Compassion Fatigue: How I Stay Hopeful in a Bleak World

Nobody has the emotional capacity to care about everything, so how are you supposed to react to all of the bad stuff in the world?

The world is more connected than ever and in my opinion, that’s a beautiful thing. Bringing the whole world closer together, creating cross-border opportunities and encouraging global collaboration- I’m a strong advocate for all of these things. But there’s a price to all of this. In addition to all of the good there’s an equal amount of bad that in the past few decades has suddenly been thrust into the light.
Like never before, we’re aware of every war, tragedy and calamity that occurs around the world. Dictators hold vice-like grips on their governments, famine and conflict wreak havoc in less economically developed countries and even in the most powerful and developed countries in the world we have political discontent, discrimination and destitution for some. The world is on fire and the ice caps are melting. It’s all so… bleak.
How are you supposed to care about it all?
Well, my hot take here is that you can’t, and you should embrace that. Hear me out.
Compassion fatigue is a condition sometimes referred to as the negative cost of caring. It’s when a person experiences emotional and sometimes physical exhaustion which leads to a diminished ability to feel compassion for others. It’s more common in jobs where exposure to trauma is an everyday expectation, like police and first responders.
We as humans are susceptible to this condition because we have an innate desire to protect and help those around us. The unfortunate reality is that we can’t fulfil this desire. There’s far more to fix than there are people to fix it. Now, it would be easy to arrive at this conclusion and swiftly descend into nihilism, believing that “there’s no point” because “you can’t make a difference no matter how hard you try” but that’s not where we want to end up. I don’t want to see compassionate, empathetic people become grizzled and stoic as the world beats down upon them.
So, how do you avoid that?
Like any stress-based condition the answer isn’t clear cut, and it’s different for everyone, but I’ll tell you what worked for me.
I’ve learned to see compassion in a similar light to productivity. If you resolved to learn every language, get a diploma in Maths, Chemistry, Art, run an ultra-marathon and write a best-selling sci-fi book series… Well, that’s just too much all in one go. If you place such high expectations on yourself you’ll burn out and you won’t make meaningful progress towards any one of those goals.
Similarly, if you care about too many causes, you’ll burn yourself out emotionally, and you’ll find yourself unable to care about any of them. The good news is that the solution is also the same. Just as in productivity, the way that you improve your ability to really care is by choosing to focus on a few different causes at any one time. Take some time to think about what your priorities are, and where you can make the biggest difference, and then do what you can to make that difference. In his book The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win author Jeff Haden writes:
“motivation isn’t something you have. Motivation is something you get, from yourself, automatically, from feeling good about achieving small successes.”
And I say that the same thing goes for compassion. It isn’t something that you have. Compassion is something that you foster by feeling like you’ve made a difference.
That’s my secret. Do something that contributes to a cause that you believe in, and focus on that. Sign up to the local soup kitchen. Set up after-school clubs. Use less plastic. Do what matters to you and don’t get dragged down by all of the other causes that you ‘should’ care about. It’s not that people who are more compassionate are the ones who give more of themselves to help others (although I’m sure that is true in some cases). It’s that people who give more of themselves to help others become more compassionate, because they see the difference that one person’s light can make.
Focus on the difference that your own light can make.