On Finding and (Re)building Meaning in the Midst of Outrage Fatigue

On Finding and (Re)building Meaning in the Midst of Outrage Fatigue

Not surprisingly, I had quite a case of Outrage Fatigue/Compassion Fatigue around the time I wrote my initial post on the subject. I think it’s important to acknowledge that, because it’s key to note that no one’s immune from such things, no matter how much you study and teach stress, trauma, and conflict communication, or how often you practice all the stress management tips and tricks in the world. (That said, the current post is long, but will offer you some key helps for your stress management practice, I promise. Stick with me, please! You all are so great. Thanks for being great.)

The fact that none of us is immune from getting tired is an important message in an age where we often expect ourselves and each other to be somehow perfectly invulnerable and resilient. To never need any rest.

We all need rest. We all need self- and other-care from time to time. That’s how we’re designed. I know this as a scholar because that’s what all the research says. And as a Christian, I also know that’s what my theology teaches me. I need to love my neighbor as myself, after all. (Incidentally, that means I can’t hate myself, or the whole love-of-anyone thing goes downhill in major ways!)

Collaborative Self- and Other-Care as Stress Management

At any rate, it took a lot out of me, writing that article on the sources of many Americans’ current cases of Outrage Fatigue, but it was important for me to use up some of my stress energy to write, as were the follow-up posts on FB encouraging people toward self-care and other-care in the midst of their Outrage Fatigue.

I find it incredibly important to keep in mind that stress energy is designed to help us rise to the occasion. To burn out some of that in appropriate ways I needed to put them out there. I needed to offer help to myself and others simultaneously. I needed to both look for encouragement and offer it to others.

So How Does This Collaborative Stress Management Thing Work?: My Story

Let me illustrate some of how this works in action. To do that, I’ll tell you the story of how I pulled out of my own Compassion Fatigue. (Note: This is super vulnerable for me to talk about, because I don’t want to come off as some sort of sainted persona that’s awesome at this stuff. I have been practicing it for a long time though, and these skills do build with practice.)

Step #1: I started, paradoxically, by listening to my own negative emotions. (I still hate that this is a non-negotiable part of the process.) I gave myself space to feel the tired feelings and leaned into the exhausted feelings enough to give them a voice. (That was partly what writing the article was about.)  

I gave the negative emotions space, but I also gave them limits. For instance, I allowed them scope to articulate the issues causing the outrage fatigue in the beginning of the article, but I still ended with an upturn and encouragement—and that message was as much for me as others.

(Note: that’s part of the collaborative thing. Funny how offering help to others often helps remind you as well. But that part didn’t fix everything. Sigh.)

Step #2: The true exhaustion combined with vulnerability hangover hit me soon after I published the article. That’s when I leaned in and gave myself a promise of a bit more rest as I needed it, and then actually rested a bit more among and between the following steps, which wove in and among each other, as in a dance.

Combining Mr. Rogers’ Advice with That of Stress Researchers! Because It Helps

[Cat looks out screen door, sniffing next to card:] "Look for the helpers." --Mr. Rogers "Be the helpers." --Bessel Van der Kolk "Lather, Rinse, Repeat." --DS Leiter and All Shampoo Bottles (AssertiveSpirituality.com)
My cat Mim looks for the helpers–and is one!
Step #3: I didn’t let my negative emotions stop me from looking through the news, as I find it’s so important to be well-informed. But as I did, I made sure to look particularly hard for the helpers. I’ve been doing this for a long time, ever since I first saw the famous Mr. Rogers quote and correlated its advice with stress research: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Following this advice always helps me feel a bit better, especially when I share articles about the helpers I find for difficult events, and do anything else I can to fix the problems, within reason and using my particular skills, where I am, with what I’ve got.

My experience fits with what Bessel Van der Kolk’s work on trauma in hurricane victims has found: those in the midst of hurricane zones who have been allowed to do what they could to help others were less likely to sustain long-term trauma than others who felt like they couldn’t do what they could. (If you want to learn more about his work, he talks about it accessibly in his interview for the fabulous NPR show “On Being”.)

Living Out the Advice Until It Feels Better

Overall, stress research seems to show that doing what you can do to solve a problem, including giving to others, helps moderate the effects of a lot of stress, and reduce long-term trauma. Plenty of other research shows that more focus on the good things in life also helps us when we’re feeling fatigued and burned out. So for me, that includes focusing on others’ helping efforts, and on the meaning of everyone’s efforts toward solving big problems.

So yes, especially because I knew I was feeling overwhelmed, I looked for the helper, and I tried to be the helper. I looked for them in the news, and I also looked for them in person and down the street.

In Which I Leave My Introvert-Cave to Find Helpers in Person

Step #4–Listening to Poetry and Talking to People: See, I had a couple of friends who were putting on a poetry fundraiser event in town to help out those groups in town who had been helping immigrants and refugees long before it was cool. Despite my tiredness, I had promised to emerge from my cave and go, and so I went.

I listened to some lovely poetry, which is always soothing to me because its nuance breaks through the zero-sum dichotomies the stress states seek to lure us into. I also had some great conversations. I offered what I could to help. I set boundaries to where I wouldn’t be the best helper. And it was healthy, and fabulously life-giving.

