Compassion (Fatigue) in the Land of So Much Suffering Pt. 1

Photo by  Aziz Acharki  on  Unsplash

In this three-part series, I discuss my recent experiences with compassion fatigue, how it relates to wellness professions and our models of healing, and lastly, how we might better work to integrate our understanding of suffering into how we revitalize ourselves from the exhaustion it causes.

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Like most people I know, my heart hurt when I read how a series of arsons were terrorizing the Black community of Louisiana earlier this year. In my mind, I immediately knew these acts of white supremacy were connected to the numerous acts of arson and violence plaguing Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and elsewhere following the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October.

I could see it. I could see how racism against Black people is connected to racism against Jews, how white supremacy is a reaction to class stratification and the buckling of capitalism itself intimately and cyclically connected to climate change. I tried to write these things, but I couldn’t. Every time I came close to publishing, another violent act would derail it all, and soon the weight of it all felt too heavy to write in any direction but defeat. The massacre at the mosque in Christchurch, the shooting at the synagogue in San Diego, the arson at the yeshiva in Moscow, the fire at Notre Dame, the fire at the Buddhist temple in Michigan, the shooting on the campus down the highway from me…it all started to blur together.

One expression of empathy and solidarity suddenly evolved into a never-ending need for both, an overwhelming sense of being too far behind for any action to be worth it, and a deep fear of what would come next, when, and preemptive anger that we wouldn’t be able to stop it. My writing voice switched from one of empathy to one of outrage—biting anger that ‘we’ had not done something sooner to halt the rise of white supremacy and fascism, hyper-criticism of every word offered (or conspicuously not offered) by those who did try, pain and rage with a heaping helping of no solutions.

I showed up and was welcomed at a local mosque in solidarity following Christchurch, and I briefly entertained the thought of getting involved again with this city’s numerous, overlapping and yet always disparate activisms, but I already felt burned out just thinking about it. I already felt criticism before I even wrote or did anything. I felt inadequate, worthless, powerless, and hopeless. I wonder if this is how I leave some readers feeling when I too give in to my angry writing voice in lieu of more empathetic, nurturing, or strategic voices.

I felt like if I wrote on one injustice, I owed it to the victims of every other injustice to write on theirs too. I felt like if I did one act to resolve one group’s suffering, I had to do the same for everyone else. My eyes glazed over before the computer screen, obsessively hoping to catalog every related instance of violence and fearing I might forget one. My life blew up into an anxiety and paranoia that has often plagued me as a writer on sensitive subjects—how can I show that I care when I can’t do everything for everyone?

I found myself unable to write.

I found myself suffering from recurrent anxiety attacks triggered by interactions with social media or even just hearing other people discuss the news. More personally, I found myself unable to cry. Usually I am the kind of person who cries at sunrises and bluebird sightings. Yet in the unavoidable face of so much suffering, and an overwhelming sense that I can write, inspire, do, and share nothing of value to ease it all, I instead found myself totally numb. In that desensitized dissociation, I recognized a type of exhaustion I’ve slipped into before.

It’s called Compassion Fatigue

“Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

(Dr. Charles Figley)

In the past, compassion fatigue was primarily known as secondary trauma stress, and was first associated with nurses and other emergency service providers who began to experience a sense of hopelessness, general anxiety, insomnia, and negativity towards life in relation to their work. Over the years, our understanding of these symptoms and who experiences them has grown to include caregivers, social workers and child protection workers, attorneys, animal welfare workers, mental health workers, and countless others. Some more contemporary compassion researchers like Laura van Dernoot Lipsky even extend their working definition of compassion fatigue to include effects experienced by ecologists, activists, and others coming face to face with the reality of suffering in our world.

In this sense, I think compassion fatigue is something many of us in the social media age either are already struggling with or are at-risk for developing, regardless of our profession or level of engagement in any activist cause. For instance, during the Christchurch massacre, video of the terrorist attack auto-played on platforms like Twitter. And if you, like me, clicked on the video to try and mute it or make it stop, you too may have found it suddenly impossible to escape short of throwing our phones away (—and maybe we should! ).

