Can Caring Cost You?

A thought on Compassion Fatigue & Social Movements

WTF Is Going On? | Victor Anthony | April 19, 2016

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Is there an unconscious reason a sizeable population of people avoid social justice issues?

While it’s true that activism takes a gut punch from time and monetary constraints of activists, it can be assumed the act of caring itself drives participation. Perhaps it’s a quirk in the process of compassion itself that leads to inaction by those with knowledge of a problem in society.

Almost a year ago, a friend gave me a thought I’ve considered many times over. We were discussing how he was trying to help a person he cared about; as time wore on and emotional tasks began to pile up, my friend began to lose his willingness to listen and give advice. As he approached the phrase that threw me off, his demeanor grew flimsy and his voice shallowed. “A person can only use so much empathy.”

He wasn’t malicious. His words weren’t even meant as a defense for himself. Instead, this was a manifestation of exhaustion. My friend was experiencing a lower form of what is known in medical and social work communities as “compassion fatigue.” In his book Compassion Fatigue, psychologist Charles Figley describes the titular affliction as “the natural consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other, for example, the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.”

As human beings, we give ourselves over emotionally to a variety of people from the moment we enter the world. We look up to our caretakers and hope to make them proud, we keep our friends close and tell them our secrets because there’s a happiness to be found in camaraderie, and we have passion for our lovers since some people transcend only being held dear. Yet with all these positive states, there can be negatives which make them hard to hold on to.

A child could disappoint their parents, a friend could drift away without meaning to, and lovers could spurn each other. When we put the effort into making a relationship of any sort work, we place ourselves on the line and pray we don’t get hurt as bad as we know it can be. It’s with these thoughts in mind that I’ve been wondering if there was a subconscious avoidance of becoming involved with social issues movements due to the negative effects that come with caring.

Photo courtesy of Madeleine Stanley
Photo courtesy of Madeleine Stanley

In her fantastic article, Why Don’t More People Join Social Justice Movements?, Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos says, “‘caring’ is only part of the picture when it comes to social justice activism. Resources such as money, time and technology have a significant impact on people’s ability to turn a grassroots social justice issue into social reform. Social context also matters.” I don’t disagree with Dr. Zevallos and I encourage every reader to check out what she wrote. However, I believe that a major point she makes in her article shouldn’t be removed from the idea of caring.

Dr. Zevallos explains that in times of relative peace, humans are less inclined to join social movements while conflict leads to rallying of the troops. Here’s where I believe care comes into play; what happens when one section of society such as gay individuals aren’t in a state of peace while straight individuals are? Gay individuals already have the risk ingrained in the fact that non-sensical violence is being committed against them consistently while straight individuals don’t have that same risk unless they put themselves in a situation which directly evokes violence against their actions; one lives in a state of conflict while the other is at relative peace. Why won’t those at peace join in protests which cost them little to no money to participate in?

When a person is in relative peace, joining a movement places them in the vicinity of chance; their actions may cause change or stagnate. They place not only their time and money into being a part of the movement, but their emotions. They will care a great deal more when a gay individual is assailed or when a Black individual is a victim of police brutality; this is because they are working against these events occurring. These will affect them in ways similar to being hurt by a family member; they will wonder why the world has people who can commit atrocities against something they’ve put their passion into. A person only has so much empathy to give because utilizing it comes with the risk of being overwhelmed by caring and the consequences that come with it.

When surrounded by Compassion Fatigue, it’s easy to forget there are positives to caring. This is what I hope you take away from this thought; while there is a chance of overexerting yourself emotionally, no matter what movement you participate in, there’s also the chance of achieving the goals of what you believe in and have cared about. This isn’t about deterring you from participating in a social movement, it’s about exploring a human tendency which we can overcome in order to join one. Hopefully, you can leave this piece with an understanding of what block may be keeping you from participating in a rally or building your activist network.

No one ever made society reconsider itself by playing it safe.