Compassion Fatigue

Ever heard of “compassion fatigue”? Neither had I…until very recently. But now that I know about it, I have definitely experienced it. Probably you have too, especially if you’re involved in ministry or caregiving.

Compassion fatigue is a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. Common among caregivers, it was first diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s.

Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, and a pervasive negative attitude. Detrimental effects include decrease in productivity, inability to focus, and development of new feelings of incompetency and self doubt.

Media Saturation
Some argue that the media shares a large part of the blame for the current prevalence of compassion fatigue “by saturating newspapers and news shows with tragic stories and images of suffering, causing the public to become cynical, or become resistant to helping people who are suffering.” In extreme cases it can lead to such a hardening of the heart that carers turn into abusers.

Contrary to what you might think, it’s the most sensitive and sympathetic who are most likely to suffer from this. Charles R. Figley, co-author of Compassion Fatigue:

There is a cost to caring. Professionals who listen to clients’ stories of fear, pain, and suffering may feel similar fear, pain, and suffering because they care. Those who have enormous capacity for feeling and expressing empathy tend to be more at risk of compassion stress.

And yes, there’s a website. At the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, you can even take a Compassion Fatigue Self-Test! Apart from education and raising self-awareness, the path to wellness includes the old faithfuls of exercise, eating healthy foods, drinking plenty water, just say no, being proactive instead of reactive, friends, etc.

Christ’s Compassion
But I’d like to add another remedy, and that’s the consideration and experience of Christ’s compassion. “He took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses” (Matt. 8:17). That does not mean that He suffered all the weaknesses and sicknesses that we endure. It does mean that he felt them as if He endured them. That’s what compassion is, isn’t it. It’s an ability to enter into another person’s life and to so imagine the agony of their suffering that we feel the pain ourselves.

Jesus was able to enter every painful situation – leprosy, blindness, deafness, bereavement, etc – and feel it as if he was the leper, as if he he was blind, deaf, bereaved, etc. In fact with his perfect human sensitivity, he was able to feel the pain of these conditions even more excruciatingly than the actual sufferers themselves!

No one was surrounded by so many sick and sorrowful people as Jesus, as hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands were brought to him for healing. Yet he never once suffered from compassion fatigue.

Did it exhaust Him? Of course it did. He was so shattered at times that He needed to withdraw and recharge his batteries. However, though tired out by compassion, He never tired of compassion. Though it exhausted Him, He never stopped experiencing it. If anyone ever felt the cost of caring, He did; yet He continued to pay the price even when the objects of His compassion returned the favor with cruel ingratitude.

Pastors, caregivers, sensitive souls, bring your compassion fatigue to the ever- and always-compassionate Christ. Envelop yourselves in His refreshing care, recharge your batteries by connecting to His tender love, and resensitize your hearts with His kind grace.

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The Truth Dresses Down

I have found that one of the most effective [research] methods is to visit consumers in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. I’ve learned that it offers a glimpse of a quite different people than I would see if I’d had them come into an interview room and viewed their behavior from a more formal setting.

The conclusion of market researcher and author of Brandwashed, Martin Lindstrom, after turning up one hour too early to interview a woman and finding her bleery-eyed, bath-robed, and bed-haired.

Realizing there was no way back, the woman invited Lindstrom in, and proceeded with the interview. But…

As we settled into her living room to chat, I noticed a dramatic difference between this and my previous interviews. She was startlingly honest from the beginning. There was no beating around the bush, no dressing up the truth. Of course, there were no shoes or makeup either. Whatever she said came across as totally honest and completely authentic.

You are what you wear
As Lindstrom compared this experience with other interviews he concluded that the honesty of the interview was linked to the honesty of the “make-up” and the clothes. And, yes, psychologists have a name for this: it’s called “enclothed cognition,” and it refers to the influence clothes have on the psychological processes of the wearer.

In some ways, this is not rocket science. Give someone a clipboard and they’re suddenly Einstein; make a man a Security Guard and he becomes the Gestapo; put your wife in a new dress and she’s immediately a super model (OK, I’m definitely going to get into trouble for that one). But still, the science of it is fascinating. Dr. Adam D. Galinsky led a study into the effects of clothing on cognitive processes:

He randomly assigned 74 students with one of three tasks–wearing a doctor’s coat, wearing a painter’s coat, or simply looking at a doctor’s coat. They were subsequently tested for the amount of attention they paid to the task. They were shown two very similar images on the same screen, and they were asked to quickly jot down four minor differences. Those wearing the doctor’s coat (incidentally exactly the same as the painter’s coat) found more differences indicating heightened attention.

Two Takeaways
Fairly sure I’m not going to follow Lindstrom’s new habit of showing up one hour early for pastoral visits! But it should make us re-think how we dress and the impact it makes both on the role we assume and the role others take on in response.

It should also cause a major re-think about the increasing move away from home visitation to pastors’ and counselors’ offices. It’s certainly more time-efficient for the pastor, but probably less effective, at least if our objective is transparency, honesty, and authenticity.

You can read Martin Lindstrom’s article here.

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