*The thoughts and opinions in each post on this blog are those solely of the attributed author and do not necessarily extend to all program collaborators or to Ethics in Animal Care itself.*
Everything I know about compassion fatigue, I’ve learned from amazing humane educator Jessica Dolce. I was invited to participate in the very first of her Compassion in Balance courses at a moment when I could not have needed it more profoundly. I was surviving, rather than living, my own life and still wonder if I would have had the self-awareness and strength to change things were it not for the perfectly timed wake-up call. In fact, I almost declined the invitation rationalizing that I barely had time to breathe let alone dedicate any honest engagement to an online class. To this day, saying yes is one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made and I’ll forever be grateful.
The insidious thing about compassion fatigue is that many of us don’t see it coming. I didn’t realize how deeply down the path I was because for a stretch of time all I allowed myself to do, all I’d become capable of, was plowing straight forward with my head down. I knew better. I’d written posts myself about setting healthy boundaries and focusing on the positive and the places we can have an impact. Once upon a time, I’d lived it. But when tragedies in my personal life combined with tragedies in the shelter world, I gradually depleted my emotional reserves until there was truly nothing left but survival.
I’d managed for years to work full-time as a public school teacher and near full-time leading shelter behavior programming. I wonder sometimes if those tragedies hadn’t happened, would I still have had to step away? Anyone in either of those fields knows that any given day is full of mentally and emotionally demanding moments, one after the other. But man, the truth is that there’s nothing I love more. It took stepping away from the shelter work over the past year to remember that and eventually start working my way back, albeit in a different capacity. For anyone who’s a fan of The Alchemist, working with dogs and children is my treasure and finding the healthiest way to engage in both to the fullest of my ability is a path I’m very much still trying to navigate. I don’t think the answer is stagnant but rather that it evolves along with those of us seeking it and with the needs of the populations with whom we choose to engage.
For better or for worse, I’m a bit of an internet junkie and I see conversations taking place amongst both friends and strangers about how much this work can hurt. I feel their words viscerally whether I know them or not. And I am so sorry. I’m so sorry for how often and how deeply we hurt. What I’m even more sorry for is how often we hurt each other, whether we mean to or not. In truth, it is mostly not. There is so much to carry that we try to get out from under it by shifting the weight to one another. Our hearts break and we lash out to defend them, to protect them from anymore pain because we can’t stand it. We want to rely on each other but sometimes we lean too hard and forget to offer a hand up when we can spare it. We try our damndest to set our own boundaries but often don’t respect those of others who are trying to do the same thing.
There’s always more, and there should be, but what we end up with is a culture where no one can do this job without slowly breaking themselves down in the process. It’s a culture that, rather than saying let’s thoughtfully plan the best ways to efficiently and effectively keep moving our profession forward, says mercilessly and relentlessly that giving your all isn’t enough. It glorifies overcommitment and overwork even though we know that hampers our ability to do our best work in the short term and drives people out of the profession in the long-term. And it often prioritizes blame over action and the roll up your sleeves work of program development and prevention. Oh boy. It is harrowingly difficult to have conversations in this field that successfully focus on both the long and short term. It is so critical to our success that we do both but it’s such an emotional field that pulling large enough coalitions of people through their conditioned responses to a place of thoughtful dialogue is a feat few of us have managed and even fewer have managed consistently.
One of the most impactful quotes from the compassion fatigue education class I participated in is the very simple, “You cannot pour from an empty pitcher.” Pause for a moment and consider that quote’s meaning in your everyday life and the work that you do. I am not as good of a teacher, as good of a dog handler, as good of a leader, as good of a communicator, as good of an ally, or as good of a friend when I’m stressed and/or exhausted. The greater the degree of my stress and exhaustion, the less effective I am and the smaller the contribution to something positive that I’m able to make. At some point, when exhaustion and stress levels are high enough, I’m no longer positively contributing at all and instead risk doing actual damage and hindering the work about which I care so deeply. It’s true for all of us and if you have a hard time with self-care and boundaries for the sake of your own well-being, start here.
When I’m at my best, my classroom is a wonderful place full of learning and exploration and social/emotional growth. I can take the wildest heathens of dogs and not just successfully teach them more appropriate behaviors but love every moment of it. The things I love doing come naturally and the visions and plans of action to make them even better occur with ease and enthusiasm. But that’s only true if I am succeeding at taking care of myself. Unless the slip is significant enough, it may not be noticeable to an outside observer but it is very clearly noticeable to me. I see it in my students or in the dog at the other end of my leash and I know I’m capable of better.
The good news, in fact the GREAT news, is that everything about doing better feels better. Taking care of ourselves is awesome and having not just permission but an imperative to do it is so empowering. Being more effective at the things we love feels wonderful. We have a more positive impact on everyone around us and deeper emotional reserves to deal with those trying situations in a healthier way.
So how do we get there? I don’t know exactly. It would be nice to wrap this post up neatly but reality doesn’t work that way and I think it’s okay to acknowledge as much. Honesty is far more powerful than pretense and I think *that* is the best place to start. We first begin by being honest with ourselves about where we are and move forward by seeking the tools that can support us in making better choices. It’s not easy. But if we want to do this work sustainably in any capacity at all, we have to do it. We start with ourselves and then we share, openly and honestly, and make whatever contribution we can to changing the culture from one that breaks us down to one where we help one another up and move forward together.
The photos in this post are some of the dogs whose journeys left the deepest scars on my heart. Each one came immediately to mind when I sat down to write this. There are three who were almost lost in ways and moments that even now hurt to think about. The fourth is my dog Finnegan who showed me in one devastating moment in a shelter kennel what it looks like to ask too much from a dog. That last lesson can just as easily apply to people. As I tried my best to help a dog terrified of other dogs cope with the new neighbor who wouldn’t stop barking at him, I watched him listen with everything he had, respond to every cue I gave him, while his whole body shook. It’s a moment I’ll never forget and I walked him straight out of the shelter to my car and called the foster team to say he was moving out permanently.
That decision, that change of environment, allowed everything to change for him. But it wasn’t a change that happened overnight. He’s a dog who’ll always be working on his skills and his confidence, much like many of us. But that moment was a start and from it, so much more became possible. If you’re looking for a place to start, try here and then keep reading, talking, sharing, and giving yourself permission to feel whatever you need to in order to find your way forward. You’re not alone. None of us are. Just like we stand up and advocate for the dogs we love, just like we take steps on their behalf to find their best way forward, so too can we do that for ourselves. It is, after all, how we do our best work.
PS. This is my magical compassion fatigue binder. I still refer back to it whenever I need to and even just looking at it gives me all kinds of good feelings. I keep it sitting in the middle of my desk like a visual reminder that I’m part of a whole community working through this stuff and I’ve got skills now, man. Good ones that really work. It’s so powerful that even just this photo makes me feel warm & fuzzy and sometimes, if I’ve had a shitty day, all I need to do is glance at my magical binder and I immediately start to relax and take action to turn things around. If this sounds silly to you, good. Silly is one of my favorite things and the process of creating this binder helped prevent me from losing it. ❤