Compassion Fatigue: Why We Need to Talk About Activism Burnout

Compassion Fatigue: Why We Need to Talk About Activism Burnout

“I had trouble sleeping and would have regular flashbacks of traumatic situations where a dog had to be restrained using animal control poles and nearly asphyxiated. I was left totally disillusioned, with feeling of anger and helplessness. I still have flashbacks to many of these incidents almost ten years later.”

These are the words of Carly Hallyday, an animal rights campaigner in the UK who, during her time at an animal welfare charity, had to assist in the euthanasia of dogs. “The fatigue comes from the perpetual cycle of abused, unwanted, and damaged dogs constantly coming through the doors only to be killed by those who want to help them the most,” she recalls.

What she was experiencing is likely to be a condition of extreme stress and burnout often afflicting activists. Frequently referred to as “compassion fatigue”, this state was first described by Dr Charles Figley, a university professor in the field of psychology, who in 1992 described it as “the emotional and physical burden created by caring for others in distress”.

Compassion fatigue was among the things that ultimately led Carly to leave the field and become a campaigner, but even in a less hands-on scenario, compassion fatigue can still be present. Stylist and sustainable fashion advocate Meg Pirie, also from the UK, says: “I was researching and writing a piece on gender issues within the fashion industry. I’d spent hours pouring over reports and first-hand accounts on women who’d been sexually abused, had birth control enforced or fired because they became pregnant. About a week later I woke up feeling utterly helpless. It was nothing like what they’d been through but I felt drained. I watched brands publicising fast-fashion with ginormous sales and felt defeated.”

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Compassion fatigue is becoming increasingly common. Photo: Anna Tarazevich.

In today’s constantly connected climate, where we’re continuously bombarded with news headlines that are anything but positive, it’s probable that anyone can experience compassion fatigue. And activists – the individuals who take it upon themselves to act in order to make the world a better place and further a cause or a mission – don’t often contemplate the possibility of emotional burnout deriving from…well, caring so much.

In her TedX talk “Compassion Fatigue: What is it and do you have it?” author and coach Juliette Watts describes the state as a “dark, insidious syndrome that creeps up on you. You don’t know what it is, you don’t know you have it. You just know that something is very wrong and you don’t feel like you anymore.” In fact it can be hard to identify compassion fatigue – you just feel like something is off and find yourself lacking the fighting spirit that you once rode so high on.

To be able to pinpoint what compassion fatigue actually looks like, let’s look at the symptoms. “Compassion fatigue symptoms may include feeling sad, anxious, or angry,” explains therapist, licensed counsellor and compassion fatigue expert Jennifer Blough, founder of Compassion Fatigue Couch.

What is compassion fatigue?

“You could find yourself struggling with grief, having intrusive thoughts, or nightmares. Some people resort to using unhealthy coping skills such as alcohol or drugs, or isolate themselves from others. You could run into trouble focusing or making decisions. Other symptoms include feeling hopeless, empty, or numb; suffering from headaches, stomach aches, or muscle tension; experiencing work problems or relationship conflicts; losing your sense of humour or self-confidence; and even feeling suicidal.”

Noa Ben Moshe, a blogger and former animal rights activist from Israel, recognises this. “I was an activist for two amazing years and gave my heart and soul – I did anything from demonstrations and marches to conversations and exhibitions,” she says. “But after two years, I felt like it was too much for me mentally and decided to stop, for my own good. For me personally, seeing and talking about such terrible things constantly made me feel so depressed.”

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Noa also found that compassion fatigue manifested in her relationships. “Anytime I saw someone I loved eating animals I started crying or getting frustrated, as I was picturing everything that happened to the animal before their body parts landed on that plate. It made me stop attending family meals and events – it was too hard for me to sit next to others enjoying their food, while all I could see was horror.”

Taking a break from activism is a bit of a taboo topic in many movements. Some activists may feel guilty about experiencing the burnout. Selflessness is prioritised and self-care sometimes falls by the wayside as you unite with others to advocate for your cause and fight for a better world. After all, you’re not always personally the victim of whatever injustice you’re fighting – you’re not the refugee fleeing their home, the animal living in a factory farm, or the garment worker struggling to survive on minimal pay. And so, when those feelings of despair and exhaustion creep in, it’s normal to find yourself struggling with them – or even feeling guilty about them.


“It’s normal to feel guilty about struggling with compassion fatigue, especially for those who are high achievers, have unrealistic expectations of themselves, are enthusiastic ‘go-getters,’ or those who struggle with knowing their own limits,” says Blough. “These impossible standards can clash with the harsh reality of activism, leaving people to feel like a failure. It’s important to realise that the same personality traits that make people really effective at activism are also the ones that make them the most vulnerable to compassion fatigue! So understand that your feelings are normal. Recognise that you are human – with limited resources. Accept that it’s okay for you to have needs too.”

Noa agrees. “Doing what we did required a lot of mental resilience and strength. If you don’t give yourself a much-needed mental break when you feel like you need one, or get help, it could really damage your well-being.”

The different ways of combating compassion fatigue depend on your symptoms and your approach, but recognising, understanding and accepting the feelings is key. Just allowing yourself to be human is the first, game-changing step. Muting any comparisons with other activists and tuning into your own needs and feelings could go a long way. Blough says: “While there are a myriad of ways to manage compassion fatigue, what I have found really helpful to remember is that there is a difference between pain and suffering. There’s not a lot we can do to eliminate the pain involved in  activism. However, taking steps toward managing compassion fatigue – whether it’s self-care, setting boundaries, or getting support from others – plus this mindset shift, is what allows us to feel the pain, but then be able to cope with it and move on from it. Once we can do that, we’ve stopped the suffering that leads to compassion fatigue.”

As with any mental health issue, it’s important to know when to seek help. Activists are of no use to the cause if they burn themselves out, so if emotions are becoming overpowering, it’s crucial to reach out to a professional for therapy, medication or other forms of support. Activism should be empowering – but if things get out of hand, a mental health professional can provide the assistance necessary to gather strength and return to fight the good fight.

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Cover image by Anna Tarazevich.

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