Coping with Compassion Fatigue: Strategies and Insights

woman looking out window at snow
How do you avoid compassion fatigue when you’re just trying to be a decent human being while remaining sane? Read on for some practical tips.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Balancing Opposite Worlds: Life During Global Crises

On a recent day in January, I woke up to a world made white with new-fallen snow. I checked messages on my phone while snuggling with my toddler under the warm covers, then sent him off to daycare with his dad, made myself a mug of gingerbread spice tea, and sat down at my laptop for another marketing meeting that had been taken over by the genocide in Gaza.

On my break, I posted about the snow on Facebook. I posted about Gaza. I posted about how excited I was for the new vacuum cleaner I’d gotten for Christmas and how bizarre it felt to reach that stage of life where a new vacuum cleaner was worth getting excited about. And I wondered if anyone would take my posts about Gaza seriously when I was also posting about vacuum cleaners. And what kind of person was I anyway, to be excited about a new vacuum cleaner when body bags the size of my toddler were piling up? And yet I knew that if I thought too long about those body bags, I’d crawl back into my warm bed and refuse to come out. Posting about the vacuum cleaner made me happy. And besides, if I didn’t post about anything but Gaza, how many of my Facebook friends would unfollow me and never see any of it?

After all, I myself had started avoiding social media posts about Gaza.

When the war started, I sought out the feeds that showed what was happening in Gaza, convinced that if enough people saw them the madness would stop. Then I stopped sharing them. Then I started scrolling past them as fast as possible. It was hormones, I told myself; as a mother, my brain just wasn’t structured to handle photos of dead children. Then the number of dead would tick up another digit and I’d share another headline, leave another message for the White House, draft another newsletter, and run the vacuum cleaner.

The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “compassion fatigue” as “apathy or indifference toward the suffering of others as the result of overexposure to tragic news stories and images and the subsequent appeals for assistance.” Coming up on Day 100 of the war on Gaza, I was suffering from a serious case of it. I didn’t want to think about millions of people starving while bombs rained down on their heads — I wanted to hug my toddler, drink tea, and watch the snow fall. How would making myself miserable help anyone? I’d already donated what I could afford and left messages with both my senators, but the bombs were still falling.

A Google search for “how to avoid compassion fatigue” turns up a host of articles, most of them directed at medical professionals, caretakers, and educators. The tips mostly seem to involve leaving work’s problems at work, practicing self-care, and relying on colleagues for support. But no matter how much suffering they encounter, a nurse can go to sleep each day knowing they have delivered pain relief or made a sick child smile. It was a lot harder to tell myself I had made a difference for Gaza. There’s not much on dealing with compassion fatigue when your job is simply marketing language services — even services delivered by refugees.

How do you avoid compassion fatigue when you’re just trying to be a decent human being while remaining sane?

Mari Andrew’s Wisdom: Poetry for Difficult Times

Comfort and counsel can come from surprising places, and a few weeks ago, a Facebook memory brought back a certain poem: “I am washing my face before bed while a country is on fire. It feels dumb to. It feels dumb not to. It has never been this way, and it has always been this way. Someone has always clinked a cocktail glass in one hemisphere as someone loses a home in another while someone falls in love in the same apartment building where someone grieves. The fact that suffering, mundanity, and beauty coincide is unbearable and remarkable.”

I first encountered these powerful words in the opening days of the war on Ukraine, and at the time I think I assumed they had been written for that occasion. After Google failed me on compassion fatigue, I tried the opening lines of this poem and found the whole text, as well as the author Mari Andrew’s own reflections on its writing. To my surprise, it wasn’t about Ukraine at all; it was written in reference to the literal wildfires that had consumed the country of Australia in January 2020. (“How is a person supposed to do ordinary things like fall in love when a quick phone scroll is both advertising discount designer socks and informing me that 12 million acres have burned?” she asks.) But the words, the author said, had carried her through the ensuing Covid pandemic and beyond for the same reasons they continue to circulate on social media today: I am not the only one feeling trapped between the horrific headlines, the vacuum cleaner, and the new-fallen snow. We are all struggling.

At the same time, I realized that I had never actually seen the entire poem. It’s usually the opening lines that get shared online because those are the lines that convey the emotion without making reference to specific circumstances. And yet Andrew isn’t just pouring out her heart with this poem; she’s also working toward solutions. “I despair with an exhale, then I refuse to despair, with an inhale. … ‘I must choose between despair and energy—I choose the latter.’ — Keats. What does it look like to state in the midst of smoke: I choose energy? For starters, I choose to finish washing my face. Then…” Andrew goes on to elaborate a list of concrete actions she is taking: eating less meat, buying new music, keeping money in her pocket to give away to someone who needs it, buying from an Aboriginal-owned business and attending a birthday party.

