I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I realized that being sensitive to the hurts and needs of others was a prominently negative emotion in my life.
From the time I was in grade school, I remember being very in-tune with the needs of others. A homeless man near the exit of the McDonalds drive-thru, the lost dog, the bullied classmate—nearly every day from the time I can remember, I’ve dealt with the helplessness of sensitivity to others.
I became a Christian as a middle school student, and went on my first mission trip to serve the homeless of San Francisco shortly thereafter. What left most of my friends with a great sense of purpose left my heart in agony. I had witnessed more than my teenaged heart could understand. I still remember the feelings of guilt when my aunt took me shopping the day I returned. “How can I be happy when so many people are hurting and hungry?” Now I was not only equipped with the bleeding heart, but Scripture that told me that I was to help “The least of these.” I had come to the conclusion that extreme guilt was just a part of being a Christian.
That was my first experience with “compassion fatigue”. I just didn’t know it yet.
What is compassion fatigue?
Psychology Today describes compassion fatigue as a type of Secondary Post Traumatic Stress. Compassion fatigue is a somewhat common phenomenon that affects medical workers, social workers and even pastors. It stems from witnessing or hearing about traumatic experiences in the lives of other people, and feeling helpless because you can only do so much to help.
I want to help everyone, but how? I found out being involved in every charitable organization was not productive or healthy.
This kind of disgruntled idealism can be so dangerous. I finally realized something was drastically wrong while working toward my aspiration of becoming a veterinarian. I was working at a veterinary clinic, which eventually left me dealing with unyielding anxiety and immense guilt daily. I couldn’t save every patient. People didn’t have money to treat their beloved pets. I could only do so much. I started to struggle with depression. I would cry on my way to work. I started having panic attacks, and I was always exhausted. That’s when I finally got help.
While I still struggle at times, I’ve learned some valuable lessons on how to keep myself, and my emotions, in check.
Find something you’re passionate about and focus on that.
Maybe you care about homelessness, but your passion is helping homeless teens. Do that. You don’t have to save everyone. Find one area where you feel like you can use your gifts and talents the most effectively.
If you try to save the world, you will fail. If you can’t handle that kind of disappointment, it’s best to stick to one good cause.
Talk about it.
It’s OK to feel disappointment. Don’t buy into the lie that serving others will always be a positive experience. Sometimes, things in your “ministry” will go wrong, and it will hurt you.
Find a person in your life that you trust that you can talk to about it. Once I started talking about how helpless I was feeling, I found out not only were my feelings somewhat normal, but just getting it off my chest helped me to wade through my feelings in a healthier way.
Ask God for wisdom.
I remember talking to a friend about my struggle, and she asked in a sincere, non-dismissive way if I was praying about specific situations that were causing me emotional distress. I wasn’t.
I thought that, as a Christian, of course I should be helping everyone with their needs. Once I started asking God for wisdom when I witnessed a need, I realized that I was not always called to help in every situation. It is OK to say “no.” Who knew?
Take a break.
If you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, take some time off to rest and reassess your purpose. It’s almost impossible to determine if you’re still serving within your emotional means while you’re knee-deep. Maybe it’s your profession that is causing you to have empathy overload, if so, be sure you’re spending time doing things that you enjoy.
I learned really quickly that my brain was still “working” even when I was home. If you can’t enjoy things that previously made you happy, it’s time to talk to a professional about how to navigate the emotions you’re dealing with.
For me, the answer was quitting my job. I realized I had chosen a profession that didn’t work with my emotional limits. Right now (thanks to a supportive husband), I’m taking a break from work to reassess my goals and purpose. I’m happily volunteering with my church youth group and serving those closest to me.
It is exactly what I needed.