Combat Empathy Fatigue

empathy fatigue

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 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.
Matthew 11:28 (NIV) “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

I pray that this post helps you to take care of yourself so that you can better support and encourage others!
God bless!

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About Melissa

Melissa is a Christian mental health therapist, wife and mommy of two. She works with children, teens, adults, and couples to better manage their distress and hopefully become closer to God in the process.

35 comments on “Combat Empathy Fatigue

  1. Thanks so much for sharing on this area & for suggesting ways to manage. I definitely ran on empty for some time & it eventually seriously impacted my health. But I was not under as much pressure as you clearly were. I’m sure your post will be of great help to many. Thanks again for sharing care & wisdom.

    • This is an important topic for Christians. I think too often we believe we should have an endless amount of love and compassion for others. We have to make sure we are refilling our tanks every once in a while, too! Thank you for reading and sharing. I pray your health is better now. God bless!

      • I absolutely agree with you. The need for refilling is something that can so easily be overlooked in a Church/worship setting & community. Unfortunately my health is still not good, but God continues to bring me into new relationship with him. Which hopefully in some way, unknown to me, will help others. Thank you again. God’s blessing be with you.🌸

  2. Sometime I wish I would have empathy fatigue. I think God gave me an abundance of empathy and it’s completely overwhelming at times, and often prevents me from doing more because it can do more harm than good. I can’t comfort a grieving widow when I’m the one in tears. But, I know God created me this way for a reason. It’s not a curse it’s a blessing. He gave me a heart for the hurting, even if it hurts me.

    • “He gave me a heart for the hurting, even if it hurts me.” Just remember that you are not meant to carry the pain and burdens of other people either! Give them to God. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. God bless!

  3. Your article reminds me of a high school friend whose dad was a judge and seemed to suffer a lot from empathy fatigue to the extent that it affected the children. Teens will always notice the distress in their parents.
    She asked her mom why dad seemed unhappy sometimes and her mom told her it’s the court cases that stress him. Unfortunately, her mother’s openness gave way to a distressed teenager miles away from home since we were in a boarding school. It’s not quite easy juggling between the law of the land and God’s law if the two contradict, especially for a Christian.

    • That is a difficult balance. You’re right as well. Children and teens pick up on the distress of their parents. When I have a difficult day at work and my children notice I will tell them about the general issues without breaking confidentiality. We use the time to acknowledge how fortunate we are as a family and to pray for the people I counsel. Thank you for stopping by and sharing. God bless!

  4. Burnout is a scary thing, whatever form it takes. You know better, and yet…and yet.
    Your list of tips, beginning with GOSSIP-FREE support, and each suggestion after, are so helpful! Practical, and doable.

    • and yet, indeed! Self-care is something that really shouldn’t be taken out of our schedules. Thank you for stopping by and commenting! God bless!

    • It can be very difficult. I have to be mindful of the extras I bring into my life when I’m emotionally/spiritually struggling. Those are times that movie choices are uplifting or comedies. Books and music are joy-filled. Thank you for reading and commenting! God bless!

  5. “The result leads Christians to bow out of helping and volunteering. Attend church less frequently. And even fall away from their relationship with God.” >> I have dealt with this exact problem before. I’m so glad I overcame. Your advice is sound and some that I will take to heart. I think the hardest one on the list for me would be to create/schedule margin. I feel like I have to go, go, go most days. <3 Thank you for the reminder!

    • You and me both! As I was writing that tip I was reminded that my own schedule is a bit sparse on margin right now. Sometimes its even taking a quite 5 minutes to rest and decompress that can be beneficial. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! God bless!

  6. I feel like this applies in so many areas of life! As a christian who is supposed to care for and love so many, it is so easy to get desensitized and numb to the hurt of others. Great advice, thanks for sharing!

    • It is easy so we have to be careful as we are cautioned to not become hard-hearted. Thank you for reading and sharing! God bless!

    • Seeking joy can be a hard one at times. It can be hard to balance the pain around us and still remain jubilant. Thank you for reading and commenting! God bless!

  7. This is a very effective post, and I truly appreciate the book links that can speak to this topic more. You have a GREAT thing going here Melissa, and THANK YOU for working daily for children and families.(hugs)

    • Thank you Tammy! The blog has been a wonderful combination and outlet alongside my therapy profession. Thank you for stopping by and bringing sunshine to my day! God bless!

  8. Melissa, I experienced this as a teacher. I taught in a Christian school who opened their doors to troubled kids more often than not. It was hard dealing with them and trying to love them like I was able with other kids. A sweet fellow teacher helped me through the roughest year I had while at that school. The following year was a breeze, I know the Lord gave me a year of joy after having two difficult years.

    • Teachers has tremendously difficult jobs that grow more and more so given the difficulties of our society. Thank you for what you do! I’m glad you had a co-worker to help you through the rough patch. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your experience. God bless!

  9. Thanks for sharing this! I can see this happening even as a Christian blogger when readers email their stories and it bothers us! The self-care tips are helpful also!

    • Very true! People desire support and have a need to tell their story. As the receiver of those stories it is important to take care of ourselves. Thank you for stopping by and sharing. God bless!

    • It’s hard sometimes. I work with clients of all ages but every once in a while I will have a full day of only children who have suffered terrible abuse. By the end of the day I am so emotionally raw that I just need time with God and hugs with my family. I hope your soul is healing! God bless!

    • So true! When I laugh my soul is so much lighter. There is so much for us to be joyful about when we take the time to look! Thank you for stopping by and commenting! God bless!

  10. Melissa,
    I have been in ministry for over 35 years and have suffered from empathy fatigue a few times. It is so important to take that break and recharge yourself. Ministry is exhausting and the issues we deal with on a daily basis are hard, real and many times heart-breaking. Every day I pray God gives me the strength to do what I have to do to bring Him honor, However, when I let those margins become too thin I set myself up for failure every time. The thing I have to remember is I can’t be everything to all people all the time. I’m no good to them or myself. Thanks for the reminder!

    • How wonderful that you’ve been in ministry for over 35 years! I’m sure that God has done some amazing things through you in that time frame. That is a wonderful prayer that I know I need to be better about adding into my day. We can’t be everything to all people and we’re not supposed to be! Thank you for reading and sharing your valuable insights! God bless!

  11. This is really enlightening! I hadn’t though of empathy fatigue as something to be aware of, but it very much is! I can see it throughout pockets of my life. I love that you prayed for God to open your heart again. That is so important.

    • It is an important topic to be aware of if you support and encourage others who are hurting. It’s always amazing how God answers prayers when the focus in on Him and helping others. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. God bless!

  12. Thank you for shedding light on such a real and impactful topic. Individuals who help others in such meaningful ways are so needed, and I had never really thought about how that can affect them until reading this post. Thank you!

    • You’re welcome Merry. It is important for people in the helping professions to seek self-care but it also would be nice for others to provide support them them as well. Thank you for stopping by and commenting. God bless!

  13. Thank you for this wise counsel. I didn’t realize that was what I had was empathy fatigue. I need to put healthy self care into practice in the new year! Thank you so much! Blessings … Donna

    • I’m sorry to hear you are struggling with empathy fatigue. It is a hard situation to be in. Yes, self-care is necessary to fill your emotional tank! Thank you for reading and sharing your experience. God bless!

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