Fatigued from a sleepless night of worry, I sat frozen, staring at a list of unanswered emails. I had been coming alongside a woman in my ministry, and her email subject lines had increased in intensity over the week from “Can you help?” to “I’m hurting!” Suddenly, her one word text—CRISIS—dinged on my phone, and I burst into tears.
I was leading a support and recovery ministry at the time and felt genuine compassion for the suffering and struggles of the people in my ministry. But this particular morning, my tears were salted with frustration and exhaustion as my body and soul crumpled, overwhelmed by the weight of empathy. In shame, I shut down my computer, turned off my phone, and crawled into bed.
There is a cost to caring.
This is a difficult truth to own. Like many women called to ministry, I believe God has given me a capacity for compassion and empathy. Compassion and empathy go beyond offering condolences, advice, or rescue. They’re about joining a person in grief, injustice, and loss. They mean holding sorrow and carrying burdens together.
In a mixture of naiveté and pride, I assumed that compassion and empathy were gifts that I could keep on giving without any cost. I thought if I was doing it right, caring for others always would be rewarding and sustaining. Even with appropriate boundaries and good support, however, compassion takes its toll. Empathy exacts a price from our heart and body.
Dan Allender, a Christian therapist, author, and professor who specializes in recovery from abuse and trauma says this: “You cannot be involved at the depths of human heartache, engaging in the realities of people’s lives without consequences. You can’t care and be at war for a person without having some level of your own wounds and scars.”
That morning, when I pulled the covers over my head to escape a broken, fallen world, I had to admit to battle weariness. I was suffering from compassion fatigue. I hadn’t noticed or attended to the places where I felt bruised and bloodied, and now my system was shutting down. If we don’t find warmth when we feel vulnerable and exposed, stepping into the storms of another person’s life can lead to a hypothermia of the soul.
How can we empathize and show compassion without succumbing to this weariness? As we engage in the suffering of others, how do we care for our own hearts? As we join in the battle for hope and healing for others, how do we care for our own bodies? How can we honor both the person in front of us and our own being?
Know Your Story
If I’m going to join people in their stories, I have to know my own—including my wounds. This means I actually have to know my own story, especially where there has been struggle and sorrow, because my wounds will be triggered by the similar wounds of others. When I don’t identify and tend to the places of pain in my own life, I’m basically leaving up metal rods on the roof of my home in a thunderstorm and inviting lightning to strike. When it does, it will short out my system, leaving me confused and scared in a cold, dark house.
To combat this, I must have compassion and empathy for my own story and regularly receive kindness and care for my wounds from others. It’s critically important to have friends who will join me in weeping over my scars and honoring where blood has been shed and the earth scorched and burned in the battle of my own life. This provides protection and provision for my heart as I step into the wounds of others.
Engage in Self-Care
It’s also been important for me to have regular rhythms of self-care. If you’re called to a ministry of compassion and empathy, you can’t put off caring for your heart and body until some future weekend retreat or getaway that may or may not ever come. You need daily rituals. It’s regular self-care that brings health and healing.
Every day I intentionally surround my body and spirit with nourishment and beauty. Sometimes that means eating homemade chicken soup from a pretty bowl and. Sometimes that means reading a poem by David Whyte or Mary Oliver. Sometimes that means wearing a colorful scarf and taking a walk in the woods. And sometimes it means standing in the shower until the hot water runs out.
At the end of the day, my body, heart, and mind are burdened by the suffering and struggles of others. The easy options are simply to absorb that weight day after day or escape for a little while into Candy Crush or a bag of Doritos.
Instead, I’ve been trying a bedtime practice of accounting, blessing, and releasing. I sit with both feet on the floor, close my eyes, and breathe deeply and slowly to invite release and rest. Then I think through my day, and write down two or three things that were blessings of goodness. I also name what the day has cost me in exhaustion, anger, sorrow, or pain. I ask Jesus to help me discern what is mine, and then I give back to him and others what is not. Finally, as I go to sleep, I open my heart to hear God singing Psalm 23 over me as a lullaby for my soul.
After I got the CRISIS text from the woman in my recovery ministry, I chose to handle it in a healthy way. First, I let myself take a nap. Then I called a good friend to help give me perspective on why this woman’s situation was disrupting me so much. Through our conversation, I realized her struggles were touching on a similar wound of mine. Because of that, I felt both angry and sad that I was working so hard to help her when no one had helped me. Once I was able to name that and talk about it with my friend and then Jesus, I felt much more grounded and could make better choices about what it meant to care for her—and to care for myself.
There is a cost to compassion and empathy. Acknowledging that does not diminish the honor and privilege it is to enter into people’s heartache. But to ignore the toll that caring takes on our bodies, hearts, and minds is actually an unkindness toward ourselves and others. Intentionally receiving daily care connects us to the heart of God. He can replenish what is spent as we love and serve others.
Jen Oyama Murphy is a former small group director and support and recovery ministry director. She loves working as a lay counselor and bringing care into stories of trauma and harm. She is currently working on a master’s in clinical psychology.