I was doing some reading the other day and came across a term that caught my attention causing me to reflect and want to learn more: “compassion fatigue”. Sure, I knew what each word meant independent of the other, but I had never heard the two used together. I began to do a bit of research on the term and found it originated in the 1950s, referring to the nursing community, in particular those involved in high-level care of patients.
Compassion fatigue refers to a condition in which an individual/caregiver grows less and less sympathetic to a particular circumstance over time. Because of the condition, individuals are at risk for depression, a sense of hopelessness, high levels of stress and anxiety, and a negative attitude in general.
Compassion fatigue is often felt in the medical community by those providing care to the sick, both psychologically and physically. It also frequently occurs among first responders, men and women in the police and fire department, teachers and counselors (especially those working with children with disabilities or in the underprivileged or poor areas). High rates of compassion fatigue also occur with rescue workers, dental professionals, and veterinarians.
Compassion fatigue is certainly common among special-needs parents and ministry workers/leaders caring for children with disabilities (more specifically, those ministry workers who are providing a level of direct care). This compassion fatigue may partly explain seasons of my life both personally and in ministry when I can honestly say I had compassion deficits or was lacking in grace; however, as we are called to imitate Christ, we must be compassionate, caring individuals.
Jesus demonstrated compassion for the multitudes (Matthew 9:36, 14:14). The Bible speaks to compassion fatigue in 2 Corinthians 4:1, “As we have received mercy, we don’t lose heart.” And we are reminded in Galatians 6:9 to not grow tired from doing good. In 2 Thessalonians 3:13, Paul encourages believers, “As for the rest of you, dear brothers and sisters, never get tired of doing good.”
How did Jesus avoid compassion fatigue from the constant demands and needs of the masses to care and heal those with whom he came in contact?
- He took time off.
- He would slip away to be with God. (Luke 5:16)
- He maintained boundaries and was able to say no. “And after he sent the multitudes away….” (Matthew 14:23)
- He prioritized his time and kept the main thing the main thing. “And in the early morning, while it was still dark, He arose and went out and departed to a lonely place and was praying there.” (Mark 1:35)
- Typically those in a season of compassion fatigue tend to try to do more, only to accomplish less. Let’s admit it: as caring, loving people, whether parents, caregivers or ministry leaders, we are wired to care; and good easily falls into compassion fatigue if we fail to practice basic spiritual disciplines and self-care. You are the most important person in your life, “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14) You must first take care of you and your relationship with God by taking positive steps to combat compassion fatigue.
- Prayer and meditation
- Reflection and study of His word
- Healthy living
- Sleep and rest
- Maintain balance: work hard, play hard.
- Cultivate hobbies and interests outside of caregiving or ministry.
- Create a circle of support: family and friends.
- Just say no: practice the art of self-management.
The very first step in dealing with compassion fatigue is developing an awareness and acknowledging it is real. Caregivers, parents and ministry workers involved in continuous direct care of the sick, needy and oppressed day in and day out are very much at risk. There is a high cost to caring, which includes physical and emotional toil on the one providing care. We must be proactive by balancing a high focus on self-care and being dependent on God for our strength.
“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)