Turning Compassion Inward

Amy sat with me on my screened porch at the lake, listening the way only a woman who has spent thirty years as a cloistered nun in a monastery, then three more years training to be a therapist, can listen.

“You have compassion fatigue,” she said.

“What?” I asked. “There’s an actual name for this? It’s not just that I can’t manage my time and relationships well?”  

I was exhausted and blind to what I was doing—even though I’d been writing it with my own hand for months. Leading up to this encounter, I’d been to a seminar for work, on a family trip across the country, helped a child find and furnish an apartment, gotten another ready for college three states away, and was preparing to return to my teaching job with a new course to teach and six new teachers to mentor, meanwhile hosting friends at the lake all in between. I’d written in my journal:

I feel a little slammed.” (A little slammed? Isn’t that an oxymoron?)

Life being so full is both blessing and curse. Sustaining relationships takes time and space. I want to be present for people that I love. I feel guilty not taking care of others as well as I should; then others I long for time with but rarely get to see . . . and the chaos of making choices and feeling like I am never enough for any of them . . . I am very unsatisfied.” (I noted that this felt defensive and reactive, and yet I wanted to be open and surrendered to what God brought me.)

“I love people and so easily form relationships, but then times like today my worlds seems to collide. Collision is what it feels like, too, in my head and my soul.” (Collision implies a wreck, damage, not just a fender-bender—shouldn’t that have set off an alarm bell?)

“I underestimate the toll compassion takes on my body and brain. I want a tender heart but sometimes I hate it.”

Quiet and receptive, Amy held space while I fumbled and grasped for words trying to explain what I had done the day before when I had left the five women—my houseguests—all sitting on the porch talking and wandered out into the lake by myself. It was unlike me: the hostess and chief conversationalist. If my life were the old TV series, The Love Boat, then my role is Julie, the Cruise Director.

But this day, in the midst of the episode, I appeared to have forgotten my role or lost my place in the script, and I just walked off the set. “I was tired,” I told Amy, “I talk too much. And the more I said in that conversation, the worse it got; every woman in the circle is strong-minded and opinionated.” I’d decided I needed to give them all a break from me, from my trying to merge opinions and soften others’ words which I perceived to be harsh toward each other.

“Who told you that you talked too much?” Amy asked. I proceeded to list comments made by family over the years related to the rate, volume, and amount of my speech. “I need to practice silence,” I told her.

“We missed you. We need your words. They enliven, even if they won’t always fully heal or control a situation,” she said, and continued that perhaps my definition of silence was skewed. “Silence is possible without solitude,” she said, “Both have their place, but silence is an internal conversation with God, not the absence of sound.”

Silence that is empty creates a vacuum, a space where negative self-talk rushes in. Silence the way Amy had practiced it for years was a directed and exclusive conversation, one that left no room for negative self-talk and could be had in the presence of six fiery women or six rookie teachers, or moving into an apartment or feeding twelve for dinner.

Silence is vertical. Silence can be there, hearing and seeing the same stuff, but “offering it up” on the inside. Like Mary at the wedding at Canaan, looking at Jesus and just stating the facts, “They are out of wine.” And fully expecting him to do something about it. Silence is knowing that most things are beyond my control and pausing to talk to the only One who can do anything about anything.  

Understanding silence this way was a first step and self-care was a second in healing compassion fatigue. Until that day, I just felt inadequate in the roles I’d been given. I didn’t know the cost of empathy. While others seems to move in and out of relationships and encounters, I internalize them. I begin to feel responsible for everyone around me, soothing hurt feelings, smoothing ruffled feathers, communicating where others have failed to— constantly reacting to my life in a horizontal manner, because I care deeply about the people in front of me.

And silence is also sometimes solitude and self-care for sensitive and empathetic people.  My nun-turned-counselor’s first prescription for me was one hour a day devoted to self-care. “Ask yourself, What do I need today?” she said. It sounded easy when she said it. It wasn’t. Wife, mom, teacher, employee, neighbor, friend, daughter, sister—I was so accustomed to filling roles I wasn’t even sure to whom I was addressing the question, not to mention the guilt of thinking I was being indulgent.

But I trusted my guide and though I still don’t hit the hour a day mark, I’ve learned to ask myself—not my roles—what I need, realizing that I can’t give love, compassion, mercy, or service to anyone if I don’t first practice giving them to myself.

Leah Slawson

Leah Slawson is a wife, mom to two almost-grown children, and former English teacher. She lives in Alabama with two spoiled dogs, a beautiful lake and crazy football fans. She is the author of New Every Morning: A Celebration of God's Faithfulness to Women and blogs at www.leahslawson.com.

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  • Oh how this resonated with me. At one time I was on 24/7 care for a loved one, a child of mine. I quickly found out I would not make it. I had wonderful people that helped point that out. At that time I started by taking a day to myself. I had someone take on my role for the day. It was sooooo hard to leave but it was the best thing ever.