With so much going on in the world at any given time, it can be distressing to know that there’s so much suffering, especially when you feel like you’re unable to help alleviate it.
Women especially tend to be higher in agreeableness, which is a measure of how compassionate and kind someone is. Women tend to be higher in agreeableness in all likelihood because this is a more desirable temperament for having a child.
These maternal instincts can often extend far past your own family, and cause you to empathize with the plight of others, whether they’re your next-door neighbor or someone across the world that you heard about on the news. This is, firstly, a positive thing. We should all want to reduce suffering. However, over-exposure to the suffering of others without any understanding of actions you can take to help, especially in the absence of self-care, can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue. This can cause you to get worked up and exhausted over large-scale issues that you feel powerless to do anything about other than worry. So, what can we actually do?
Why Compassion Fatigue Occurs
Whether it’s the war in Ukraine, inflation, the baby formula crisis, or school shootings, it can be upsetting to stay up-to-date with the news. You might think you’re better off just shutting it off completely – and many studies show that you would be. However, in unprecedented times, you may need to know what’s going on, like during a pandemic, when things are constantly changing and you aren’t sure if you’ll be stuck in a foreign country for multiple years…but enough about me. Besides the necessity of information in certain contexts, I don’t necessarily think it's good to advocate for ignorance.
The problem, of course, is that most of our news is sensationalized, slanted, and if you’re watching an editorial show like Fox News or MSNBC, it’s more of a presentation of opinions rather than facts. I’m not here to tell you to stop watching certain news channels or to stop staying informed, though if it’s affecting your mental health that much, then you likely do need a break. I want to talk about the concept of compassion fatigue so we can understand why the news is so upsetting and why the real problem isn’t the knowledge of suffering, but the knowledge that you’re powerless to alleviate suffering mixed with the confrontation of others who don’t care about suffering.
Compassion fatigue can be thought of as a secondary stress response as a result of empathizing with and helping others. It’s often confused with burnout, which is getting overwhelmed by all the work you have to do or lacking inspiration. Compassion fatigue is the psychological impact of constantly trying to help others in traumatizing situations. As a result, you feel traumatized by proxy. Healthcare workers, police, first responders, social workers, and foster parents are all at high risk for compassion fatigue, and you can probably imagine why. Highly empathetic and compassionate people are drawn to these professions because they want to make a difference. However, the constant exposure to some of the world’s most severe suffering and trauma daily is not just stressful, it’s traumatizing.
Compassion fatigue is the psychological impact of constantly trying to help others in traumatizing situations.
After a while, your brain starts to dissociate to protect you from stress and emotional harm. You may find that you’re too overwhelmed to help anymore. The problem here is not too much compassion, it’s not enough compassion for yourself. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, this is happening en masse. We’re being constantly inundated with graphic, violent, and upsetting stories that aren’t necessarily emblematic of a larger problem, but just reported to stir an emotional response. The solution that follows the news story? Well, there hardly ever is one.
Psychotherapist Andy Cottom has described the phenomenon of "doomscrolling" as the desire to understand every single fact to help us find a solution to the endless global suffering that we feel powerless to prevent. He says, “24-hour live news broadcasts and minute-by-minute updates on the internet have created a fear of missing out which can provoke an additional anxiety that we aren't doing enough.”
Why You Need To Care for Yourself To Care for Others
You can’t pour from an empty cup, as the saying goes. This is why your therapist needs their own therapist. I don’t think you need to have your life completely in order before you try to help others. However, when you suffer from compassion fatigue, it’s often because you haven’t established boundaries for yourself.
You’re trying to give too much without providing yourself with the bare minimum. Ask yourself, am I giving the same love to myself that I am trying to give to others? A good hygiene routine, diet, time for rest, maintaining a supportive social network, forming meaningful relationships, and sleeping eight hours per night are not optional. Without these, your mental health will suffer and you will be less able to offer others assistance.
When you suffer from compassion fatigue, it’s often because you haven’t established boundaries for yourself.
Take a nurse as an example. No doubt those who work in healthcare are inclined to want to help others. However, when they see innocent people die and are unable to stop it, they may start to feel guilty. This is when you’re most vulnerable to self-blame and think you don’t deserve to practice self-love. However, failing to do so can make you less able to help others. Carrying the burden of guilt can lead to decreased sleep, increased irritability, fractured personal relationships, and medical malpractice.
