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Got compassion fatigue?

Animal protection work is really, really hard. Discover how to take better care of yourself, so that you can take better care of the animals in your care.

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Before coming to The HSUS over five years ago, I spent about 11 years working in two different shelters in Washington state, where I live. I wore about fifty different hats, managing volunteer programs, foster care, outreach and education programs, and doing just about every shelter task there is, from intakes to adoptions, and from cleaning cages to euthanasia. Being a “shelter person” wasn’t just a job for me; it was my identity. It was hard, it was often frustrating and even heartbreaking, but it was all I wanted to do.

When I left that job to work here, I really grappled with how I’d be able to re-shape who I was, if I wasn’t going to be a person who worked in a shelter. It took a while to get used to.

When I accepted the position, I moved to Maryland for a year to get the work started, in hopes I’d be able to return to Washington to work remotely. I left my husband, our home and our four cats behind and took the dogs across the country (you can imagine how happy my husband was about that!). When my year was almost up and I started planning to make the pitch that I should be allowed to work remotely, I also heard about an opening at a shelter back home, and realized I had a solid plan B; if The HSUS wouldn’t let me work from Washington, at least I had another option for employment, which was a huge relief. I called my husband to let him know, and I’ll never forget what he told me, “Honestly, Hilary, I’d rather have you live in Maryland than come back here and work in a shelter again.” Ouch, right?

It turns out I spent much of my career in sheltering grappling with compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue isn’t “caring too much and getting tired”; it’s the decline of a person’s ability to feel and care for others that comes with being in mission-driven work. Most of us start in this work with tons of enthusiasm and energy, but in our zeal to save the world, we do too much, we fail to set up good boundaries and good habits, and then our ability to enjoy our work, the people we work with and for, and even our family and friends winds up taking a major dive. Because we’re caregivers, we run around trying to provide care to all the animals, and our coworkers, and pretty much else everyone under the sun ... before ever considering taking care of ourselves.

Animal protection work is really, really hard, and we are the people who choose to do it, to stand up and get busy doing what needs to be done, sometimes with negative impacts on ourselves. I really believe that there’s a way to do this work without it being so misery-making. Of course there is—but the only way to do it is to take care of ourselves, something we’re not really so great about doing.

I attended my first compassion fatigue training way back in 2002. I started teaching the course in 2008, and since then have probably taught it close to a hundred times, in 23 states and in Puerto Rico. It’s one of my favorite things to do, namely because I get to be around shelter people (who are my people), and also because I get to teach the thing I need to learn the most; it’s a constant reminder to myself that I have to follow my own advice. And it really just makes sense to me that amidst all of the other training and professional development we might offer, we’d also want to make sure people have the emotional resilience to stick around in the field for the long haul.

While there are some variations to what I hear in these classes, it’s amazing that no matter where I am, from Alaska to Puerto Rico, California to Maine—the issues we face in this work are the same. We love the work and are wholly committed to it, but we also struggle with the same challenges, no matter where we are or what type of organization we’re in. The good news is that you aren’t alone in feeling challenged by the work. The bad news is that it’s hard all over.

After countless hours of workshops and conversations, after research and reading (I especially recommend the book Trauma Stewardship) and listening to my own heart, here are some things I believe to be true:

  1. When you get on a plane and they give you the safety briefing, they tell you that in the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, a panel will open overhead and masks will fall down. Then they tell you to put your mask on before you help others. Put your mask on first. We are terrible at that, but we have to remember that we can only thrive at caring for others if we’re taking care of ourselves. That means carving out the time in your life to do what you need to do for yourself. And yes, there’s time for it.
  2. We are WAY too hard on ourselves. I ask in my workshops if people feel as though their best is good enough. It’s rare that I have more than one or two people who feel that’s true. This blows me away. Of course your best is good enough. It’s your best! I mean, are you supposed to be doing someone else’s best? Are you supposed to be doing the best you could do in another 5 years or with more money or more skill? If you are honestly doing all you can, it is enough. It has to be. And telling yourself you’re a failure for not finishing your to-do list every day is unproductive. Do what you can. It is enough.
  3. The animals would never ask us to suffer on their behalf. They just wouldn’t. Well, maybe my cat would. Seriously, though—sometimes we feel obligated to do this work because animals are suffering, and then feel as though we must also suffer because they are. I just don’t believe that’s true. They don’t ask it of us. We owe it to them to find joy and happiness, because that’ll mean we’re much better equipped emotionally to do the hard work ahead to help even more animals.
  4. The biggest antidote to compassion fatigue is gratitude. We spend so much time and energy focused on what’s not going well, what isn’t working, and what’s wrong with the world for animals that we forget to spend any time thinking about what’s going perfectly well, what’s good and how people are doing the right thing. Many of us have much to be grateful for in our own lives, but don’t really give it much thought. Establishing a gratitude practice, whether it’s making a list each morning of what you’re grateful for, or identifying three things that went well during the course of the day before you go to sleep, will help pump up the positive and counteract some of the challenges that come with the work. Some days might be harder than others. One morning the only thing I could really focus on to be grateful for was the fact that I have feet. It’s not a lie, but it also felt like a stretch. But man am I glad I have two feet that allow me to run.

I am so grateful to you, my animal people, for doing the work you’re doing, and fighting the good fight. I want you to keep doing it, and I want it to feel good and to bring you joy. Please put on your mask first and take good care of yourselves.

About the Author

Hilary Hager is the Senior Director of Volunteer Engagement at The Humane Society of the United States. Before joining The HSUS in 2011, she spent 11 years managing volunteers and other programs for two shelters in Washington state. She is on the Board of the Washington State Federation and has a long history of saying yes when she’s asked to help animals, from serving on the board of a chimpanzee sanctuary, to fostering, to transporting animals from Puerto Rico to WA. She is a runner to wear out her high energy dog, and has recently taken up ice hockey, which does doesn’t necessarily meet the criteria of “self-care.”