One day a man was taking a sunrise walk along a beach. In the distance he caught sight of a young woman who seemed to be dancing along the waves. As he got closer he saw that the young woman was actually not dancing, but picking up starfish from the sand and tossing them gently back into the ocean.
"What are you doing?" the man asked.
"The sun is coming up and the tide is going out; if I don't throw them in they'll die."
"But young woman, there are miles and miles of beach with starfish all along it--you can't possibly make a difference."
The young woman bent down, picked up another starfish, and placed it lovingly back into the ocean, past the breaking waves.
"It made a difference for that one," she replied.
If you give of your life energy to help animals, professionally or as a volunteer, you know this story. You live it. You know the urges of compassion; you know the driving desire to help. And you know the pain of seeing how many more there are, and the pain of realizing you can't save them all. And you know the joy and fulfillment that comes from helping and saving the ones you can.
Giving love and support to animals in need, animals in pain, is a sacred thing. It fulfills our own healthy need to give, to help, and to love. Along with the rewards, there can be heartache in helping animals, deep wrenching heartache. Continued exposure to the results of cruelty, ignorance and apathy toward animals, seeing the suffering, the lack of compassion and love in others' actions toward animals can burn us out. It can turn us hard with anger. It can make us feel lost in anguish and hopelessness. Whatever our role, wherever we work--animal rescue work, sheltering work, animal control work, political activism work, as volunteer, employee, supervisor, administrator, board member, in an open admission or a limited admission facility--this work requires more than a mere sentimental love of animals. It's hard work which requires tremendous emotional fortitude and can drain our resources physically, emotionally and spiritually. In devoting ourselves to a cause, we can lose ourselves. Sometimes all that compassion we feel and give to the animals and the causes we've dedicated ourselves to can take so much out of us we don't have much energy left for ourselves. Sometimes it seems all we have has been given away.
Compassion fatigue is what we feel when we've cared for others more than ourselves, when our sense of responsibility to others has become exaggerated or out of balance. Do you ever feel that you:
- love and care for animals or others more than yourself?
- actually take on the suffering of animals or others, actually feel their suffering and keep it as if it were our own?
- feel compelled to rescue every one, make it all better, fix it or solve problems for every animal or person you help? And feel like a failure when you can't?
- focus your energy on others' pain and trauma as a way of avoiding and working on your own issues in need of healing?
- sometimes feel almost addicted to helping and being needed?
If any of these issues are true of you, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. The following pages are offered as resources to help you balance loving yourself with caring for others--still feeling the joy of giving and helping but in a way which allows you to be whole at the same time. Caring for ourselves and not others is selfishness. Caring for others and not ourselves is martyrdom. Caring for ourselves and others is the most healthy balance of loving, and perhaps living, that we can achieve.
The opposite of stress or compassion fatigue is the state of inner peace. Inner peace is easy to experience when no conflict exists for us. If all humans practiced responsible pet ownership, if all humans wanting a companion animal rescued through adoption rather than adding to overpopulation through breeder and pet store purchases, if all pet owners spayed and neutered their animals, if all pet owners worked hard to find solutions to keep their animals rather than easily surrendering them, if all landlords allowed pets, if there were enough homes for every animal in every shelter, if no animals were either euthanized or kept long term in cages, if all organizations and agencies worked in respectful collaboration... well, in such ideal circumstances, experiencing inner peace in the midst of animal welfare work would be easy! But we have mountains to climb, solutions to create and work through together, even when we disagree. Yet amidst such challenge, finding inner peace, and integrating beliefs, actions and practices which help us maintain it, is also a tremendous opportunity for growth. It is an opportunity to deepen our care and love of ourselves and our respect of others. It is an opportunity to learn to love ourselves and others in a way that can, perhaps, even match our love of animals.
Cultivating inner peace, preventing, coping with and healing compassion fatigue, is not a one time activity. It's not a finite project like building a house. It's more like the ongoing creation of a garden. It's never done. It requires ongoing attention. Yet, like the joy of tending and continually creating a garden, there can be great contentment and satisfaction in tending to our own bodies, hearts and souls. Service to the animals is sacred. And so is taking great care of ourselves.
I hope you will find the following pages and links to further resources helpful.
These pages are dedicated to animal welfare workers everywhere. It is you--shelter workers, animal control workers, rescue and rehab workers--who are the true heroes in the circle of all of us who love animals. It is you who do the hardest work for the animals of our communities. Thank you for the tireless, endless, thankless work you do to rescue, love, care for, adopt and sometimes have to euthanize animals that other members of your community neglect, abuse, abandon and throw away at your shelters' doors.
Thank you for enduring the on-going sorrow, anger, frustration and guilt you often have, for the love, compassion and courage you so freely give. May you always have the strength, support and resources you need to carry on. May the care and love you've bestowed upon so many animals be returned to you tenfold.
Know that you are acknowledged, deeply respected, and loved.
Thank you for being there for the animals.
Note about The Starfish story: The scientific term for a starfish is sea star. They are invertebrates, not fish.