Shrinking the Integrity Gap: Help for the Helpers

After a full day of seeing clients, I am left with one of two feelings: incredible hope or incredible sadness. Once in a while you might find me ranting in anger about the hardships of this world or singing God’s praises as I get to witness His miraculous work in the lives of my clients as we navigate messy, dark, and many times what seems to be hopeless circumstances.

Being a helper of any kind is truly sacred work. We sit in the confidential places where secrets that have never been shared are brought into the light, memories once pushed deep aside finally surface, and gold plated masks are laid to rest. Unfortunately, though our training and skill-sets may help us enter into these places, our humanity is not exempt from the impact of venturing into the trenches of such pain and sorrow.

Do you ever wish you could go back to before you crossed the line to serve in this way? I am sure the thought has passed through your mind a time or two. I remember thinking in my earlier years in ministry that I wanted to be one of the people who stood the test of time. I knew the burnout rate for helpers was high, and I did not want to be another statistic. 

Some of you reading this are pastors, ministry leaders, therapists, social workers, life coaches, spiritual directors, or non-profit leaders. Whatever role you play in helping people, the call to enter into the unseen worlds of human beings requires us to shrink our integrity gap so that we will survive the call of the duty. The integrity gap is the space between what we profess to be our priorities and how we are actually living our priorities out in our lives.

We must tune into our own thoughts, feelings, and actions in order to be long-sustaining helpers who do not leak in unhealthy ways.

Compassion fatigue is a very real side effect of caring for others and can lead any of us to cope in destructive and illegitimate ways. We drink more than we’d like. We direct our anger in the wrong direction. We isolate, use porn, TV, or another busy activity as a way to avoid our own buried emotions. Yet the courage to take care of our own souls is solely dependent on our humility to notice our own inadequacies, insecurities, and our own needs amidst the many stories and faces we carry.

Jesus, the only helper capable of carrying such burdens in the world without effect, still wept in the face of grief, still turned tables in the face of pious acts and utter disrespect of what is sacred, and He still cried out in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, take this cup”(Luke 22:42).  For a moment, He knew the deep anguish in the sacrifice He was making and His humanity cried out. Jesus also laughed and broke bread with his friends and pulled away to the quiet spaces with the Father to be reminded of who He really was and why He was there. His identity was found in relationship with God the Father, not in what He did for others. Reversing this order bases one’s identity on “doing”. This easy temptation can swallow us into the trap of performance-driven living where our efforts are never good enough. And to think that even Jesus chose to pull away to be reminded of His own identity and His mission (Luke 5:16). If He did this, than by all means I must too.  

As helpers, we are not Jesus, but we surely are human beings who need Jesus. The call to help others and go into the places where no one else often dares to go, requires us to not lose touch with our own story of healing. As those who sit and hear the tragedies of others, we
absorb secondary trauma.  We also need places to be, to laugh, to cry, to be angry, and off-load the heavy burden we were never meant to carry for others. These burdens belong to the Father, of whom we are graciously and humbly invited to be vessels for.

Many of us helpers can find ourselves with a complex thinking error in which we subtly believe we are the healer. I know this temptation far too well. There is true freedom in the truth that we are not the healers, but we are agents of hope of whom God uses to love, listen, teach, and correct His people. To sustain such a call requires us to shrink that integrity gap, the gap between what we profess to be healthy and what we are actually living out in our own lives.

Today, I am going to exercise, journal, and spend some one-to-one time with my little girls. How about you? What will help shrink the gap for you?

Listen to yourself the next time you ask someone a good question or offer wisdom to another. Receive that very message for yourself. I am grateful for Christ’s humanity and the model of being connected to both what is good and to what is hard about life. I always seem to think that if Jesus was attended to by angels just after his forty days of testing in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11), than by all means, we surely must be attended to and cared for as well. Shrink the gap and process your own needs today. We will all be better for it.

6 Key Signs of Compassion Fatigue:

1) Bottled up emotions or apathy

2) Isolation from others

3) Using unhealthy coping strategies such as excessive drinking

4) Chronic physical ailments such as IBS or continued colds

5) Difficulty concentrating and completing tasks

6) Physically and emotionally fatigued

6 Simple Ways to Start Shrinking the Gap:

1) Notice how you feel through journaling or prayer

2) Name what those feelings really need and then advocate for those needs and take action

3) Let another person in and process

4) Develop an encouragement team of people who remind you of who you are

5) Pull away and practice being, not doing. Utilize your 5 senses and enjoy

6) Do one task at a time, slowly and methodically, while breathing deeply

Written by Terra A. Mattson, M.A. LPC, LMFT Clinical Director, Co-Owner & Co-Founder