The “dark” side of empathy – when it’s too much

Koo shared this article:

I think it’s very applicable to animal caregivers.


It talks about giving “too much” until one becomes “numb” to suffering and while this may numb oneself to sadness, it may not be necessarily a good thing. Feeling sad is necessary, in order for us to experience real joy. Remember Disney’s Inside Out? 

Years ago at the shelter, I was assisting in the euthanasia of a dog that I was very attached to. To say that I had excessive empathy for this particular dog would be an understatement. I was weeping during the euthanasia. This stressed out the dog and we needed to call in a third person, so I could step aside from restraining him. The woman who came into assist had been on the job for many, many years.

Embarrassed, I apologized to her for crying. She took one look at my face, slick with tears, and said, “I wish I could still feel that way. I can’t remember the last time I cried.”

Today I recognize that her numbness was a normal and predictable sign of compassion fatigue. She had once cared very, very much. But back then I was shocked. I honestly had no idea what she meant. I was overwhelmed by emotions.

I wanted to feel less. She wanted to feel more.

It also discusses how our emotional mind tends to take in others’ sadness as our own (this is verified by research and it’s what empathy is made of) and soon, the suffering can become too overwhelming. And we may not be able to cope anymore.

The solution?

Caregivers need to give to themselves as much as, if not MORE than, they give to others.

So, please take care of yourself too. It’s not selfish. You can only give your best to others if you are emotionally and physically well.

Very often, I hear people saying that animal caregivers, who used to be really nice people, tend to turn nasty over time. It’s not difficult to form some general conjectures as to why this happens.

Maybe after awhile, they get disillusioned because of the many injustice and hindrances encountered in their caregiving work. Animal charity, after all, is often relegated by the general public. How often we have participated in events when left-over coins are dropped into our box whereas RM10’s go into the boxes of human charities. Or maybe, animal lovers, being a minority, often fail to get non-animal lovers to share their perspectives, or much less, their passion, on animal rights. The more this happens, the more the animal-people distance ourselves from the rest of the world. Thet feel alienated and alone.

So, with much workload, not enough help, having to face resistance, apathy and disappointments, animal caregivers eventually suffer from compassion fatigue without realising it. When caregivers end up tired and dejected, who loses? Relationships suffer, what was once a joyful and meaningful endeavour now turns into frustration and a chore. And naturally, the animals also suffer.

Koo shared the above article with me when I was discussing my recent illness. I was quite sure I wasn’t suffering from compassion fatigue because I know I love what I do. I argued that mine was a case of the natural cycle of aging and a food allergy which gets me emotionally ill at times. I am also, unfortunately, very much affected by the gloomy weather (monsoon season) towards the end of the year.

This condition has been with me for almost two decades now (ever since I started eating oats religiously – it turned out that I have a rare allergy to oat which makes me emotionally ill and then leads to other reactions). In the earlier years, I was younger and was, hence, better able to cope.

This time I fell very ill and everything became an uphill task; even the simplest chores. I told my husband, that even if I were to get well, please stop me from doing the following: (1) adopting another pet, (2) taking on new projects which require long term commitments, and (3) eating anything with even a tiny bit of oats; I must scrutinise all the fine print on labels of food. (1) and (2) are because when I get ill, which I will, I find it so difficult to just cope with what I already have going. (3) is for obvious reasons. In October, I took something with oat fiber in it, and fell sick after that.

Unlike last year when I requested a break from AnimalCare work for two weeks, this time I decided not to because I was thinking of all the applications that would be piling up if I requested for that break again. That was what happened in January 2015 after I had dengue fever – a big pile to clear after the “break”.

Also, the thought of all those animals and their caregivers needing the aid makes it rather difficult for me to stop doing what I do. Many applicants tell me that it is because of our aid that they are motivated to rescue and get so many animals neutered. It goes without saying that each animal neutered is many unwanted births and suffering prevented.

So I plod on, illness and all.

I doubt I was suffering from compassion fatigue since my illness was triggered by a food allergy and further aggravated by the gloomy weather. But the doctor did say there were possibly many triggers, not just the food allergy alone. In my rational mind, I doubt I had compassion fatigue because, as I’ve said, I truly love what I do and I’m not tired of doing it. But the mind is a complicated machine and we’ll never really know what is going on inside, will we?


Emotions have to be acknowledged to their fullest: In its poignant ending, we are told that we must experience sadness in order to experience real joy. All our emotions are important – they play a role.

So, now on hindsight, at the end of this year when the monsoon seasons approach and if I feel the gloom coming to take over my head, I may just request a break from AnimalCare work and this time, I hope the applicants will really give me one!

Time to rest rest1

For now, I’ve already sprung back from the monsoony gloom to sunshiny days!

Goodbye sadness, hello joy!

Let’s live Inside Out!

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