Many news consumers feel a responsibility to bear witness to all sorts of distressing images and events. But deciding to tune out instead doesn’t make you a bad person, writes counsellor Ross Palethorpe.
Our attention is demanded everywhere. We are exhorted to witness, to not look away, to act, in response to any number of crises and issues. Things feel more uncertain, unsettling, traumatic than perhaps at any other point in our lifetime. Rights and freedoms obtained by the hard work of previous generations feel like they could be snatched away, requiring constant vigilance and protection. Wages have stagnated and disappear into the pockets of landlords and grocery conglomerates, and out the window the weather feels less like a natural phenomenon and more like an existential threat.
And with all of this comes the constant pressure to behave like none of this is happening. Social media feeds oscillate wildly: the worst thing you’ve ever seen, a photo of a kids’ birthday party, a wall of text saying you’re not doing enough, a video of another atrocity, an influencer’s unboxing of a weight loss tea. Why aren’t you losing weight while you hustle and march for a better future and feed your kids and swing a kettlebell and watch a video of unimaginable suffering? What’s wrong with you?
There’s nothing wrong with you. The stress we’re all under is real, and chronic, and exacerbated by the expectation that we carry on as though it doesn’t exist. So how do we carry on? I’m a qualified counsellor, working with young people and adults. Many of my clients feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the weight of personal, professional and political obligations. My focus is on harm reduction, understanding our personal capacity and how we can support ourselves and each other to do the work that matters to us in a way that avoids burnout.
The cost of empathy
Vicarious or secondary trauma is the name given to psychological symptoms experienced by people who are not directly impacted by a distressing event, but are exposed to the details, media or stories of those who are. Those at high risk of vicarious trauma include frontline medical staff, those supporting people recovering from traumatic incidents, and people who have experienced trauma in their own lives. The consequences of leaving vicarious trauma unchecked can be devastating for both the individual and those around them.
As our unfiltered access to the lives of others increases, so does the risk of vicarious trauma. It’s hard not to be affected by what we see, and we should be moved by the suffering of others. But there’s a difference between being moved and being traumatised, between being motivated to reduce harm and inflicting harm on ourselves. People suffering vicarious trauma can become desensitised, cynical, even callous. Alternatively, they can start to obsess and over-identify with others, to feel that they alone can “save” the cause of their trauma.
It’s important to recognise when we are in danger of crossing that line. Are we bearing witness so that we can do something with that knowledge, or are we inflicting harm on ourselves? Is the result of hours of doomscrolling a readiness to act, or a feeling of despair? Are we able to rest, or do we find ourselves fixating on the images and stories we’ve seen? Does this focus serve us or help those who are suffering, or not?
The road trip
In his recent book The New Saints: From Broken Hearts to Spiritual Warriors, Buddhist teacher Lama Rod Owens compares the work of any positive change to a long road trip. Before any road trip, we prepare. We make sure our vehicle is roadworthy. We think about where we’re going to stop, to rest, to change drivers. We check the route for roadworks or other diversions. We cannot anticipate everything that can happen on the road, but we know that if we don’t take care of ourselves and our vehicle then the journey may be harder. We might not make it where we’re going at all or, worse, be a danger to others.
Too often, we see fatigue or burnout as a badge of honour. We refuse to rest, or fuel ourselves properly, or let someone else take the wheel for a while. Doing so can feel like letting others down, or not caring enough, or being selfish. We can look at others who we perceive to be doing less and get angry. We can become hopeless, despairing at how little we seem to be achieving despite what it’s costing us.
But rest, and refuelling, and sharing responsibility are not nice-to-haves but essential to the safety of ourselves and those around us. I speak from personal experience. My full-time job is supporting people as they process trauma, or feelings of overwhelm. Some days, I hold a space for people to share stories of pain and hurt that are beyond imagining. I can’t predict which days will be the most emotionally intense, or what days will require additional time to respond to a crisis.
However, I can prepare for it by making sure I’m rested, and fed, and that I have enough in the tank to respond as best I can to difficult situations as they arise. On days where I’ve gone flat out, I make a point not to add to that fatigue. If I’m exhausted, burnt out or upset the next day then I’m not going to be able to help. I might even make a client’s situation worse. So that evening I might skip the news, avoid social media, mute the group chat discussing the latest headline. Sometimes I reschedule my next workday so that I can go to the gym or for a run or meet a friend for a coffee before getting back into the fray.
Rest, recovery and sustaining ourselves is not selfish or avoiding our responsibilities. Rather, they are a key part of showing up for our responsibilities in the long term. What does rest and recovery look like to you? In what ways can you refuel not just your body but your whole self? How could actively building that time into your routine help you fulfil the roles in your life that really matter?
You can’t do everything, but everyone can do something
The truth is, we are not built to hold everything. In the face of the huge political, social and environmental upheavals of our lifetime we are already overwhelmed, and still the laundry needs doing, and packed lunches need to be made. It’s hard not to feel as though there’s an individual responsibility to keep on top of absolutely everything. Sometimes, it feels as though we are being scolded: “If you care about X, why don’t you care about Y? Your silence speaks volumes.” It can feel paralysing when every action is held up to be a moral choice, and every social media post or discussion feels judged on merit.
No single person reading this has the power to right all injustices. All will not be lost if you, personally, do not sign yet another petition. It’s important to set boundaries for yourself so that you can continue to turn up in the long term. For example, if you feel passionately about men’s mental health, and that is what you donate time and money (and dodgy facial hair) to, then that work contributes to better outcomes overall.
It’s good and responsible to be aware of everything else that’s going on, and to see how all these issues and crises are connected to each other, but with that should come an awareness of how, by everyone doing their bit to help in their space, we make change everywhere.
Where do you feel your energy and labour is best directed? What communities or causes pull you to them? How does the work you do in this field positively impact in other areas? How can you keep moving in that direction even when the going feels hard?
Needs and wants
Some people reading this might be angry at me right now. Perhaps I don’t understand what I’m talking about. After all, I’m not speaking to their specific situation, I just don’t get it. Fair enough! If there was a single piece of mental health advice that worked for every person in every scenario, then we’d all be doing it by now.
Sometimes it feels like everything we do must anticipate the needs of everybody. It can feel paralysing to risk disapproval, even anger, from people we care about and want support from. In turn, that anxiety can be funnelled into anger at other people for not doing what we feel is enough, or in the “right” way. Sometimes we swallow huge amounts of discomfort or exhaustion to keep other people comfortable. It can be very challenging to let go of those expectations, both of other people and of ourselves, but it’s worth it.
It’s much easier to care for others with different backgrounds and needs and perspectives when we are secure in understanding and meeting our own needs. Notice I say needs and not wants. I need rest, and time with my family, and exercise and sleep to keep going. I might want to check out entirely sometimes or to stop caring or to go wild in the Black Friday sales, but those ‘wants’ become less important once my needs are met.
This is not the same as giving up hope or accepting apathy. It’s about accepting that we cannot do it all in isolation. It’s about understanding that energy spent forcing ourselves and others to work outside our capacity is not healthy. It’s about recognising that compassion for others starts with compassion for ourselves.