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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 11 August 2003 Issue


By Judith Marie Gansen

Avoiding Burnout

Every profession or volunteer project that involves overwhelming odds or dealing with some horror, cruelty or suffering on a steady basis can create burnout in the person trying to deal with it.  Added to the regular difficulties of life, activists deal with an ugly side of life.  For instance, most of us get the alerts to respond to on the cruelty cases so that law enforcement and the judicial system will take animal cases seriously.  There are times when I feel if I get one more abuse alert I will just scream.  How many cases can one read about before we begin to think that people are all just monsters?  How many more times will we respond with a polite letter or phone call when inside we are screaming for justice for the poor creature who was killed or tortured?  What does this steady stream of horrors do to us and the people who love us?

Well, like police officers, medical people who work especially in cancer wards or hospices or people who volunteer to help starving people, we are all vulnerable to burnout.  It simply gets too overwhelming for us.  It feels sort of like trying to bail out a sinking boat with a spoon.  Burnout can manifest itself in all kinds of physical and emotional symptoms and the accompanying stress can even make us ill.  In my previous jobs I observed police officers become extremely cynical and jaded and Hospice nurses become withdrawn and depressed.  Burnout can greatly reduce job performance and increase absenteeism and therefore is the subject of much study.

As I have mentioned before, unlike others who might go out to eat to relax and forget, even that simple pleasure can be troublesome for activists.  While a meat-eating police officer can enjoy a good "meal" out, activists who are vegetarians look around a typical restaurant and see humans eating other beings knowing the suffering that took place.  If we go to see a movie we are always watching to be certain that animals were not mistreated or exploited on film.  Going shopping for fun can result in finding something with fur or leather on it and we get upset. 

Our journey of enlightenment on animal issues causes us a lot of pain that filters into our personal lives.  At times I have felt like giving up--why do I need all this extra stress and hassle in my life?  How effective are we really?  We certainly can't save everyone that is for sure.  Then why bother?  I think of people who formed the Underground Railroad during the Civil War in our country.  They couldn't save everyone either.  Or the people who saved the lives of Jews during WW2.  Why were they motivated to act when others did not?  Perhaps it's because we all believe that one life matters.  That injustice is wrong.  That one voice can and should be heard.

When We Lose for an Animal, Is It Always a Loss?

Then there is the issue of dealing with losing.  No one likes to lose--we live in a society that celebrates "winning" to the point of being ridiculous--have you ever seen the poor behavior of some parents at Little League games?  How sad that we don't focus on a good game or a smartly run campaign or simply a job well done.  But what happens to activists when we lose on an animal issue?  A law that doesn't pass to help animals because of well-paid lobbyists who defeated the bill.  A local fight against pound seizure that fails because people still believe that animal testing cures human diseases.  Three things we always deal with--apathy, ignorance and greed.  Tough challenges to be sure.

Please remember even if you lose an issue:

1.  How many people did you enlighten along the way--either by written word, spoken word or your professional demeanor?

2.  While maybe this was a loss, you perhaps put a support in place to build on for the next issue--converted a few more people, gradually building blocks of enlightenment for future animal successes!

3.  You may have planted a seed in someone else, given them an idea or made them less fearful of speaking up for animals or of being thought of as "one of those activist types."

4.  You gave yourself valuable experience and confidence to do more.

5.  With an animal bill that doesn't pass -- remember now that we care more for other living beings than we did even 50 years ago, politicians who forget this may not be reelected, opening the door for a pro-animal person to take their place.  In other words the anti-animal people may win that one battle, but overall may lose the war!

It also helps to find out what you are best at in your efforts to help the animals.  I came close to getting into fostering animals for instance then decided it would rip me up too much emotionally plus I would be far too critical of any adopting person.  While I have forced myself to do things I didn't think I could handle (like animal rescues), I feel I know myself well enough to know my limitations too.

Activists Need Hugs Too!

Remember to thank other activists for anything they did for an animal--I often forget to do this myself.  The animals can't of course, so we are our own support system.  When you get to the point of being totally overwhelmed, depressed or can't deal with issues, give yourself a break!  Take a long walk or do some other exercise, play with your child as another child would, call a friend, read a good book, enjoy nature, pursue a hobby or "escape to the movies."  Or even something simple like ask your significant other for a hug!  Sometimes you may need to even take a week or maybe even a month off.  This may sound terrible to some of us I know--to ignore those pleas for help, but you may need that time to heal from the pain you just felt for those animals hurting out in our world.  After all, activists feel for other beings as no other humans seem capable of doing--we really do feel their pain.  If none of those ideas work, you may even choose to speak with a counselor or spiritual advisor.

I have found that this type of work can nearly drown you because we know we are the only ones who care and who will do this if we don't?  The problem with that type of thinking is then we expect a lot of ourselves and can't seem to let go enough to care for ourselves which is super important.  If we become "broken" then we can't help animals at all and that is tragic.  We also need balance in our lives as everyone does.  A spiritual connection also sustains many people.  Remember the importance of laughter and to PLAY!  Research has shown that laughter affects us both mentally and physically--all kinds of good stuff gets released in our bodies when we laugh.  We heal faster!  We then can return to our work refreshed, renewed and far more effective and ready to fight the good fight!

I picked up this great little paperback book I recommend (geared towards Christians but has mostly positive messages for everyone regardless) called You're Born An Original Don't Die a Copy!  By John L. Mason, Copyright 1993 by John Mason, Published by Insight International, PO Box 54996, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 74155.  I love the back of the book as it reads:

Think about it....

--You're like a tea bag, not worth much until you have been through some hot water.

--Go out on a limb, that's where the fruit is.

--Leave everyone a little better than you found them.

--The doors of opportunity are marked "push."

--Don't spend your life standing at the complaint counter.

--You can't walk backwards into the future.

--The sky's not the limit.

Remember you can often function while you are burned out, but you will have lost your edge, your passion and your resolve.  Your wheels will be turning but it is like being stuck in a rut.  This will have a profound influence on your work.  Taking care of yourself is not a luxury but a necessity.  Finally, a quote from Winston Churchill, from My Early Life, 1930:  "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."  Don't allow pessimism and hopelessness to overwhelm you--something tells me if we could communicate with animals as to whether or not to pursue any animal issue, they would say "GO FOR IT!"

Staff:  Animals in Print 
(free online animal publication)

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