2019: Compassion Fatigue


If 2017 was my year of action, 2018 was my year of over-action. I struggled throughout the year with a question that has plagued me my entire life: If I don’t give everything extra I have (time, money, energy) to those with less, aren’t I responsible for their continued suffering? Every time I get my nails done, that’s $25 that could have bought a sleeping bag for a refugee in the Choose Love store. Every time I order take out for lunch that’s $10 that could have bought a family long-lasting insecticide nets to protect them from malaria through the Against Malaria Foundation. Every time I blow $40 at the bar, I’m taking food out of the mouth of a refugee child that Refugee Community Kitchen could have provided them for a month. And that’s just the money… every time I take a vacation it’s time I could have been volunteering in Texas for the Dilley Pro Bono Project. Every movie is time I could have been organizing or volunteering.


This pressure that I’ve put on myself, part of the US activism ‘culture of martyrdom’ had taken a serious toll by fall. Some of my symptoms were easy to link to my over-action like nightmares, exhaustion, and physical illnesses. But others built slowly in me over time and were harder to recognize until they had developed into a mini-crisis. I stopped seeing the world as a safe or good place. My optimism about our ability to change it waned. I was tearful more often at first and then not often enough—I began to shut out the misery of others to protect myself. I began to shut out friends, particularly my activist friends. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on one’s perspective) I had experienced a similar challenge before. When working as a crisis counselor I had many of these symptoms and struggles. I was able to identify them for what they were—compassion fatigue and burnout.

Compassion fatigue, like vicarious trauma, is physical and psychological symptoms that develop in one who is helping others who have had a deeply distressing experiences. It is closely related to burnout which is the cumulative impact of experiencing barriers and obstructions to successful helping work that takes its toll on the helper and makes them feel less effective over time. Compassion fatigue is the internal experience, burnout is the frustration with the external influences. These two phenomenon combined create one of the biggest barriers to sustainable social justice work. And there is very little research on it. Compassion fatigue has been explored extensively for social workers and therapist and burnout is researched for many helping professions, but neither has been studied adequately for social justice workers, although that is slowly changing.

Social justice workers include those who are advocating for their own communities, like the leaders of Black Lives Matters and allies advocating on behalf of a community or social group they are not a member of, like men in He For She. This work involves pushing political agendas, lobbying for changes through the existing systems, organizing for a dismantlement of the current systems and a development of new ones, providing services to help people survive until systems change, and raising awareness about issues. Techniques used in this field widely vary from protests in the streets, sit-ins, providing sanctuary, petitions, letter writing, and many more.


Despite the incredible number of people involved in social justice work, there is very little effort put in to studying the best way to be effective. Sustainable effectiveness requires the wellness of workers so that they don’t become so physically or psychologically ill that it prevents them from working or over exert themselves without enough support and burn out. Many fields can be pulled from in order to inform our social justice practices including social work, therapy, and effective altruism. 2019 will be my year to explore this.

In 2019 I will be focused not just on how to protect myself from compassion fatigue and burnout, but to help others doing social justice and human rights work with it as well. Conventional wisdom is that various types of self-care such as healthy eating, exercise, down time, and meditation can help combat the effects of compassion fatigue and burnout. The challenge for me, and I’m sure many others, is making my own self-care a priority. It is easy to look at my own life and think “My life is one of the easiest on the planet, taking time or money to make it even easier is selfish,” then go back to the work of helping others. Part effective social justice work that must be developed is the protection of those doing the work so that it is sustainable. Social justice and human rights work is slow going, even in extraordinary points in history when it seems to leap forward. We have so much more work ahead of us and if we drain ourselves in a couple years we will then be useless for the decades ahead. 2019 will be my year to find balance, self-care, and sustainability for this work.


Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist

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