By Rev. Joy Martin

Imagine my surprise when an accomplished organizational development author and speaker once told me, “Your problem is that you care too much.” I had just told him about the number of problems people were sharing with me and of their feelings of justified anger, hopelessness, pain or lack of purpose. At the time I did not believe I was able to hold and companion one more person so helpless. However, I actually did care about the people I was serving and wanted to walk with them through their struggles to find some light of hope again.

I can now label this experience as “compassion fatigue.” Instead of being open, compassionate and fully present to those I walked with, I was withdrawing into myself and looking outward for causes, instead of inward for solutions. My compassion “reserves” were low, while I felt over-burdened with the impacts of trauma I heard about on a regular basis.

Sooner or later anyone who truly cares about reducing the suffering in our world must reach out to listen to and understand the pain, lost hopes, and threats to another’s well-being. There seems to be a tipping point when the hardships and trauma we hear outweigh the amount of compassion we have to share. At these times, we are likely to experience compassion fatigue. It is necessary to develop the skills to recognize this and to respond in ways that serve both ourselves and the ones we are companioning, so that all are restored to a state of wellness.

Compassion fatigue is sometimes known as secondary trauma, vicarious trauma or even burn-out. It is a gradual and progressive reduction in an individual’s capacity to extend empathy and compassion to those struggling with some traumatic event.  The result is that we distance ourselves, placing an invisible cloak of detachment and indifference around us in order to preserve our own ability to survive the traumas we experience second-hand. As listeners, observers and witnesses to trauma, we may experience a sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, lack of joy or creativity, and possibly feelings of anger or exhaustion.  All our compassion reserves are “dried up,” leaving nothing to give to ourselves or to others. We may even question our ability to continue in our professional endeavors. At a minimum, we need a “time out” that may only give us a small boost to finish our day. Even better, we can view this as an opportunity to grow our capacity for compassion and to be refreshed and renewed.

There are a number of things I have learned about myself since I was told that I “care too much.” Here are some of my highlights:

  • We all have limits as to how much we can do or handle at one time, and this is normal. No need to judge, but only to accept and move on. I believe it is yet another area in which we need to remember to depend upon God and not solely upon ourselves.
  • My own recovery and renewal begin when I reflect upon my own involvement with the trauma. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky writes in Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, “Remember that nothing has to change in the world for us to transform our own life experience. We can create and re-create how we feel, view the world, and experience our own surroundings simply by shifting our perspective.”
  • Our own wellness comes by strengthening and balancing the four dimensions of life: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Of these, the spiritual is often neglected, yet it is the home of wisdom, love, compassion and connection. When I am no longer able to truly listen to and hold the stories played before me, I am somehow disconnected from my spiritual home – from God. This connection needs to be restored, or any healing is merely a band-aid and a temporary fix.
  • Compassion fatigue is normal – another invitation to turn again to the Source of life and meaning in my life – to draw closer to the deep roots of my own salvation. It is from this source that I can tap into the everlasting, healing spring of hope once again. It is at that spring that I receive strength, clarity, hope, and the reminder that I am the vessel and not the source of life. I remember that my compassion need only carry what is given to me each day, like manna from heaven, knowing that this is enough.
  • As a carrier, distributor and receiver of compassion, I can only serve. The one who receives may or may not realize and acknowledge the true source now or ever. All that is important in a time of crisis is a glimmer of hope, strength, and direction to get through this day.
  • We need to have some pre-defined plan of how to find resolution when we notice the symptoms of compassion fatigue. Often I turn to my spiritual director to be a mirror that helps me reflect upon times when I feel unable to hold any more stories of hardship and trouble. When I am resisting or trying to limit the trauma I witness, she can help me see what I am trying to protect and can help me discover my own healing. If arranged and agreed upon ahead of time, a covenant group of clergy friends could serve in the same way.
  • Lastly, is my compassion or emotional involvement beyond what is safe, appropriate or helpful? “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other opinions drown out your inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition, they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary”. (Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech)

The Rev. Joy Martin is an ordained Deacon in The Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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  1. Thanks for sharing these reflections. The words were different, but when “something” put me in the hosipital in the 1980’s with chest pains, I was given a clean bill of health. There was a hint that I was reacting to tension in an unhealthy way. The doctor recommended a book which changed my life: “Is It Worth Dying For”. One only need to read the title to get the point. I put the brakes on worrying about things over which I had no control or influence. No more trips to a hospital for over 30 years.

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