I read about the recent suicide of well-known and respected animal behaviorist Sophia Yin with a heavy, heavy heart.
I became familiar with her as I threw myself into the world of dog ownership and training several months ago.
A thoughtful piece about her in HuffPo mentions how those in animal care professions can suffer from something called compassion fatigue.
“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet,” the article says. (source)
And some studies show that veterinarians more likely to suffer from clinical depression or commit suicide than other professions. (source)
Here’s a quote from a psychotherapist: “Animal care professionals are some of the most pain-saturated people I have ever worked with. The very thing that makes them great at their work, their empathy and dedication and love for animals, makes them vulnerable.” (source)
Many veterinarians chose their careers primarily because they love animals. They must frequently deal with illness, suffering, death, and abuse. They have to stare into the innocent eyes of a dog that was beaten by the person that was supposed to care for him, knowing that his injuries are so severe he needs to be put down, never having the chance to experience love or happiness in his short life. Vets also deal with unhappy, angry, and devastated people, too.
How can someone deal with that on a daily basis? Just writing it made me hurt inside. Compassion fatigue totally makes sense.
Yet, animal care jobs (and people care jobs!) can be incredibly rewarding, too. They can deliver the highest of highs along with the lowest of lows.
Some symptoms of compassion fatigue are anxiety, sadness, isolation, and anger. “If a person already has a history of depression, working as a helping professional can make them more vulnerable to compassion fatigue.”
All this makes me wonder if a compassionate career is not the best for HSPs, after all. I always thought it would be so fulfilling…but along with that fulfillment comes crushing regrets and what ifs.
But HSPs have such a wonderful capacity for empathy, consideration, and care, it seems like a waste to avoid a compassion profession due to the fear of being overwhelmed by the weight of sadness. I don’t have the answer to this conundrum.
Before I end this post, I want to write more about Dr. Sophia Yin.
Now, I don’t know for sure if she was an HSP, but she was extremely sensitive and empathic to animals. And, of course, I don’t know why she ended her life, either. (Making assumptions makes me nervous.)
At the very beginning of this video, she starts to cry when talking about how, as a young girl, she trained her dog using the painful and dominant methods that were popular at the time. The memory of this hurt her and filled her with regret. Watching this video touched me deeply, like I could feel her pain. In other interviews I have watched with her, she takes proven research and science and explains dog training in a way that is easy to follow and understand. She clearly wanted to help animals and the people around them, teaching them how to train and care for them in a positive way. She wrote books, made videos, and created products all for that purpose, and behind it all you can feel her genuine love and desire to help.
I’m so sad that such a valuable person, a gentle soul who gave so much to us, hurt so desperately bad…that she had to remove herself from the world. I wish sensitive people didn’t have to experience the lows of the world so intensely.
Related: Robin Williams, Suicide, and Depression
Further Reading: The Fatal Epidemic of Animal Care Workers
I am an HSP that has chosen a helping profession. Personally I believe many careers can expose one to all kinds of lows and it matters how one chooses to cope. It does matter which self care options a person chooses and whether they work. I had to get to know myself very well in order to care for myself in the best possible way. I take it easy knowing that I did all I could do with the knowledge and strength that I had at the time. Every person and animal won’t be saved, but I sleep better knowing that I did something! I got tired of putting all the pressure on myself to make everything “perfect” in my eyes. That’s what brought the real heartbreak to some issues. Thanks for writing this article to inspire me to continue caring for myself so that I don’t slip into one of those lows so easily.
First of all I want to thank you so much for this website/newsletter. I have wondered all my life what is wrong with me that I am so different from most people I meet. I thought other people to be so lacking in compassion and empathy, but I find I have too much. I totally agree with the article “Compassion Fatigue.” I lost my son 11 years ago and two years later threw myself into helping others who have lost a child. I read every grief book I could find and then wrote one myself. I setup a website and wrote blogs. Then my health started going downhill. I was so worn out from the compassion and sensitivity to others pain that I started having seizures and anxiety attacks. I believe that HSPs have the tendency to want to help others. I found out the hard way that I just can’t. Again, thank you for the insight. Wish I had known this decades ago.
