Caring About Animals Shouldn’t Hurt: How to Protect Your Soft Center
By Paula Fitzsimmons
As animal advocates, we’re exposed to some pretty nasty stuff. Failure to properly shield ourselves emotionally may lead to problems later on, sometimes with disastrous results.
Veterinarians, for instance, experience a higher suicide rate than that of the general population, according to an article in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education. Shelter workers, vet techs, disaster workers, and anyone in regular, direct contact with distressed animals are susceptible to compassion fatigue.
Those who work tirelessly behind-the-scenes to protect animals and the planet are not immune from the hurt, either. Working on legislative bills that don’t pass, dealing with harsh critics, and having to constantly raise funds can also be brutal. And yes, volunteers are also vulnerable.
Caring shouldn’t suck the life out of you, and it shouldn’t hurt. It’s possible to advocate for animals and care for them without opening up that soft center of yours to emotional trauma.
I’m not a doctor or spiritual advisor, but I do have some thoughts on how to cope while caring . . . many based on my own experiences.
Learn mindfulness meditation
No lotus positions or incense required. There are different things to learn about mindfulness, but in short it serves as a powerful shield against painful thoughts and emotions. When you learn to observe your thoughts and feelings instead of reacting to them, they have less power over you.
Mindfulness isn’t about numbing emotions or escaping them – it does however, offer a way to not let thoughts and feelings overwhelm.
There are dozens of mindfulness books and resources available. I like Mindful.org, a nonprofit that also publishes an awesome magazine.
There are a lot of good books on the market, too. For beginners, I recommend Happiness the Mindful Way.
To learn about meditation, as well as other modern-day coping tips, I like The Urban Monk: Eastern Wisdom and Modern Hacks to Stop Time and Find Success, Happiness, and Peace.
(Please note: The two books mentioned are affiliate links, and results in commissions if purchased.)
Do things that cultivate joy
Aside from caring for animals, what do you do to cultivate joy in your life? For example, I like getting immersed in a good book (usually several at a time), birdwatching, watching an oldie on TCM, and exploring new hiking paths.
Maybe for you, it’s spending time at a museum or beach, learning arts & crafts, gardening, playing volleyball, or taking a cooking class. Some people, myself included, swear by adult coloring books. (Please note, the coloring book image is an affiliate link, and results in commissions if purchased.)
The important thing is to find activities that help you find balance.
Build a strong network
Considering the level of stress veterinarians are exposed to on a regular basis – not to mention other factors, such as a public who sometimes think vets should work for practically nothing – you’d think they would have a strong network of support. Yet according to the Journal of Vet Med Education article, vets have fewer support structures.
Don’t underestimate the power of a strong support system. Surrounding yourself with a few empathetic people you can relate to, count on, and who have your back, is more important than the number of people in your network.
The people you rely on don’t necessarily have to be in the animal protection field, either. Others who get what you’re feeling may include nurses, caregivers, police officers, social workers, and others in similar fields.
People who understand what you’re feeling . . .
• Reach out to other professionals at conferences, such as the annual one hosted by the HSUS-Animal Sheltering.
Confrontation does little, if anything, to change other people’s minds. What it does do is lead to agitation, frustration, and anger. Why get yourself riled up?
The best we can do is try to plant seeds when the opportunities arise. State the facts, depersonalize the debate, and separate yourself from the issue at hand.
Check out my article for tips on how to effectively speak up for animals . . .without losing your sanity.
Seek out the good in the world
With the media bombarding us on a regular basis with tragic stories, it’s easy to start believing almost everyone and everything is bad. This is not to say there isn’t bad stuff happening in the world (we know there is) or that we shouldn’t work towards solutions. It’s just that it’s important to balance that out with positive stories.
If the pain gets to be too much
Preventing problems before they snowball into something unbearable is essential, but if you do get to a negative point, seek guidance – either from friends, family, clergy, or professionals. None of us are flawless.
(This book image is an affiliate link, and results in commissions if purchased.)
We shouldn’t stop caring about and protecting animals – but caring shouldn’t hurt. Learning how to manage the stress before it develops into compassion fatigue is essential. Networking with others, learning mindfulness meditation, cultivating joy, and avoiding confrontation are some techniques that have helped me personally. Do what’s best for your personal situation. Practicing self-care yields benefits for you, as well as for the animals you so deeply care about.