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 seemingly 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 aside, ﬁnally surface, and gold-plated masks are laid down 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, social media 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, even amidst the many stories and faces we carry for others.
Jesus, the only helper known as being capable to carry such burdens in the world without ill-effect, still wept in the face of grief. He turned tables in the face of pious acts and utter disrespect of that which was sacred, and He still cried out in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, take this cup” (Luke 22:42). He knew the deep anguish in the sacriﬁce He was making, and His humanity cried out.
But Jesus also laughed and broke bread with his friends; he 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 had to pull away to be reminded of His own identity and His mission (Luke 5:16). If He did this, then by all means, shouldn’t I?
As helpers, we recognize that 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; we, as helpers, are graciously and humbly invited to be vessels for catching some of the overflow.
Many helpers ﬁnd a complex error in thinking within themselves, where the helper subtly believes he is the healer. I personally know this temptation far too well. There is true freedom in the truth that we are not the healers. We are agents of hope, 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), then 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) Physical and emotional fatigue
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; take action.
3) Let another person in and process together.
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 life.
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