Compassion Fatigue

Why Should You Care?

Compassion Fatigue. It’s a real thing.

A serious issue arising from a perceived inability to make a desired difference in an area you feel responsible for. Areas ranging from human rights topics, social movements, your career, or perhaps even within a personal relationship. For me, it happens to be stemming from my passion and desire to make a difference in the well-being of wildlife.

For a while, I just thought I was overreacting (or not getting enough sleep). But it came to a point two weeks ago where I knew I had to talk to someone. Not just anyone – but someone who truly understands what I am feeling and has their passion also in wildlife. So I gave my good friend, John Ramer from Mission:Wolf a call to vent, share ideas, and search for some type of desperately needed encouragement.

Of course, John never fails me. His wisdom and experience in the world of conservation is vast, beautiful, and admirable. However, it both scared and comforted me to hear what he had to say about my feelings. Not only did he know exactly what I was talking about, but he informed me that there is actually a scientific term for this emotionally defeating feeling: Compassion Fatigue burnout.

I found comfort in the sense that I am not completely going crazy and I am not alone in my hopeless thoughts. Other passionate people are also experiencing this deep sense of inability and responsibility all at the same time to take action for what they believe. In fact, John himself shared with me that just a few weeks back he also suffered from a severe onset of CF within his current line of conservation work.

To my surprise, researchers have recently begun to carry out studies on the causes and effects of Compassion Fatigue in various activist groups. And after reading one of the CF research papers, I thought I would share what I have learned and some of my hopes for how to manage this problem in my on life. Because not only is Compassion Fatigue a serious emotional problem for the individuals effected, but it also threatens the very existence of extremely important activist and global non-profit based movements.

Why was this study carried out?

To understand the causes and potential ways to prevent Compassion Fatigue.

Because at its very height – individuals with CF will often completely step out of the work they once so passionately and desperately desired to fight for. It’s like reaching a breaking point; one that arises from an inability to enact change – while providing financially and emotionally for oneself – in addition to working hard to prevent wildlife injustice.

In fact, there was one animal rights activist in the research paper who summarized the feeling of Compassion Fatigue quite well:

“It feels like I’m shoveling the sidewalk during a blizzard.”

I also agreed completely with the thoughts of another research respondent who shared his idea that, “activists tend to impose unrealistic expectations on themselves, then blame themselves when they prove incapable of meeting them.”

In my case, this is dead on. I find that I feel incredibly responsible for taking some sort of action to raise awareness of and directly help wildlife conservation concerns. However, I don’t have the amount of time, resources, or current network necessary to make the large-scale impacts needed. It is defeating to realize you are just one person in a world of endless animal welfare and ecosystem concerns. Emotionally, it is draining. And there are days where I have a really hard time believing in the small of work I am able to do.

This feeling I have was also supported in the text of the research paper:

“Due to this emotional connection to animal rights activism, many felt that their sense of personal responsibility to work tirelessly on behalf of animals contributed to their burnout. Laura (a research respondent) shared how she experienced, not just a sense of ‘urgency, but a sense of duty.’ The activists often blamed themselves for their burnout because they chose to ‘overwork’ for the good of the cause or to say ‘yes’ to everything if they thought it would help animals. Alex (another respondent) shared, ‘There are animals dying every single second all around the world, and it’s hard to feel like you can just step away. . .”

Whether you can relate to Compassion Fatigue or not – I am just thankful to be able to identify with others who also experience this sense of inability to help. I am going to keep going. I just have to have a little compassion for myself in the process as well.

How was the study carried out?

Researchers qualitatively analyzed open-ended response questions from 17 different individuals working and/or volunteering in the animal rights field.

They identified key themes in responses in an effort to understand the causes of Compassion Fatigue burnout and to learn more about such feelings in conservationists/activists.

What were the results of the study?

Researchers found three primary categories of CF cause as described by respondents:

  1. intrinsic motivational and psychological factors
  2. organizational and cultural movement in the animal rights field
  3. internal fighting and marginalization among other activists and groups

They also shared that many activists felt they must adopt a “cowboy” mentality. That they must survive in their work by holding on tight to romanticized perceptions of the work they believe they can do. That they must keep going and remain involved no matter how desperate the situation may seem; internally within the individual or externally within the organization.

What I recommend:

Having read the full paper and while currently suffering from Compassion Fatigue burnout… There are a few takeaways I think might be able to help myself and others.

  1. As passionate as activists are – we have to learn to control our emotions. Because it is that same passion we started with that can ultimately cause us to burn out completely.
  2. We have to believe that every small step and achievement matters. The large-scale change this world needs will never be accomplished without the baby steps. You may not end up making the great impact you imagined – but you will have at least tried. And that is more than some can say.
  3. We need to support fellow activists and groups. There must be a certain level of cohesiveness and understanding to prevent Compassion Fatigue burnout within groups. Because without such cohesiveness, it is really hard to make progress in any conservation pursuit.
  4. We are human – and we must rest. We have to somehow allow ourselves the freedom to step away momentarily from the intense drive we feel to help.

If you would like to read more – check out the full paper by Gorski, Lopresti, and Rising. by using this link.

Thank you for reading!






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