By Pam MacRae
If someone needs encouragement or counsel for a problem in his or her life, I generally view an invitation to engage with them as both an opportunity to serve the Lord and a gift. I want to help. I believe God has equipped me to help people walk through deep valleys, so when I am involved I feel grateful and blessed by the opportunity.
For the most part, helping others lines up with Scripture that teaches we are to encourage, love, and help carry the burdens of one another. However, helping others can lead us to an unhealthy place. We are tempted to serve others to satisfy our own desire to feel needed, worthy, or sought- after. We may give more emotional, spiritual, or physical help than is appropriate.
Several years ago a woman came to me for help. She was in the middle of horrible circumstances that I frankly found enormously interesting. It was unlike anything I had ever been a part of. I was intrigued and hooked in by the uniqueness and depth of her need. She told me, “If it were not for you I don’t know what I would do. You are the only one who is speaking truth to me.” I jumped right in and determined to see her through this very difficult situation. God obviously had placed me in her life to teach her how to respond biblically in her crisis.
This led to many appointments and phone conversations. I rearranged my life to be available to her while setting aside other friends and family needs to tend to hers. I had taken on her problems. It was clear to me what she needed to do and I was sure if I just walked her through this, she would find healing, hope, and health.
As time progressed, I began to sense a heaviness as I tried to cope with her issues. I found myself thinking about her situation often and soon it began to affect my daily life. As my time involvement increased, I would defend and excuse it. “It won’t be like this for long.” “She cannot share this with other people, so for now I have to be the one to help.” “I can’t believe anyone has to suffer like this…She needs to see the commitment and unconditional love of a believer.” After months of trying to give as much as she said she needed, I was physically spent, emotionally exhausted, and my relationship with God was feeling stressed.
Eventually, the Lord used a well-timed conversation with my family to reveal the toll it was taking on me and how I had become consumed by her needs. I had to make some changes to learn how to help others without becoming personally devastated.
What were some of my take-away lessons from that situation?
- God provides help for His people. I am never the only answer. I was not, as she put it, “the only one who could help her.”
- Take notice of when helping becomes unhealthy. I learned to pay attention to where my head and heart were, and notice when helping leads me to unhealthily take on the hurts of another person. If my emotions begin to mirror their emotions, that is a clue to watch for danger signs. There is a difference in experiencing sadness and concern for another person and having their issues debilitate me.
- Take time for personal reflection. I learned that regular, deep personal reflection helps me catch when I am becoming exhausted in body, soul, and spirit. Of course, normal ministry relationships can be exhausting and there are legitimate periods of time when we will feel drained of all we have to offer. But are you able to recognize when pouring yourself out for others is damaging to your own soul?
Helping people who have experienced tremendous and traumatic problems takes a toll on anyone. I teach students to serve in two different areas of ministry. One is ministry for women, and the other is ministry to persons who are victims of sexual exploitation. I have noticed that in both of these areas, the exposure to the woundedness in others can be wounding to the ones who are helping. I see parallels in both ministries which obviously extend to other caring professions. Caregivers who care for hurting people can carry the burdens of others in a way that can take a toll on their own bodies, souls, and emotions. This is important to understand.
Two terms surfaced that helped me understand this risk when I studied this phenomenon in caregivers who are involved with helping the deeply traumatized. The terms “Compassion Fatigue” and “Secondary Traumatic Stress” almost define themselves. Compassion Fatigue is the experience of physical, emotional, and spiritual weariness and exhaustion that comes as a result of caring for hurting people. Secondary Traumatic Stress occurs when the trauma of another traumatizes you so that you experience some of the same effects of the trauma. These are obviously very basic definitions for very complex experiences. Yet it is critical to understand that in proportional measure, you can experience devastating effects from listening to and caring for people who suffer great sorrows, woes, traumas, and injustice.
As with most emotions, we tend to feel them on a spectrum. I have a friend who typically describes her day as either, “The very best day of my entire life,” or “The very worst day of my life.” Of course, this is hyperbole–intentionally intended to be humorously dramatic. It is not supposed to be a precise evaluation of their actual experience. Thankfully, most of what we experience is not located on the extremes of the spectrum. What pushes us to one extreme or the other varies. Perhaps one day we describe our favorite latte as what tips our day into being the very best day ever, while other days our latte is so ho-hum that we hardly notice it mattering on our ‘best or worst day ever’ scale.
My point is that you cannot predict what will be tolerated well or what will “send you completely over the edge.” You may be able to handle hearing the great traumas of life one day, but the next day it seems to paralyze you. It is possible to train yourself to learn how to evaluate yourself well enough to have a realistic view of your physical, spiritual, and emotional responses so you know how to respond. You need to be able to monitor your sense of personal well-being.
When you help hurting people, you have to learn to deal with how you respond to hearing so much sadness and grief. Self-care is a common way to describe the steps you need to take to care for your own spiritual, physical, and emotional needs. How do you manage these stressors and intentionally plan times for rest and restoration? It is the airplane oxygen mask on the mother before the child principle. You need to figure out how to get what you need in order to be conscious enough to help others.
So what is that for you? My list will be different than yours–but you need a list. If you need a starting point, I recommend you start with how Elijah responded to ministry stress in 1 Kings 19. Find a quiet place to pray and tell the Lord all about it. Then sleep. Eat good food. Sleep some more. Eat more good food. Now go out again.
If you are feeling trapped, helpless, alone, and overwhelmed you need to pull back. Ask God for help. Take time to exercise. Seek the support of wonderful friends and family. Listen to great sermons. Spend time pouring over Scripture passages. Seek objective help from professional counselors who are skilled to see risk factors you may not see and heed their advice. Ask friends to speak into your life when they see warning signs so you can act before there is a problem. Be attentive to early warning signs so you can counter the escalation of stress factors that can lead to burnout and your own crisis.
As you care for others, stay in touch with your vulnerability. Let the Lord be your pacesetter so that you can care for the hurting people God sends your way, while staying healthy yourself!