Combating Compassion Fatigue

The images of the destruction the southeastern part of Texas has experienced are overwhelming. Hurricane Harvey devastated many lives.

Emotions stirred as we watched families wading through filthy water, searching for dry ground. Many have acted while watching parents carry children in an attempt to escape with their lives. We have heard the twenty-four-hour news coverage telling the same basic story over and over. They have said, “This area has never flooded, but this time it did, and this family lost everything.”

It is a story of devastation and grief, but at some point, you are ready to change the channel or stations. You care, but the situation is overwhelming. Those dealing with this reality are tired from their work to recover. The rest of us are dealing with compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is when repeated exposure to a tragedy experienced by others begins to desensitize you to the situation.

I’ve traveled through several third-world nations. I’ve been affected by the beggars suffering from disease and children afflicted by deformations and poverty. I’ve also been horrified at the callous nature of the local population as they walk by, avoiding those in need. I also understand.

Those who walk through the hurting throng are not bad people. They are overexposed. They see the need every day and have become desensitized to the horror. The issue is that the need doesn’t go away because we have become accustomed to its presence.

As leaders and Christians, we are encouraged to refuse to allow ourselves to become tired of doing good [Galatians 6:9-10]. Paul is not telling us to fight getting tired. A good night’s sleep cures the physical weariness stemming from physical labor. The emotional weariness from being consistently exposed to great needs is much more dangerous. Unaddressed, this emotional weariness results in those who can do something refusing to do anything.

Unaddressed, this emotional weariness results in those who can do something refusing to do anything.

Paul’s focus is the spiritual and emotional weariness that results from engaging in a task that is ongoing. This could be anything from feeding the homeless to helping the victims of a hurricane. The need is obvious and the numbers of those needing help are staggering. Many are driven by compassion to do good, but everyone experiences compassion fatigue at some point. There is only so much you can do, only so much you can give, and only so much attention you can devote to the need. The question becomes, how do we avoid compassion fatigue in our lives? How do we avoid weariness in doing good?

Let me give you three steps to avoiding compassion fatigue:

1. Create distance in your attention

Standing in front of the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Oahu, Hawaii you can read the names of the many who died in that attack on the United States of America. The closer you get to the wall of names the fewer names you can see without adjusting your position. If you get close enough you will only be able to focus on one or two names. The closer you get to a dramatic need the harder it is to see anything else. Creating distance allows you to gain perspective. Your perspective does not change the need or the response. Perspective gives your heart and emotions time to rest as you process the situation. You become healthier.

A practical thing to do is get away for a day. If you can’t do that physically, do so mentally. You may watch a comedy. You could play a round of golf. I often use exercise as a time to relax my mind and emotions while pushing my body. Allowing your heart and emotions time to rest provides the ability to engage in the fight long term.

2. Create a safe space from which you can respond

When facing overwhelming need there is a tenancy to want to give everything you have to end the crisis. The problem is that ending one crisis does not end the need. Scripture tells us that the poor will always be with us. The fact is “need” will always exist. This does not mean we should give up and go home. It does mean that we must engage strategically so we can be helpful for the long term. Creating a safe space means establishing personal boundaries within which you will operate.
Adopt the practical step of budgeting a monthly amount you can give to external needs. Others should budget their time in a way that will keep them healthy. Once your boundaries are created operate from within those boundaries.

There may be times when an extra sacrifice is necessary. Proper boundaries will allow a unique situation to be addressed from a healthy reserve. The practical reality is that you are a finite resource. If you give everything you have you will no longer be a resource at all. You will have nothing to give.

3. Celebrate the wins

My last point for this blog is celebrate the wins! If all you ever see is the need, the cost, the effort, and the sacrifice, eventually the value is lost. Value is realized when one steps back from the cost and recognizes the gain. If the gain matches or exceeds the cost a win needs to be celebrated! Take the time and gain the perspective needed to experience the joy that comes with the wins.
In some situations, the win can be hard to find. My mind goes to the feeding of the homeless. They are still homeless and still in need after the meal is given to them. The win will not be found in broad scale thinking. The win will be found in narrowing the focus.
Your job is to define what you are impacting. Feeding the homeless is not ending homelessness. It is providing a moment’s respite from a life of uncertainty in this person’s life. Focus on that moment, count the win, and celebrate.

A celebration can be anything from a huge party to a smile exchanged between people who know they just accomplished something good. Choose a celebration that connects with your heart and make it happen.

At this writing, our church has partnered with other non-profits to help in the relief efforts following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. The saddest story would be that the need existed, but no one could or would respond. It would be sad if those positioned to bring help and hope to the devastated were so calloused, so hardened, so tired from the constant pull of the need that they simply ignored the situation entirely. My prayer for you is that you will not become weary in well doing. Be proactive in ensuring that is your story. There is a world that needs us.