Empathy Fatigue and Self Care
Being a spiritual companion is rewarding in part because it is difficult. It requires that we give of ourselves and our own resources to be present to others. This is especially challenging when the person sitting across from us is suffering. Part of being a good spiritual director is making sure that we are replenishing those personal resources on a regular basis. Self-care should be a routine that is built into our lives for the sake of our own mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. These habits might include seeing our own spiritual director or therapist, eating nourishing meals, meditation and prayer, taking walks, developing a journaling or gratitude practice, or practicing yoga. Establishing these rhythms ideally allows us to enter a direction session grounded and ready to be open and present to whatever our directee brings that day.
There is a second level of care for ourselves that we should also practice developing. We need to have techniques in place to successfully care for ourselves not only when we are alone, but also when we are in the presence of a directee whose particular suffering or story is difficult to sit with. This second level of care is especially important if we are sitting with someone who’s story is similar to ours, whether through past experiences or due to present disaster. Having methods and routines in place to allow us to care for ourselves, both in our personal lives and in the midst of our work, will help to avoid burnout or doing harm to a directee in a moment of feeling overwhelmed. This deeper level of care for self and others comes as a result of our own personal growth and continued professional development. Working through our own traumas or stressors is difficult, good work. Having a relationship with a trusted supervisor or supervisory group can also help us identify places in our own souls that need more tenderness or development. Attending conferences, trainings, and continuing to educate ourselves from the abundance of literature available will give us techniques to try and language to use. Having a multifaceted approach in our own work also helps us to be open to hearing from and partnering with other professionals in caring for ourselves and our directees.
Learning to care for both ourselves and others in robust ways, often at the same time is both possible and necessary for spiritual directors. Caring for ourselves is something that we can and need to do, both when alone and when in the presence of others.
“Compassion Fatigue” is a well known term that describes that potential feeling of being overwhelmed. Much of what helpers do is show compassion, however, empathy is the component of companionship that tends to be exhausting. For this reason, some researchers are beginning instead to describe the feeling of being overwhelmed in the presence of suffering, or burning out after a long season of helping, as “Empathy Fatigue.” It is empathy that connects us deeply to what another person is feeling, so much so that we feel their pain in our own bodies. Learning to allow that connection to another, even while maintaining a healthy sense that it is not actually our own distress, actually requires compassion for both directees and ourselves. This empathy connection, resonating with someone else’s pain, is what sometimes makes it difficult to remain attuned to another in the presence of their suffering. Compassion for self is what becomes needed in those moments. Deeply acknowledging the effect of the suffering of another on our own self, acknowledging how hard it can be to sit with suffering, taking deep breaths, making sure our bodies are as comfortable as possible … All of these are good ways to care for yourself while being actively present to your directee.
Humans have great capacities for offering care and kindness. Learning to care for both ourselves and others in robust ways, often at the same time is both possible and necessary for spiritual directors. Caring for ourselves is something that we can and need to do, both when alone and when in the presence of others. Developing an understanding of the nuance between having empathy for someone and compassion for them (or self) is an important step on the way to building a sustainable ministry of care to those who are hurting.
A Double Dose of Grief
One of the emotional experiences that often accompanies trauma is that of abandonment. The feeling of being utterly alone and vulnerable and feeling that one could not find the resources within one’s self to handle the crisis at hand in the moment (But be confident, we use the word “survivor” for a reason! Those resources were present and accessed as evidenced by the person sitting across from you!). For those who identify with Abrahamic or monotheistic religions, this is a feeling of “God-forsakenness” - the sense that in the occurrence of their trauma, even God became absent. This feeling of being abandoned, perhaps betrayed, by even God, and the necessary changes that occur in their perceptions of God, faith, and religion in the aftermath of trauma, is what I refer to when I talk to directees about their “double dose of grief.”
For many this is a difficult feeling to name, and depending on the faith tradition, even more difficult to talk about. Trauma often challenges both our conscious and unconscious theologies to the core. Unintegrated or untested beliefs about God’s presence in the world, God’s ways of interacting with people, “providence,” and many others come into sharp moments of cognitive dissonance when we try to make meaning out of what has happened. For some, this painful time of refining and shedding old beliefs will eventually result in a more grounded faith. Many survivors find that they are in fact able to discover that Love does still exist and is accessible in their new understanding of the world. For others, they may find that the old tradition does not adequately address reality as they now experience it and they will find homes in other traditions. A spiritual director can be a great asset during these delicate and tender transitions.
There is quite a bit of nuance in this type of questioning. There is a difference between questioning one’s faith and questioning the rhythms and rituals of one’s tradition. The first brings us to the core of ourselves where we deal with existential loneliness. The latter may cause us to feel like a misfit in our community and so we deal with a more tangible loneliness. A director must tread softly on this hallowed and fertile ground. Assuming that for the most part, we meet with directees who are part of the same or similar faith traditions as ourself, we must challenge ourselves to be honest about how open-handed we are with our tradition. How do we view those of other traditions? How do we view those who “leave” our tradition? By what means do we truly believe God meets and interacts with our neighbors of other faiths? With us? Does our tradition or institution welcome evolving faith or will that be viewed as threatening? These questions will have to be answered by you and by your directee. The answers may become particularly complicated if the trauma that has been survived was directly connected to a betrayal from within the tradition -either from a specific person or institution.
Particularly challenging can be the experience of feeling distant from, or within, one’s own tradition. This often means a loss of support, community, and rhythms that previously were held dear. Experiences and groups that often religious folks find their identity within. The rumblings of change in one person’s faith often causes ripples that are felt by the entire community, if it is close-knit. Does your directee feel safe to discuss what they are experiencing honestly with their spiritual leaders and friends? Do they feel supported, encouraged, and accepted as they explore?
Trauma often challenges both our conscious and unconscious theologies to the core. Unintegrated or untested beliefs about God’s presence in the world, God’s ways of interacting with people, “providence,” and many others come into sharp moments of cognitive dissonance when we try to make meaning out of what has happened.
Faith and religion, and the practices thereof, have been shown again and again to be powerful tools in building resilience and healing. The deeper one’s spirituality is integrated into one’s life, the more necessarily it will be affected by trauma, for better and for worse. When walking with survivors, the question is not “if” their experience of trauma will lead to some challenging questions about faith, it is “when.” As spiritual directors, we can hold space for these questions, and stand with our directees at these crossroads, with the deep intention of not adding to their grief, but helping them to experience joy.
Recommended Further Reading:
Healing Spiritual Abuse and Religious Addiction, by Matthew Linn, et al.
Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, by Shelly Rambo
Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, by Serene Jones
Erin Jantz received her Master’s Degree in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from the Institute for Spiritual Formation. She also holds a B.A. in developmental psychology and has furthered her education with trainings in trauma care from Boston University and intensives with Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk. She has been practicing spiritual direction since 2012, helped to author ICTG's Spiritual Formation Resource Guide, and also teaches and speaks on a variety of spiritual formation topics. Erin lives in Southern California with her husband and their four marvelous children.
SPIRITUAL DIRECTION BLOG
From 2012-2020, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for holistic health in the context of spiritual direction.
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