Patricia, thank you so much for sharing. Having all this compassion and empathy seems like such a good thing, but like any good thing…there can be too much–right!? It is wonderful that you helped so many people with your blog, but I am glad that you also realized it was too much. Hopefully you are at a better place, like a happy medium now, where you don’t have to take on everyone’s pain. Thank you for your comment!
You are so right about compassion – things can get so overwhelming for me, especially with animal issues. I enjoy your posts so much and it is comforting to know I’m not the only one out there with these sensitivities.
I am an HSP who is also an HSS working in Human Resources and going for my Master’s Degree in Counseling. For me its about finding balance–I need a career in which I am caring for others in some way–its just in my nature but at the same time, I can’t be too overwhelmed and too bored either! I find it most beneficial when my job has a lot of change (but not too much where I am overwhelmed all the time) and gives me room to express my natural empathic/compassionate attributes. It annoys me when people at work say things like, “its not personal” when to me everything is! As HSP’s I think we find it hard to compartmentalize work and life. So much of what we do for a living impacts our quality of life deeply. I personally feel more connected to animals than I do with people so I definitely would have a hard time working with animals. The key is not only balance, but awareness. We need to shower the world with our natural gifts of love and empathy, yet shield and protect ourselves and know we are not responsible for everyone and everything. We need to feel, release, and repeat! This is certainly a daily practice!
Well, Amanda. Your comment is very honest. I know sometimes things people say can be annoying, but sometimes they are true, even when said with no compassion. After all, all of us get a little fatigued with being compassionate, every once in a while. So, when someone tells you “it’s nothing personal,” you should really consider it.
And you say that you feel more connected to animals than you do with people. Just realize that you are human, and animals are animals. Respect both but don’t put one before the other.
Matthew W., Oh is that all we have to do? Just don’t take things too personally and just remember that people’s suffering is more important than animal suffering? Oh ok. I guess I just haven’t been trying hard enough to be like a non-HSP.
Oh Amanda, you covered every blade of grass there can be!
I am learning however, hence in pain. It will take time, as all good things do.
Please keep sharing to keep us going.
Dear Amanda, thank you very much for your thoughts. I work in a different area, in medical system as physiotherapist. I thought I am not normal feeling nonstop being overwhelmed and bored. I did not get how this two existing together.
I work hard and well, getting ‘compliments’ but inside I am dying. I really don’t know what to do.
I am connected to all living things and have literally run myself down to the point of not being able to help at all. Then, add Mold exposure which affected my health and mental state, bringing with it even more Hypersensitivities. Such an unexplainable feeling.
Desperate to get help… I accepted whatever the doctor said… WRONG. It almost killed me. I have decided to take control of my own health. So through education, research and diet. I am almost there. But now I feel kinda lost. Knowing these things …I am having difficulty deciding what else to do for work. I have ALWAYS done service work, but know this is now a weakness…and am afraid if I get into it again, I’ll easily get sucked back in.
Oh, Terry! I am terribly sorry and at the same time you showed great courage to face vulnerability . It must have given you a high most people can only crave about sitting in bars or clubs.
I am not an expert but if your body allows, you can move to a third world country to help & live with lesser pain.
I found an interesting book titled “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom, now he’s not advocating for psychopathy, but this is exactly what he says, how empathy, feeling another’s pain, in his eyes, is a poor moral code, and I do believe it! He states how if you’re visiting a therapist, it does very little, to no good if they get sad along with you, but instead, ask you “how does it make you feel?” and help us analyze our feelings from compassion, not empathy, hence why I disagree with calling it “compassion fatigue” when it’s actually more empathy fatigue!
I’m not against feeling empathy, but it makes me wonder if feeling this level of empathy was mediated by the intense social bonds of the tribes. You always had people to bring you up when you were down because they were not told to be emotionally strong all the time! They just…cared!
