Compassion Fatigue

by Mar 28, 2023SMSC

Throughout Scripture, we are told to: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Bear one another’s burdens, and do not grow weary of doing good.

The Hebrew and Greek words translated as “compassion” in the Bible mean “to have mercy, to feel sympathy and to have pity.” According to Psalm 103:8, God is “a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness”.

Jesus exemplified compassion throughout his earthly ministry. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus wept: He wept at the gravesite of Lazarus (John 11:35), and He wept over the stubborn sin of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–42). His heart was tender, and seeing the effects of death and sin moved Him to tears. He also healed thousands of people physically and spiritually.

As Christians, we desire to be compassionate people. Those of us called to caregiving ministry in a pregnancy resource center desire to show compassion to our clients. But when our labor of love feels like just labor, we might be experiencing what is called compassion fatigue.

Compassion Fatigue has Cause and Symptoms.

Generally, compassion fatigue is caused when we have become so involved in providing care to others that we become physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. We then have a diminished ability to feel compassion toward others due to this exhaustion.

We may internalize and absorb our clients’ problems and feelings. In addition, we may be internalizing tragedies and injustices we see constantly on the news or social media in our world marred by sin.

Physical symptoms of compassion fatigue can include:

    • Inability to concentrate, be productive, or complete daily tasks.
    • Headaches or upset stomach, changes in appetite.
    • Difficulty sleeping and racing thoughts – feeling exhausted all the time.
    • Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.

Emotional symptoms can include:

    • Feeling overwhelmed, powerless, or hopeless.
    • Isolating yourself and feeling numb or disconnected.
    • Lack of energy to care about other things around you.
    • Feeling angry sad or depressed.
    • Feeling tense or agitated – you may be startled more easily.
    • Obsessive thoughts about the suffering of others.
    • Feeling speechless or unable to respond appropriately to what’s happening around you.
    • Self-blame.

Compassion fatigue can affect us spiritually as well.

In my experience as a volunteer Client Advocate in a pregnancy resource center, clients are very open to sharing the deepest and darkest parts of their lives with us because we are a safe and loving place to do that – because we show compassion. And that is a good thing! But if we are not careful, over time, it can affect our desire to help them and to share the Gospel with them.

How does it affect our witness for Christ and sharing the Gospel?

If we are honest, we can become apathetic, disconnected, and numb which can cause a lack of caring if someone is saved or not. We see them as another problem to solve, a project to complete, or someone who has created her problems, not someone created in the image of God who needs a Savior.

How can we be proactive and guard against this? How can we be like Jesus who was the perfect model of a compassionate and sensitive heart? We will never be perfect, but there are some practical steps to prevent or overcome compassion fatigue. And please do get help from a professional or a pastor if needed. 

Psychologist Heidi Allespach, Ph.D. says putting boundaries in place is critical. She describes it as putting a semi-permeable membrane around your heart and mind.

I can’t help but think of Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious for anything, but in everything, with prayer and thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard (phroureo) your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus.” 

The apostle Paul uses this word phroureo to tell us that God’s peace, if allowed to work in our lives, will stand at the gates of our hearts and minds, acting like a sentinel to control and monitor everything that tries to enter our hearts, minds, and emotions.

This is a perfect picture of how prayer is essential as we handle our client’s needs and situations – addressing them without absorbing them.

What other steps can we take to prevent compassion fatigue?

    • Reaffirm your commitment to Christ, including daily time in the Word, meditation, and prayer as well as a weekly Sabbath (Matthew 22:37). Give yourself a break from the news and social media.
    • Point your clients to Jesus. Much of our fatigue comes from believing that WE are their savior and that we must solve all their problems. Jesus is the only Savior, and the Gospel is the only answer.

We don’t want clients to be dependent on us or our center forever, but rather to become completely dependent on the Lord and empowered to search out and find the resources we have provided to them.

    • Write down your client’s first name and a summary of her situation.  Every time she comes to mind, pray over her and give her back to God.
    • Reaffirm your commitment to maintaining the temple of the Holy Spirit (your body), including eating right, getting adequate rest, and exercising daily.
    • Share your feelings with other volunteers and staff who can share theirs with you. Develop a support system of people around you who listen well and care.

Client Story J

J came into our pregnancy center a few months ago with her head hanging down. She was unable to look me in the eye and made sure her hair was partially covering her eyes to avoid eye contact. She looked utterly defeated.

We got her pregnancy test started and then began to talk. She was a single mother of 2 children who moved here from another state with a housing voucher and had been recently laid off from her job. She had just spent her last dollar on school supplies and had to borrow money from her neighbor to buy lunch for the children that morning. She was on her way to a job interview after her appointment with us but had no way to print out the application or pay to get it notarized.

As we talked further, J revealed being raped at age 12 and growing up in a physically and emotionally abusive household. Her mother’s parting words to her and her children upon their departure for Texas were “you will never amount to anything – you and your children are worthless”. J revealed she had been cutting herself to try and relieve her mental and emotional pain. And now here she was, fearing she was pregnant.

When I asked her about spiritual things, she said she had trusted Christ for her salvation years ago, but now believed God had forgotten about her. She had no faith left in the God she believed in so readily years ago.

I knelt in front of her and wiped her hair from her eyes. “Look at me,” I said gently. “You are a daughter of the King! What your mother told you is a lie from the pit of hell. You are the loving mother of two beautiful children, and we are going to see God at work today.” At that moment, the nurse came in – her pregnancy test was NEGATIVE! Her face lit up.

I said, “J, I know you came in here just for a pregnancy test, but let’s see what we can do for you.” I called in the troops – our experienced staff. J emailed her job application to our receptionist who printed it out for her. Our adoption counselor is a notary and “just happened” to have her notary stamp and supplies with her.

We gave her a large box of food and connected her with the local faith-based food bank. We provided a gift card to the resale shop up the road where she could buy clothes for the kids. We educated her on how to get financial help with school lunches and about a church that could provide school supplies. We connected her with someone who would meet her at a local church on Sunday. We encouraged her to make an appointment with our free licensed counseling services to get the help she needed for her trauma and cutting.

When we were all done, she just sat in the room, stunned and joyful. I asked if she still felt like God had forgotten her. With tears in her eyes but a smile on her face she said, “no, I just called a friend and told him ‘God really showed up for me today.’”

I asked her if she would like to pray to rededicate her life to Him and she said, “YES, I need to do that.” We held hands and prayed, and for the first time, I saw her lift her head and look at me. It was so beautiful. I told her, “one name for God in the Bible is the LIFTER OF OUR HEADS. He loves you so much and wants you to follow Him and His ways. He has lifted your head today so you can see Him again.”

The reason I share this story is that I feel after researching compassion fatigue, this appointment could have ended so differently.

Because I had been practicing some of the tips given above, I realized I couldn’t do this alone and that I was NOT her Savior. Instead of being overwhelmed and feeling helpless, I was able to see that she needed a fresh start with God but also to be empowered by practical resources, encouragement, and education.

There were others with whom I was able to verbalize her situation and they in turn helped support and guide me in this effort. I was not alone. God, the Holy Spirit, and the other staff and volunteers helped me to see her as someone who could be empowered to face and handle her circumstances, not someone to let walk out the door with a negative pregnancy test, but no hope.

When serving clients feels more like labor than a labor of love, remember:

God does not hold us responsible for solving the world’s problems, only for being obedient to everything He has placed before us (Proverbs 3:27; John 9:4; 2 Corinthians 9:7). When we do that, we can entrust the rest of it to Him.