Granted, my introvert self was a little socializing-tired when I got home. it didn’t wipe away my tiredness immediately. And it didn’t do away with the nasty stuff in the news. But it helped.

In Which All of the Efforts Help Me to Keep Going

So yeah, I did get some rest and other forms of self-care as well, but all of these efforts together eventually helped. Looking for the helpers in the news helped. Recognizing from long practice that my Compassion Fatigue was bound to be temporary as long as I kept at my nourishing self- and other-care practices helped. My collaborative self- and other-care posts encouraging others helped.

On Needing Positive Narratives to Resist Overly Negative Ones

I also know for sure that looking for the truth and evidence that people are persisting in solving big problems, even in the scariest of times, helps all of us resist false narratives. Especially those voices that whisper or shout at us that nothing is being done to fix issues.

I know this, because all of these things together cumulated to give me the ability to be able to see both the truth and falsity in this message when it popped up on my Facebook feed a few days later: “Notice how we’re not talking about babies being put in cages anymore because that was at least 30 Trump disasters ago.” (David Lee Gordon)

In Which My Internal Fact-Checker Needle Falls on Somewhat True

On one hand, I could see the truth in this statement—the front page of many news organizations (and probably the attention of cable news, which I haven’t watched since the last US election) had likely moved on from the stories about the zero tolerance policy’s negative effects.

In Which My Internal Fact-Checker Needle Simultaneously Flips Over to False

But on the other hand, even as I was still tired at this point, my “this is somewhat BS” meter also went up. Going to the event had helped me realize this statement may have some truth to it. But it wasn’t the whole truth by a long shot. Going to the event had reminded me that the beautiful faithful efforts of those whose attention and care to these kinds of issues has been going on for years.

Regardless of the news cycle. Regardless of what’s trending on Twitter. And regardless of who’s in office or what party is in charge.

Yes, the people I talked to at the refugee fundraiser event were particularly concerned with things right here and now, and especially with the zero tolerance policies, but they were concerned about the good of those real humans affected by the policies, and had been quietly being the helpers for years.

I also knew that I’m blessed with knowing good people that are deeply affected by this issue and are keeping up the information on my FB feed about it. So I’d been seeing–and sharing–lots of updated news about what was going on with the caged children even while we tried to keep up with the avalanche of daily reports on other subjects as well.

In Which These Kinds of Procedures Can Help Us to Continue to Resist Unhealthy Narratives

So yes, looking for and being the helpers doesn’t erase the bad things that are happening. But looking for the wins helps us know that the negative sides of things aren’t the only truths. Looking at and acknowledging the quiet efforts of those who ARE helping helps both us and them and the people they’re working to help. Boosting the signals of their efforts allows others to see that helpers are out there helping, which provides a hopeful counter-narrative to all the bad news.

And all of that works together to help us remember that all of that matters. Love matters. Civic action matters. When we spread this news—and look for it—alongside the horrible things that are happening, we help each other fight the temptation toward meaninglessness that naturally comes with fatigue and burnout. And ideally, that gives us the courage to keep on resisting the burnout along with those policies and strategies that seek to keep gaslighting us about the realities of the world, for good and ill, and who’s causing them.

Things to Do to Feel More Supported through Your Assertiveness Journey!

Important Note: All of this was easier because I’ve learned about how stress and trauma affects me in addition to practicing these stress management techniques for a long time.

If you’re feeling down and lacking tools for assertiveness, well, I’m giving you some of the tools in this article–and will give you more if you stick around this site, sign up for the email newsletter in the top bar of this site. The limited time freebie for doing so, the “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls,” is a great resource! And/or hang out on the Facebook page where I’ll keep offering posts with encouragement and support. (Down the road, I hope to offer more services!)

What I’m sure of is that the tools are helpful, and I’m thankful for those who have done the hard work of doing the research so I have a glimpse into why. I’m also thankful for excellent others–family, friends, therapists, spiritual directors, pastors, etc.–who may also be good supports for you along your journey. I encourage you to lean on them as well where that makes sense–I know I do.

Keep At It!

We can do this, friends! Let’s keep on keeping on in this relay marathon of ours! What we do individually may not go far, but together we can finish the race, even when it feels long. Go team #AssertiveSpirituality!

Related Posts:


Like this post? Want to continue the conversation? Comment, share it (bar on the bottom), sign up for our email list (in the pull down bar above–for a limited time email subscribers get a free PDF helping them learn about how stress responses affect difficult conversations!) and/or stick around and check out our other content!

Please follow and like us:

2 thoughts on “On Finding and (Re)building Meaning in the Midst of Outrage Fatigue

  1. Thank you so much for this meaningful, well-written and very important post. I love what you said about our society generally not fully appreciating people’s need for rest and self-care. It reminds me of the caution flight attendants give ” you must correctly position your on oxygen mask before you attempt to help others” with good reason! And I agree wholeheartedly and appreciate the reminder to seek out stories of the helpers and all of the not just good but even extraordinary deeds people are continually doing throughout the world ( I’ll be at quietly and without much fanfare or attention often times, like you noted). Thanks again! I look forward to reading future posts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

On Finding and (Re)b…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 9 min