Overcoming Compassion Fatigue
Written by Kate Hilderbrandt | July 11, 2015
A year after moving to Atlanta, I started working for a missions organization. It was my dream job at the time. Having recovered from the film industry’s ambitious overdrive, I saw this job as a chance to work with people who wanted to serve and a path back to my roots in ministry.
I allowed work to become my whole life, because I loved it. I answered interns’ Skype calls from across the globe at 11 p.m. in my bed, and took my work home with me (physically, mentally and emotionally) every day. Looking back, I’m surprised that I made it a year and a half before completely breaking down.
When I fell, I fell hard. It didn’t all have to do with work—we’re connected beings, after all—but a lot of it was the stress of working in a people-oriented role. People’s expectations, people’s words, people’s needs…all of these fell on my shoulders and they ached from the load. My mind, emotions and body were all wrecked from being overworked. It took me a year of doctor’s visits with no answers, a look at the rhythms of my life and some changes in priorities to recover.
Compassion fatigue can affect all of us, particularly those working in “helping” professions, like counseling, social work, nonprofits and ministry. Those of us striving for meaning and purpose in our vocation have a tendency to work harder and longer and to ignore our own boundaries. Whether you’re hustling to get your side gig moving, studying nonstop for your ministry major or giving more than you have to give to an organization you believe in, I’m sure you’ve experienced some level of compassion fatigue already.
Ideally, we would be able to prevent burnout from occurring in the first place, but it happens to the best of us. So how can you overcome compassion fatigue?
1. Tell the truth about where you are. Be honest with yourself and the people you trust. Ask for help where you need it and allow your community to support you. Most people experience some level of shame associated with burnout. For me, the realization that I was not capable of fulfilling my own expectations was shattering to my identity. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in An Altar in the World, “Your worth has already been established, even when you’re not working.” I had to give myself room to identify who I really was (not just who I was at work) and who I wanted to become.
2. Remember your non-negotiables. Those activities and practices that energize you, feed your soul and make you more you are your non-negotiables. They can be as simple as coffee with a friend, making something with your hands or running a mile in the park. Write them down. Paint them on your wall. Remember these, because they will be the life-giving rhythms around which you craft your time.
3. Build rhythms with intentionality and kindness. You’ve found your non-negotiables, now make them the anchors of your week. Practice Sabbath rest or turn off your phone for an hour to enjoy dinner at home. Be kind to yourself. Kindness, at its core, incorporates both honesty and grace. Plan for times to practice your life-giving rhythms, and stick to them. If you have to, pretend it’s a class you have to attend or a date with your best friend. There will be days when you need to miss your rhythms, and on those days, kindness looks like taking a nap or bingeing on your favorite show. Kindness also looks like rescheduling that rhythm so you can be at your best. You are valuable. Communicate that value by giving yourself what you need.
A little self-care goes a long way when it comes to preventing and coming back from compassion fatigue and burnout. Wherever you are on the scale of compassion fatigue, I hope that you will start practicing rhythms that allow you to live a full and healthy life.