Tuesday, September 27, 2016

What does compassion fatigue feel like?

Panda the cat

Anyone who accepts a big role in an animal shelter knows that the work is hard, and most of us know that the work can also be more than a little sad from time to time. But for some of us, especially those of us who aren't paying attention to key warning signs, the work can move from being *occasionally* upsetting into full-blown *always* upsetting.

It's called compassion fatigue, and I ended up with a nasty case this summer. In hindsight, there were some things I should have noticed, but I didn't. I thought working up what the experience feels like might help some of you to protect yourselves, as I know many of my readers also do rescue work.

What is compassion fatigue?

Let's start with a definition. Compassion fatigue is a form of depression, in which the vital mission of a caring organization seems difficult or impossible to achieve, despite a person's attempts to make that mission come to life. People who have compassion fatigue come to believe that their work is fruitless. 

Compassion fatigue is unique to people who work in caregiving roles, and it is most common among people who work with communities that seem somehow disparaged or downtrodden. That means those of us who work with animals--particularly cats--are very vulnerable. Every day that we put our hearts and minds on the line for these animals, despite overwhelming evidence that others in our community don't care as much as we do, it's another inciting event. 

(Thanks to this organization for helping me nail down that nugget of truth.)

An inability to see the wins 

A lot of the articles I've seen about compassion fatigue discuss behaviors people might exhibit when they're feeling worn out by the mission, such as:
  • Drinking too much
  • Sleeping too little
  • Fighting with loved ones 
  • Compulsive behaviors
I'm sure that's true for many people. It wasn't true for me. If I had gone looking for these symptoms, I never would have seen them. I still don't have them. Instead, I have a more fundamental problem. It involves blindness to happy stories.

For example. This sweet and very old cat came into the shelter with severe arthritis. She struggles to walk well, so she doesn't walk very much at all. And she is very old, so she probably won't mark her remaining time on Earth in decades.

Sweet shelter cat

And yet. Someone walked into the shelter, and out of all of the kittens this person could have picked and brought home, this person brought this little broken girl home to love and call his own. It's a huge and wonderful win.

And yet. When I heard about it, all I could think about was my foster cat Panda (who is tapping at my camera in the top picture on this post, taken when he was happier). He didn't get a happy ending. No one chose him. While I should have been celebrating the happy adoption, my mind was flooded with thoughts of him in his kennel, waiting for people to find him. I remained blind to the success right in front of me because I couldn't get over the loss that was looming.

Another example. This is Liebe, who was in the shelter for months and months waiting for a home (and who I wrote about a few weeks ago on this blog). She also got the forever home she deserved, after waiting for so very long.

Liebe the Russian blue cat

But when she went home, my thoughts went back to this sweet and very old all-black cat that has been at the shelter as long as Liebe, with no adopter in sight. I would like to think that she has someone out there waiting for her. I want that to happen for her, as she really is a wonderful and feisty little thing. But my brain just can't form the energy to be hopeful like that.

Luna the all black cat

Instead, I feel a little angry that no one has taken her home. I wonder how long she'll have to wait, and why she lost her home in the first place. I can't celebrate the happy parts, because my mind is fixated on the sad parts.

My concrete symptoms were simple sadness, especially when I was walking into or out of the shelter. When I worked up posts about these cats and I read them over later, I saw a lot of trigger words like "please" and "forgotten" and "worried" and "sad." I started to dread going online to look at the adoption pages, as I worried no one would have chosen cats yet. And I started to use words like "mine" and "my" when I described these cats. I felt responsible for all of the sad stories, without feeling even slightly responsible for the good stuff.

What to do about it? 

Here comes the hard part: What should you do when this sets in? For me, it means taking a step or two back from the shelter, at least for the time being. If I can't be positive and happy for cats, I am not doing either them or my community good. Guilt-ridden social posts are hard to read, and they're rarely motivating. And my presence in the shelter could be viral. If I'm frustrated, I could pass that on to my colleagues. And I need them to keep doing good work.

Stepping back for awhile allows me to make time for more yoga. More tea. More purrs with Fergus. More walks with the dogs. More bird-watching with Popoki. More reading with Lucy. Healing stuff.

I hope I'll be able to come back to shelter work rested and in a good place. And I hope I'll be able to set limits for myself when I do re-engage, so I keep this from happening a second time.

Has this ever happened to any of you readers out there? I'd love to know what YOU did to make it better. Leave me a note in the comments, okay?


  1. There are definitely more sad stories out there than happy endings so I can see how easy it can be to focus on those. I hope some time away will help you to feel better because you do so much good.

  2. We're so sorry this has happened to you. Unfurtunately it does happen to a lot of those who help kitties. Mommy got dat way. She so misses fosterin', but is kinda glad our 'pawrtments won't let us cuz she knows she'll fall back into da trap again. Mommy stays at da angry stage now. It's not really good fur her or others, but she can't get past it. Cats get less funds, help, medical attention and study, and are certainly seen less in da public. Even still movies purrtray cats as unattached and mean. Well, guess we're not help[in' cheer you up, are we . Da point is, yes, this happens a lot. Takin' a step back is a good thing. We're sendin' hugs and purrayers. Someday, you'll return with a renewed pep and devotion.

    Luv ya'

    Dezi and Raena

  3. ((Hugs)) Sometimes it's hard to focus on the positive, hope you are able to soon.

  4. I'm now in my 19th year (yikes!) of volunteering at our shelter, and I can attest that compassion fatigue is real. Stepping back and taking care of you for a while is a great idea. It's the people who don't ever do this who totally burn out. That's always so sad. Tracey and I are lucky to volunteer together; we always remind each other of the positives, and "talk each other off the cliff" when it's needed. We also try to take a day off here and there, to refresh and enjoy life.

    Hang in there, Jean. Hugs to you as you take care of YOU for a while. :)

  5. Beautifully articulated, I hope this helps people understand the very real thing that happens to us as caretakers. Take care of your heart my friend. The cats and I are so grateful for your time and love. You made a huge impact on the shelter, and we will carry it forward.

  6. Jean Dion, I shared your super-helpful blog post on the Surviving and Thriving in Animal Care facebook group in December, and haven't noticed a follow-up post from you.

    I'm curious whether you have any suggestions on how to decide whether to return to shelter work, and maybe how to re-engage with it carefullly.

    (Also, I invite anyone who works or volunteers in the care of animals to join us in the FB group.)

    Take care!

    1. I haven't done a followup post. And you're right: I should. Adding that to next week's editorial plan. Thanks for the idea!