FWIW I have an interesting prospective to this as I am a veterinarian that is a highly sensitive person, an introvert (intj, enneagram 5) and have about every two years of practice in very many different practice types have experienced burnout or ‘compassion fatigue’. My most recent episode is likely taking me from practice as I can’t continue to try to push past the negative aspects of being an HSP and my personality type in this profession without causing serious physical and emotional damage to myself. I think that those personality traits of mine have a lot to do with why I have experienced this verse colleagues of mine that recognize and dislike the same aspects of practice but they don’t understand the extreme reactions they cause for me or seem to be able to handle them better. Just a few examples of norms of veterinary practice that can be difficult for HSP’s are loud working environments with little ‘escape’ areas, long emotional days that require empathy, pending practice types if you’re on call or doing advanced training you will get limited sleep, a lot of underappreciated staff that voice their frustrations freely (you get close with your team and being an emotional sponge in these clinics is really overwhelming), highly emotional situations in which you can’t do what you know is best because of money etc… Being HSP has also made me a better veterinarian in some ways as I have strong intuition so I do well with cases when owners can’t afford as much diagnostics etc, highly observant, empathetic and able connect with clients deeply (they loved that, I always cried during euthanasias etc).
I think you’re right on that it can be the difference in why HSP people are more likely to be overwhelmed in this profession and unfortunately there isn’t as many options for people to find alternative practice situations that would be better for people with our traits and that can make people feel trapped. There is also a huge lack of understanding and empathy from other people in why we need something different vs the norm. I think resiliency techniques like meditation etc are extremely helpful but the negative affects can feel relentless and eventually exhaust you anyway (ie. It’s not enough!… In my experience at least) In veterinary practice right now resiliency training is the ‘it’ thing. I think veterinarians are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met and self care is extremely important but we also need to change the business models or the problem will not be solved. There are a lot of changes that need to happen in our profession to create more space for people to find a better place for you to use your skills. Because the other 80% don’t understand these traits you have to really loudly advocate for yourself which can be really difficult, especially if you are hurting badly. The profession has been designed for the majority, not us, like most professions. My colleague and I call it being plucked from the matrix, we just see the world differently. Personally, I have experienced the death of a colleague by suicide and the aftermath of that for me lead to a feeling of not feeling ‘safe’ in veterinary practice and no amount of self care could fix that. When I spoke up and was vulnerable about the ways that the business made me feel with the protocols they had in place after that the HR department had no idea that the protocols could make someone feel that way and are trying to make changes in light of that information. (Heads up though- Being this vulnerable at work also sent me into a deep shame spiral so do so with help!) We need to speak up and start designing our own place at the table.
I find it interesting that the statistics out there say 1:6 or 19% of veterinarians have considered suicide and I have often wondered if it correlates some with high sensitivity. A hypothesis for a research project perhaps!
Also behavior practice is high stress, highly emotional from the client stand point, high liability (ie. dealing with aggression or destructive separation anxiety) and highly dependent on client buy in and follow through (which if you’ve seen the stats on compliance in medicine you can only imagine). They were my least favorite cases and had a low success rate for a complete fix (which is often the goal of the client) I’m sure Dr. Yin, as successful and amazing as she was, had a high level of stress in her job. It’s extremely sad for us to lose people like her. She helped a lot of people and animals.
As a social worker and HSP who is currently burnt out for the 3rd time in six years I can testify to the fact that social work is a very bad choice for a HSP. I have tried everything to make it work for me, but even with dropping down to part time (50%) in my current job, dealing with processing applications for social welfare, I’m completely mentally destroyed.
I’ve had so many demanding, difficult, threatening and harassing clients over the last 6 months that I basically can’t stand being around people anymore, especially people with problems and negative energy. I just want them to leave me alone and disappear. I can’t shut out their anger and hatred and it hurts…deep into my core. Everyday I am at work it feels as though a piece of my soul dies and there is nothing I can do (in my current job) to stop it.
This is the third and last time. I have to find something else (preferably without people for a while) to recover my mind, my ability to feel empathy and my happiness.
I would not recommend such a job for anyone who cannot shut off their emotions to a degree that allows them to filter out all the crap and shit people will throw at you.