I’ve been looking forward to sharing this final article with you since we began! Now that you know what compassion fatigue is (part 1), who is affected by it (part 1), when and why it happens (part 2), and what can be done about it (part 3), I’d like to address a possible misperception you may have about compassion fatigue. In my time of research, I realized I didn’t clearly understand the concept of compassion fatigue in one key area.
As I explained previously, compassion fatigue is a normal byproduct of being in a helping profession. To me, that is a revolutionary thought. Having compassion fatigue is not a “spiritual issue” and not tied to my faith or lack of faith. It actually has nothing to do with that part of my life. With that premise, I would like to go a little deeper with that thought.
During my time of research, I read a book called Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss. In the book, 323 women who worked cross-culturally were asked about their expectations and feelings of burnout. From the survey, 8 out of 10 women said they came close to burnout. Knowing that compassion fatigue seemed to happen just before burnout, I wanted to look at the topic from that perspective and what might have led these women to that point.
According to the book, cross-cultural workers often don’t get the help they need, until it is too late. They may not realize how much stress they are living under. They don’t want to disappoint others, so they pretend everything is going fine when it really isn’t. When they start to see the signs of burnout, they don’t know what to do or who to tell. Many deny the signs because they think “burnout” is a spiritual failing.
Before I knew about compassion fatigue, I placed depression, hopelessness, lack of joy, blaming others, complaining, and anger (symptoms of compassion fatigue) in a category needing “spiritual” attention. This misunderstanding was harmful to myself and caused me to be critical of others.
Thankfully, once I realized that there isn’t one set of rules for people of faith and a different set for everyone else, my outlook changed. Now, I am able to see the effects of compassion fatigue and proactively deal with them. I don’t need to panic when I notice them, pretend they don’t exist, or try to explain them away. I can be honest with myself and embrace grace. I can take breaks, spend time with my family and take care of myself without feeling guilty. Discovering ways to manage the work/life rhythm took me over 25 years! My hope for you is that you can begin to implement necessary changes much sooner than I did!
In my research process, I looked up several passages in the Bible that show examples of what can be done about compassion fatigue. I started with Jesus who was constantly bombarded with needs, yet stayed compassionate toward people. He did this by getting alone and praying (Mark 1:35), walking away from needs (Mark 3:9), spending time with friends (John 12:1-3) and resting (Mark 4:35-38). Jesus knew that serving others 24/7 wasn’t possible. He modeled how to keep a healthy rhythm in His daily life. Those actions gave Him strength to continue on.
Other Biblical examples encouraged life-giving habits. The Bible tells us to be still (Psalm 46:10), lay down (Psalm 23:2-3), eat/drink/sleep (I Kings 19:3-8), get away to rest (Mark 6:31) and love God with our whole lives while loving our neighbors and ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39).
As I wrap up this series, I am hopeful that this information will bring all of us to a mutual understanding of the concept of compassion fatigue. I would love for global workers and their organizations to talk about it freely and put things in place to help everyone’s well-being. By normalizing its symptoms and giving each other permission to be human, my prayer is that we can be more accepting of our limitations.
For those who are on their first assignment overseas, it should help in setting priorities and recognizing the need for reasonable expectations. For those who’ve already seen its effects, I’m hopeful that you can breathe a little easier as you remove self-imposed guilt, add white space into your schedule and take care of your own needs.
If you are feeling the pull of the whirlpool mentioned in the first article and don’t know how to stop, then please talk to someone. Don’t keep suffering in silence. You are important and loved, not because you are in cross-cultural work, but because you bear the image of God. My hope is that any who are suffering from compassion fatigue today will be able to see it for what it is, make adjustments and move forward in a healthier way.
If you would like to go further in this conversation, I have two resources available. First, I have a free eBook that I can email to you that has more of my personal story, space to write your own reflections and a list of books, articles and videos. Secondly, I have this information in a seminar format and enjoy sharing it with groups. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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