim to help you do so for life. This dedication to long-term struggle absolutely must be accompanied by acts of self-care – described below by the ever-insightful Piper Hoffman in a piece rejuvenated for #ThrowbackThursday – in order to prevent activist burnout. A topic that will never stop meriting discussion.

This article originally appeared on Our Hen House on May 20, 2013. If you’d like to see a certain OHH article resurrected, email us at info [at] ourhenhouse [dot] org.


It 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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