What’s interesting about this list is that not all of these activities had direct bearing on the wildfires. Eating less meat is, of course, an established way to combat climate change, and one can see how buying from Aboriginal-owned businesses becomes doubly important when Aboriginal communities are burning. But why does she decide to give $5 to a needy stranger? How does celebrating a friend’s birthday help? “I choose to do the things that I may think are too insignificant to matter, because sometimes protesting is an act of grieving and small choices toward energy keep me from despair,” she writes, “because grief and celebration often happen in the same night.”

I believe that all of us, whether this year’s fight be climate change, Covid, Ukraine, Congo, Gaza or whatever 2024 and 2025 have in store, can benefit from Mari Andrew’s wisdom. In that vein, I’m going to finish by sharing a few practical ideas for combating compassion fatigue that I have developed over the past few months, as we all struggle to be decent human beings while staying sane.

Combatting Compassion Fatigue: Practical Tips

  1. Continue to do the things that bring you joy. Go to the birthday parties. Drink the tea. Hug your children, and watch the new-fallen snow. You are not helping the people of Gaza or anywhere else by adding to the world’s sorrow. You are not betraying them by feeling happy. Your emotions make no difference to Gaza one way or another, so you might as well laugh with those who laugh.
  2. Make space to mourn with those who mourn. Reach out to those who are hurting. Take time to send a message to one of NaTakallam’s Palestinian Language Partners or the countless other Gazans who continue to cling to the Internet as their only window out of a living hell. Let them know you are thinking of them, or praying for them, or fighting for them. Make sure they remember that they are not alone.
  3. Set up a recurring donation. Instead of thinking in terms of a single grand gesture, then feeling frustrated because the $500 you emptied from your vacation account (or didn’t) isn’t even a drop in the bucket of Gaza’s need, decide what you can afford to give on a monthly basis — even if it’s just $10 — but keep doing so. Most of us get income on a regular basis, and most charities make it easy for you to have regular donations deducted from your bank account. After you’ve made your decisions and set up the automation, don’t spend more mental energy on it. Not sure where to donate? We recommend Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Tech for Palestine, and Jewish Voices for Peace, or you could donate to this fundraiser to support NaTakallam Language Partner Shahd, who lives in Rafah and whose family is currently sheltering several others who have lost their homes.
  4. Make decisions in advance about your spending habits. Agonizing over whether you’re a terrible person every time you buy a latte or a new music album is just going to make you avoid giving altogether. Instead, after you’ve set up your recurring charitable donation, decide on two implementable changes to your everyday shopping habits. This can involve choosing to buy less or shop elsewhere — such as by participating in the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement — or patronizing Palestinian businesses such as those listed in our 2023 Impactful Gift Ideas. Making the decision now will save you from worrying later on. In my case, seeing our local supermarket chain on the BDS list was the push my family needed to finally commit to shopping at at the organic supermarket instead. I like that by doing so we can contribute to two causes at once.
  5. Set a reminder on your phone for one weekly action. This can be attending a protest, calling your senators, writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, asking a major company to divest from the military, or any other action you choose — what matters is doing something. If you don’t have time to attend a protest every Saturday, you can still take two minutes to email a corporation. Once you’ve decided which actions to take, get everything set up. Put your elected representatives’ numbers into the contacts list on your phone (they should probably be there anyway). Write out a short script for yourself — your message should take no longer than 30 seconds to deliver. Bookmark a few “letter to the editor” forms on both major and local newspapers. Or save an email template asking for divestments.

More Preparation = Less Energy Needed Later

For all of these tips, you’ll probably notice a trend: the more you prepare now, the less effort you’ll need to expend later when you’re feeling less motivated. Emotions can be powerful as agents that drive us to act, but it’s our actions that matter.

And now I’d like to close with another bit of poetry: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” American Rabbi Rami Shapiro is the author of this famous passage, paraphrasing the Mishnah. For me, that last line has become key when fighting off compassion fatigue. I am not going to save those children in Gaza. The fate of Gaza rests in hands far larger than mine. I am only called to do as much as I can do. But I will do that much.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mikaela Bell is a freelance editor and content writer with a background in anthropology and linguistics. An American based in France, she is also fond of reading, cooking, studying languages, fibercrafts and Irish stepdance.

ABOUT THE EDITOR: Kelsey Holmes, NaTakallam’s Marketing & Communications Manager, has a background in international development, politics, social impact, and entrepreneurship, Based in Paris, you’ll also find her exploring the outdoors, enjoying creative hobbies like pottery and painting, and discovering new talent at Paris’s music venues.

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Mikaela Bell

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