Confession: I suffer from empathy fatigue

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Do you?

Honestly answer these ten questions.​

  1. Have you heard so many stories of pain that it’s difficult to hear one more?
  2. Do you feel like you’ve reached your emotional pain threshold?
  3. Have you experienced toxic systems (difficult boss, a confusing legal system, spiritual abuse in church, a broken family dynamic)?
  4. Have your efforts to change that toxic system resulted in very little growth?
  5. Have you had to adjust your expectations this year? 
  6. Have your expectations, particularly in your foundational relationships, been unmet?
  7. Have you abandoned your personal study of Scripture or connectivity to Jesus?
  8. Have you stopped sharing your worries, problems, or pain because others’ stories seem more severe than yours? (In other words, you don’t feel you can complain since others have it worse).
  9. Instead of acknowledging and expressing your limitations and worries, do you minimize them and place them under lock and key in your mind?
  10. Have you mistaken numbness for peace? (In other words, you’ve experienced so much pain that you’ve stopped feeling anything, and that lack of feeling you’ve chalked up to peace, when, in reality, you are numb to the core).

If you’ve said yes to five or more of these questions, chances are you’re experiencing empathy fatigue.​ Empathy fatigue is basically a state like burnout where you feel you can no longer shoulder one. more. burden. 2020 seems to be causing more and more of us to get to this place of exhaustion. Why do I know about this? Because it happened to me.

After We TooHow the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis released last year, I heard far too many painful stories, so much so that I had to take a sabbatical this year to recover.The solution to empathy fatigue is boring, but it is good.

  • Rest. When you’re at that place of overwhelm, you have to take time to rest, both in weekly sabbath and, perhaps, a longer period of time (like a Sabbatical) in order to refuel. I took a lot of walks, prayed, had lunch with life giving friends (this was before covid), and was very quiet on social media. (For some of us, just taking a social media fast is what we need to recalibrate. Why? Because SM is steeped in telling you what the world system values, and often maligns God’s ways of doing things. Leaving SM and digging into the Bible will reorient your heart away from the chatter of the world toward the life giving, refreshing language of the kingdom).
  • The voice of God. To be quiet enough to hear his voice (I’m not talking audibly, but that still, quiet voice in your mind that brings encouragement and strength) is to experience regeneration. If you want to do a little study on his voice, read Psalm 29 and 1 Kings 19:11-18. In the latter passage, God asks Elijah an important question: “What are you doing here?” I sensed God asking me that question when I bent toward burnout. I realized I was in the place I was because I was working so so so hard to be God to others, when that is not my role at all. My role? Let God be God, relinquishing my control, living for His renown, not my capabilities. Another fascinating study is this: next time you read through the Bible, pay careful attention to the questions God asks his people. Often times, journaling your answers to God’s questions will lead you toward refreshment.
  • Community. This is a difficult year for community. It’s hard to connect when we must social distance. So I believe it is harder to heal from empathy fatigue because of this truth: we are wounded in negative community, but we are healed in safe community. A relational wound requires a relational cure. What breathed life back into me after bearing the weight of so many pains? Safe friends. Safe family. A safe church. I know those are hard to find. I hear you. I see you. I understand. What you CAN do: pray that God would bring one safe person in your life who will bear YOUR story this week. Another powerful practice I’ve learned is building fences, not fortresses. You can read a little more about that here.

If the last part (community) has been hard for you because you’ve been hurt, you can download my free ebook about that here.

Comments

  1. Tammy Horvath June 11, 2021 #

    I’ve never realized I experience empathy fatigue, but I do. I cry for hours over other people’s pain. It breaks me. I guess I can attribute my pain to praying all of my life for God to give me ‘Jesus’ eyes.’ I wouldn’t trade it though, nor will I quit praying for His eyes. Through my tears, I am so blessed.

  2. Yvonne April 28, 2021 #

    Powerful and timely message, Mary. Thank you so much.

  3. Carolyn Rice December 11, 2020 #

    I love the rest part, especially the rest from Social Media. That is huge for me.

  4. Heather MacLaren Johnson December 8, 2020 #

    Outstanding, Mary! I answered yes to all your questions and, in fact, am in the middle of a mini refueling retreat (except for reading encouraging writers on SM like you!) I’ll be passing your post on to others I know in need of your wisdom.

    • Mary December 8, 2020 #

      I’m so glad it helped. You are certainly not alone.

    • Mary DeMuth December 11, 2020 #

      I’m so glad it resonated, Heather.

      • Bethannah Guzman June 23, 2021 #

        Gosh this was good… I have experienced this myself and social media fasting and hearing from God and soaking Him in to consume very ounce of me was an incredible refueling. But I also like what you said during one of your speaking engagements about having God pour out His Spirit over you daily during those seasons of being fully engaged. Upmost for my Highest is my absolute favorite daily devotional as well. It really stretches me to go deep. Thank you for this Mary xoxo I needed it tonight.

  5. Gallerhea December 7, 2020 #

    Thank you.

    • Mary December 8, 2020 #

      You are so welcome!

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