Compassion fatigue

You gave it your best shot to be the next Jackie Pullinger, but just ended up exhausted and disillusioned. Corin Pilling urges you be gentle with yourself, as you might just be experiencing a stress response from repeated exposure to traumatised individuals…

Sustaining Ministry Wellbeing
An Image of Corin Pilling Corin Pilling
10th June 2024 6 minute read
An abstract image of a person shaking their head

“I hoped you could provide some support to John,” My minister said.

“He’s experienced homelessness, and I know he’d really benefit from the support of somebody who understands more of what he’s been through.”

My heart sank.

“Another homeless person? I have enough chaos in my life already, thank you. I can think of things I’d much prefer to do than spend time with him.”

Which of course, were the words never spoken. 

These were the words spoken, in fact:

“Of course. I’d love to meet him. When is he available?”

The problem was, I was exhausted. I’d built a self-image based on being the helper. Everywhere I went- except homeless services- I was rewarded by people’s perception of my role.

“You work with homeless people? That must be so rewarding.” “You’re a better person than I am.” “You’re doing God’s work.” 

Yes, yes. I am a good person for this. Thank you. More than this, I am called to this. Having a vocation means I will be equipped to do this beyond my means. In my mind, I have the integrity of Shane Clairborne, yet without the book deal and having to sew my own clothes.

In reality, ‘people-pleasing’ combined with a theology that had embedded a false view of what it meant to die to myself had led to me become one of the walking dead. I had abandoned my sense of self and my legitimate needs. 

At the time, I had no language for what I later learned was a natural response to my situation. Yet I had heaped moral judgment on my apparent lack of compassion. I was overstretched from having limited ways to boundary meeting the needs of others. I thought that boundaries were for the uncommitted. I later learned boundaries were essential for my health and were there to help me honour my needs. I was experiencing compassion fatigue. At this point, I did not know it was a form of traumatic stress resulting from repeated exposure to traumatised individuals. Instead, I thought my cynical thoughts were a lack of faith and moral failure. 

In hindsight, I withdrew, which was good. My recovery was gentle, it involved taking up running and was slow. I had no recognition of what was happening, no language for it and no structured plan for finding my way back home. I needed help but did not ask for it. I did not know I could. Yet, it can be different.

Many of us who are called by God to difficult contexts and individuals are deeply compassionate, enduring, and gifted. We often arrive in communities prepared for a 100 metre sprint when we should view our work as a continent-crossing journey. We need a different mindset and tools for the long haul. In my view, the theologies that underpin our efforts can often create false expectations which collide with our desire to see the Kingdom Come. When face to face with unfixable situations and people, we need an approach to our faith that can contain both praise and lament. If our churches and communities do not hold both sides, it can feel like we are letting them down when we experience disillusionment and exhaustion. 

Anyone can experience compassion fatigue if we do not have the support to process our experiences or recover from them. Many missional situations expose us to both the best and the worst of humanness. It’s also true that encountering experiences like the things that have caused us historical pain can be re-traumatising. Some places are not healthy for us, even if we feel called to them. Some can manage this well with the right support, but not all of us can be Shane Claiborne or Jackie Pullinger. Yet, these most resilient individuals can become a default model of how we feel we should be, and our platforms elevate them. We don’t see them as both with flaws and challenges, and often with great systems around them. 

 

A black and white image of a man with his head in his hands

What next? If we experience these symptoms of compassion fatigue, it might be time to take steps.

  • Feelings of helplessness and powerlessness in the face of suffering.
  • Reduced feelings of empathy and sensitivity
  • Feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by work demands
  • Feeling detached, cynical, and emotionally disconnected
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy.
  • Recognise early signs and act.

Speak to somebody you trust about your experiences- this is the first step to making an action plan for finding help. Consider who will offer good counsel- a compassionate leader or counselling professional.

  • Take seriously the need for intentional recovery.

You are here because of a normal response to challenges over time. It is important you prioritise your needs. Think about the different ways you can healthily rest and be re-energised. Who, and what are the ways to help this, so you can bring new input in and make it intentional and planned? Create a new rhythm for recovery.

  • Be prepared to review your situation and if necessary, your vocation.

It might also be time to take a break from your situation. It might also be time to leave. Your worth before God is not dependent on this. Think, and if you can, pray. Pray with others who have no agenda other than you. Carefully guard against your self- judgment. If your inner critic tells you ‘Anyone else would be fine.’ Quietly silence it with the words ’be compassionate as your father is compassionate.’ These are words meant for you, as well as for others.

  • Avoid people and situations that advocate ‘spiritual bypassing.’

Spiritual bypassing is when we prescribe a simple solution in faith language for something which requires effort, reflection, and often professional support. Anyone with an easy answer is best avoided. Prayer support may be welcome but is not a substitute for a recovery plan. Your recovery is dependent on being in spaces where you are valued and seen.

  • Allow yourself to rest in God’s grace— and embrace change in how you view yourself and your faith.

You are a beloved child of God. It might be that these experiences mean that you feel distant from God, and that is a natural response you should be slow to judge. Nonetheless, God is with us in all things. 

Remember, loving your neighbour as yourself means needing to love yourself first. It is time to learn what it means to encounter God’s love afresh, to love and value yourself in new ways, embracing your limitations and a renewed sense of where the God, who is ‘The Renewer,’ might lead you.

Written by

Corin Pilling

Corin Pilling is the UK Director of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, who exist to equip the Church to support mental health and wellbeing. Having spent 20 years working with homeless people, a key aspect of his work with Sanctuary explores leadership wellbeing and sustainable ministry. Corin is passionate about helping communities thrive and building participation.

An Image of Corin Pilling
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