Worn Out From Care: Confronting Compassion Fatigue
Have you ever felt as though your hard work to help cats, dogs or other animals has been much more than an uphill battle? Do you get the feeling that although you have socialized, cleaned-up after and perhaps helped medicate hundreds of animals as a volunteer or employee at your local shelter, the stream of hurting creatures never seems to run dry? Do you get tired of explaining again and again the absolute importance of spay and neuter to so many people who just don’t seem to get it?
It’s enough to make you angry at the human race and how they treat their non-human brothers and sisters. In fact, animal advocate Kim Stallwood has a term for the mental state that a lot of animal lovers retreat into as they witness their fellow humans’ inhumanity toward animals. He calls it the “misanthropic bunker.” It’s not a happy place. It’s a place where you wish you could just push a button and make the whole human race disappear. And the problem with this mindset is that it is not very helpful because it is not conducive to accomplishing much for animals or for yourself.
A more conventional term that some of us are familiar with is “compassion fatigue.”
A recent study suggests that almost a third of animal care workers in shelters feel burned out by the work they do and succumb to a general sense of unhappiness about their work environment. Some of these individuals suffer enough from the secondary trauma they experience as a result of witnessing animal suffering, that they themselves are in need of professional counseling.
It would follow that many committed rescue volunteers feel the same way. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project recognizes a number of common symptoms among those suffering from compassion fatigue. Some of these include bottled up emotions, isolation, excessive blaming of others, substance abuse, poor hygiene or lack of concern about personal appearance, compulsive behaviors (for example, gambling, overspending or overeating), tiredness, apathy and even physical disorders such as gastrointestinal problems or recurrent colds.
But there are steps an individual can take to combat compassion fatigue. Perhaps the most important is to be kind to yourself. Set personal boundaries and communicate clearly with fellow volunteers or workers about how shelter and rescue tasks should be allocated. Know your limitations in terms of how much and what kind of work you are able to do. Clearly articulate your needs and allow others to do the same. CFAP also recommends organizing your life in such a way that you are not simply reacting to crises, but rather proactively undertaking goals you have set for yourself. The objective is to stop being a victim and gain control. And of course, remember the obvious: exercise and eat right! Someone out there is counting on you and you need to be able to count on yourself. So stay out of the misanthropic bunker and let the compassion flow both ways; toward those you want to help, and toward yourself.