Combat Empathy Fatigue
Empathy fatigue or compassion fatigue, as it is sometimes called, is a common term used in mental health and helping professions.
A whole section of a course was designated to this very topic when I was in graduate school to become a therapist.
Empathy fatigue is the emotional, psychological, spiritual, physical, and occupational exhaustion that takes place from experiencing the life stories of client’s trauma, grief, loss, and disabilities.
This is why self-care is promoted so highly for individuals in the helping professions.
Ramifications of empathy fatigue
For six years I worked in a child assessment program. The youth ranged in age from six to eighteen. The kids resided in the facility for 30 days while the assessment and evaluation took place.
The children came to the program due to past failed treatment, multiple placements, family issues, school problems and/or legal problems.
My title was child and family therapist. I had to build rapport with the kids and parents quickly so that they felt comfortable enough to tell me what was going on. My job was then to make future therapy recommendations and potentially placement recommendations. Meaning, sometimes I had to recommend the child be removed from the home if they were a danger to the family. Or if the family was a danger to the child.
I wasn’t always a very popular person with the family. Parents have yelled at me, cursed me out, and threatened me.
I have also heard every type of abuse story possible. Abuse that is unfathomable to most people were common place stories to me. I had to look at the children and their situations as puzzles to be solved in order to do my job well.
By about year five, I realized my heart was becoming hardened. And I was becoming immune to the gut wrenching trauma.
I realized my heart was becoming hardened. And I was becoming immune to the gut wrenching trauma.
I was suffering from empathy fatigue.
I didn’t like what I was becoming. So I prayed. My prayer was for God to open my heart back up and to see and experience the trauma with new eyes once more. And He did.
It was at that time that I realized I no longer could be a part of assessment and only experience the trauma and hardships. I wanted to be able to be a part of the treatment and healing process, too.
And God opens doors when we are ready.
The assessment program was an amazing opportunity to experience but it was only meant for a season.
Hebrews 10:24 (NIV) And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds,
Empathy fatigue in Christians
As Christians we are called to care for the widows, orphans, poor, wounded, and downtrodden. We support the less fortunate in our church, we volunteer, take on ministries, got on mission trips. This is often in addition to our careers and parental roles.
When Christians are engaging in all of the above activities they are just as much at risk of suffering from empathy fatigue as individuals working in the helping professions.
The result leads Christians to bow out of helping and volunteering. Attend church less frequently. And even fall away from their relationship with God.
Galatians 6:9-10 (NIV) Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Ways to combat empathy fatigue
- Seek support from friends, family, and/or co-works – Find people who understand what you are going through or struggling with. The ability to share and process the hardships and frustrations can be beneficial. *Make sure this doesn’t turn into gossip or bad-mouthing the people you are helping. That doesn’t help your ailing heart and spirit!
- Find margin in your day and week – Make sure you schedule down-time into your daily and weekly schedule. You can’t help others if you are running on fumes.
- Sleep – Good sleep is necessary! Don’t cheat yourself out of sleep. The result leads to poor cognitive, emotional, and physical abilities.
- Eat healthy – Yes convenience food is convenient but it’s not good for you. I hear a great saying that stuck with me and made a lot of sense, “You are what you eat so don’t be fast, easy, cheap or fake.”
- Physical activity – Keeping your body healthy can reduce stress and increase positive emotions and and overall attitude.
- Seek joy – There are so many aspects of this world that a beautiful and joyous! When you are helping others through their distress it can be hard to remember the joy. Make sure you engage in activities that bring you joy.
- Find ways to laugh – This goes along with joy. Spend time with people that make you laugh.
- Seek God daily– Pray. Read the bible. Don’t hold onto other people’s pain and burdens. We aren’t meant to. We are called to support, teach, encourage, and guide but the rest we are to give to God.
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