A vegan activist who protests factory farming may visit slaughterhouses to expose the realities of what goes on in factory farms. However, doing this continually without any time for rest, proper sleep, and nutrition will lead to burnout which will inevitably hurt their cause.
Activists of all kinds are familiar with the necessity of practicing self-care to be maximally effective activists. Whatever issue you’re campaigning for or against, there must be time set aside for yourself. You may find it selfish or like you’re taking time away from real issues to focus on things that don’t matter. However, practicing self-care and self-love will prevent compassion fatigue which results in you losing the ability to empathize with those you’re fighting for. It might sound like it would never happen to you now, but when you spend every single day fighting for a cause that those around you don’t care about and without seeing much change, you’ll begin to get frustrated, irritable, and worst of all, cynical.
How Can I Actually Make the World a Better Place?
Accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, and have the wisdom to know the difference. Jordan Peterson gives some good advice on getting your own house in order before you try to change the world. The reason for this is that focusing too much on things that are outside of your domain of control only serves to upset and depress you, while you remain powerless to make any discernible improvement. I disagree with the notion that you need to “have your house in order” before you can start improving the world around you. However, it does help.
The consequences of your actions are, at the end of the day, all that matter. Are the things you’re doing contributing to more happiness and reducing suffering or the other way around? If you aren’t sure how to make an impact, you can start small. Address the brokenness in your community, whether that be in your family, friends, church, or work. Be an avenue of support for someone who needs it. Secondly, focus on things you can actually change or influence. Take actionable steps to improve the conditions around you and mobilize others to join you. When it comes to providing aid for larger-scale issues, support effective and trustworthy charities that are providing support.
By far the best thing you can do if you want to make a difference in the world is to be altruistic. Effective altruism is a philosophy that advocates the use of evidence and reason to figure out how to maximize the good you can do in the world. Crucially, effective altruists consider how we can do the most good with our time and money. While some causes may pull more at our heartstrings by focusing on the personal story of a singular person, it may not be as effective as donating to an effective charity that can help thousands of people with the same amount of resources. This is why figuring out how to allocate resources is based not purely on emotion, but on evidence and reason. If you want to support a cause with your money, GiveWell is a website that determines what would be the most effective charities you could donate to – that is, charities that can make the most impact per dollar spent.
Give as much as you are in the position to without negatively affecting your ability to give in the future.
While the news may like to target our neanderthal brains by telling us the tragic and gruesome story of a single person who has met an ill fate in an attempt to persuade us to donate to this singular cause, what can make the most difference is often something very basic, like providing medicine to prevent malaria or supplements to prevent vitamin deficiency in children. These things aren’t focused on in the news because they’re much less interesting. The more removed we are from seeing the immediate impact of a cause, the less motivated we are to help. As we’ve previously reported, a single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic to the human brain.
The reason I stressed the importance of caring for yourself is that while it may seem like you should give the maximum amount possible, if this reduces your quality of life and starts to reduce your desire to help others, then this defeats the purpose. Instead, your goal should be to give as much as you are in the position to without negatively affecting your ability to give in the future. If there weren’t such negative consequences to giving more to others than we do to ourselves, then it would be objectively better to do so. Sacrificing first-world luxuries is sometimes necessary, but we must remain in good health and good spirits to give the best of ourselves to others.
The reality is that suffering exists all over the world, at all times. Millions die of preventable diseases, lack of food, war, and poverty. It can be a heartbreaking thing to acknowledge, but acknowledge it we must. You can’t solve something you refuse to name. However, it’s in everyone’s best interest that you maximize the good you can do for everyone, and this includes yourself.
Sensationalized news stories that are designed to outrage without providing solutions are only distractions. Instead, focus on what you can change and take action there. For all of the suffering that does go on, we have drastically improved our quality of life over centuries with advances in education, medicine, technology, and compassion. This is a direct result of the work of effective altruists – people who sought the best ways to improve society and wellbeing. It’s every generation’s moral obligation to continue to find solutions to these problems. Instead of becoming upset, think of how you can mobilize that energy into productivity.
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