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.
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SPIRITUAL DIRECTION BLOG
From 2012-2020, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for holistic health in the context of spiritual direction.
This website serves as a historical mark of work the Institute conducted prior to 2022. This website is no longer updated.