Posted on September 17, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek
So I am in full-blown compassion fatigue, or mental and physical exhaustion from helping others who have experienced trauma. I’m sure the chronic back pain isn’t helping. I feel like an empty well with little to give others. Although this is a painful reckoning, I do not think I am alone in it, which is saying a lot.
Upon opening a book recently, I found a bookmark that reads “The heart which gives freely is never lonely,” and it’s one that I’ve had since childhood. A beautiful little girl is holding an apple toward you, the reader, and she is dressed in old-fashioned clothes, drawstring gray boots, white tights, and a little red coat with a white frilly dress underneath. The little girl’s long hair blows in the wind, and she is incandescent, beaming with joy at giving away her food.
I sort of hate this bookmark but have kept it around for years because I am a lover of anything related to books. But I know why I’ve kept it around: it represents why I believed, as a twentysomething, that I had to fix the world’s problems and somehow save others. It is why I joined a Catholic work program up North in Indiana, right after university. I wanted to save the world except they placed me in a lawyer’s office, filing papers. I remember crying on my first day there, falling into the lie that this is where I would be forever.
I didn’t understand then that I could have found a bit of work helping others outside the law office. I was only twenty-twenty, a very scared emerging adult who didn’t have the necessary life skills to process how to find a nuanced way to help others. It never occurred to me that filing papers could be a way to help clients with trauma, albeit indirectly. Back then, I lived in the land of the black-and-white, the all-or-nothing zebra thoughts that consumed my lovely tired brain, and if it wasn’t what I absolutely expected, well, then I was in for emotional tumult.
How I wish I could go back and hug that girl. She was so young, impressionable, and kind.
When I found the bookmark the other week, I reacted as if I had touched something hot and repulsive. I slammed it down on the sofa, next to my elder cat who scampered away. To my husband, I lamented about my reasons for going into the helping professions, for having an unhealthy compulsive need to fix others and for it to turn out perfectly, just according to my expectations.
God, what a way to live, right? It is exhausting and not surprising for a child of an alcoholic who also had delusions of saving the world. I saw in my father a great need to help others and that was one of the great things he gave me: a pull towards social justice activism, a love for minorities and their plight against systemic oppression, and a desire for goodness.
It would have been nice had he been able to be kind to me, but that’s a whole other essay.
As my husband took in the bookmark, with the pretty child giving her shiny red apples away, he remarked to me, “But look at how she gives. Do you see it?”
And then I wept with grief, longing, and frustration because I finally saw the truth. The girl’s basket that she holds is overflowing with apples. My husband said kindly, “She gives out of her abundance and not her lack.” How could I have missed it all these years?
I grieve for all the years I thought I had to give until I couldn’t anymore. I am deeply saddened by the years lost to the locusts of perfection, performance, and people-pleasing. I think of the young woman I was at university who believed that she had to be stunningly perfect and give and give to others, no matter the cost. This girl believed she had to be an evangelical Christian and win others for Christ as the cost of herself and relationships. I felt I had to believe as my Christian friends did and gave up my love for seeing the connection between religions, the belief that we are all deeply connected, and signed up for a Catholic program to help others, whilst not even being Catholic.
Sometimes I wish I could give the girl an informative talking-to in addition to a hug. I would warn her that giving to others with perfection is completely impossible and that she believe differently than others. I would tell her she is a gift to the world and that her father’s alcoholism, manifested in his complete inability to maintain emotional sobriety, makes her a fine candidate for Al-Anon. I would encourage her to go to the meetings, save money, and make plans to move out of her father’s house before the abuse becomes violent. I would, in essence, nurture my young self.
This tiny revelation, found in an old bookmark, marks a new chapter in my life: it is the first time that I have compassion for the girl I once was, and not egregious self-hatred. It has taken me a few decades to understand that my desire to give to others perfectly, at the expense of self, came from my childhood desire to be loved by my parents. And it has taken about that long for me to realize that radical self-care, as Anne Lamott coined, is one of the most dangerous and dissident practices a woman can engage in.
So while I’m not exactly grateful for being in burnout and for having a physical issue (i.e., the back pain) manifest my burnout, I am grateful that I have the opportunity to practice radical self-care today. I get to take exquisite care of the one person I have control over: me.
When it comes to self-care, sometimes it’s best to start off small. Eat healthy food, listen to relaxing music, pray, meditate, walk in nature, and spend time with people who are uplifting and not people who believe the world is a dumpster fire and believe it is their job to complain about it at every chance they can.
I say this in the nicest possible way, of course.
Another thing to remember is that our worth is not dependent on what we do but who we are. If Christianity is true, then our worth is about stepping into our identities as beloved children of God and rejecting the Puritan notion that work is the main reason why we are here.
What if we are here to enjoy life? To live freely? To enjoy the gifts that God gives us, including healthy work and rest? To relax and heal from helping others? What if it is true that when we stop listening to the inner critic we begin to hear the calming voice of the Lover instead?
The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17, New International Version).