Listen: Margaret Cho on American News

In What Constant Exposure to Negative News is Doing to Our Mental Health, Carolyn Gregoire writes at HuffPo about the impact of these images on our health:

“On a neurological level, when we’re confronted with images of violence, we know that images or videos depicting violence are categorically different from actual violence — so we don’t process the input as threatening stimuli. However, we internalize the negative stimuli, which can affect mood and cause one to feel more negatively towards the environment more broadly.”

In this context, compassion fatigue feels like something familiar social media exposure has triggered in me before, years ago when I was actively engaged in LGBT+ and specifically trans activism. Using social media to connect with other activists was in one sense empowering, but in another, it looped me into a constant barrage of trauma and re-trauma, as we tried to release our experiences of violence and oppression into fuel for our human rights struggles.

I remember at one point I had become so obsessively engrossed in what anti-trans personalities had to say about our lives that even maintaining friendships became a virtual impossibility. I couldn’t even hang out or take in the beauty of a waterfall without needing to verbally process the polemics of contemporary feminism and trans identity.

Other times, like perhaps this round, my usual focus on animal and Earth-based advocacy begins to feel isolated from the causes championed more in my social circles, and as a result, I start to feel guilt for not engaging more deeply on human rights causes. When I do give in to that guilt, I end up feeling totally overwhelmed, unable to focus on even one cause, let alone the many I want to give my attention to.

To some degree, there is a self-care aspect to working through this. We can limit our exposure to the media or to other traumatized individuals. We can develop strict and actual routines for caring for ourselves beyond enjoying just a single massage session or a cup of coffee. But to paraphrase Mark Fisher, while mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and even compassion fatigue may be instantiated in the brain or apparent in our outward interfacing with society, there is clearly a degree of social causation here too: the world of suffering, oppression, exploitation, violence, and insecurity all around us.

And in some cases, this causation is facilitated by today’s media, not just primary exposure to it in our own lives. Will Twitter finance the recovery of people it exposed to the Christchurch massacre video? For that matter, will Facebook finance the recovery of people whose emotions it experimented with? Will every news outlet spreading reductive, ‘doom and gloom’ narratives about the climate shell out any help with self-care for its readers? I’m not holding my breath for these things, but perhaps these are serious questions we should be asking.

Compassion fatigue is hitting my entire generation and all the folks younger than us, even when we aren’t directly engaged in a traditional sense with trauma work. I don’t know any of us who aren’t engaged in healing the trauma of ourselves and the marginalized communities we relate to. I don’t know any of us who aren’t in constant shock at the world our parents and grandparents daily find new ways to pillage and burn. We might not be firefighters or nurses, we might ‘just be’ writers or ‘keyboard warriors’, but we fucking feel it. To be attuned to the state of this world is to be aware of crisis at all times, to intimately bear witness to so much suffering, and to find yourself struggling to stay afloat amidst it.

Whether we pursue recovery from this fatigue through individual means or find ways to work together collectively, I believe it’s a key part of our process to name what we are suffering from. Understanding my own depression, anger, and other symptoms as expressions of compassion fatigue has given me a starting point to work with. These experiences are no longer just part of activism or awareness, nor just quirks to my mental health. They are experiences with causes. They are experiences with beginnings and ends. They are experiences I can prepare for, work through, and take steps to lessen or prevent in the future. And you can too.

In the next two posts in this series, I’ll look at how compassion fatigue relates to my passion for justice and professional life in the wellness industry, as well as a few strategies we might employ to better prepare for and recover from our symptoms.

Check back in a week or so for links to the next article!

Learn More: Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project

Read More: Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky

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Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage therapist and life coach in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His work is especially focused on creating permaculture in his community, which sometimes looks like providing bodywork, and other times looks like writing or designing gardens for people and bees.

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