Boundaries OR Compassion Fatigue?


Recently I have been dealing with something called compassion fatigue. I had never heard of it and when a friend first told me that was what I was experiencing, I wasn’t even sure it was a real condition… but trust me, it is! A situation arose out of a very challenging relationship about six weeks ago and I found myself in a state of frustration, anger and panic. I didn’t lash out at the woman, but after the conversation ended I found myself saying and acting in ways that were not God honoring. I was so frustrated that after investing nearly a decade trying to help her, she preferred to continue living with a victim’s mentality. I was angry that I was now in the same pot as many others she has spoken unfairly and maliciously about. …and, I was panicked because this was such a foreign place for me to be in.

Much of where this relationship ended up was my own fault because I had never set any boundaries. In an attempt to be there for her any time and in any way she needed me, I had let myself be taken advantage of… only to find she didn’t want my help. But what happened next was nothing I had ever experienced before. Although I felt bad to how I responded to the situation, after I prayed  – confessing it all to God I felt almost a state of euphoria. I had been released!

As a people-pleaser, I generally won’t allow myself to be released even when God is saying “step away”. But that day, I knew I had been released! However, I was also in the midst of compassion fatigue. There was simply nothing more in me to give her. God was saying that was OK, and in my then state of euphoria, believed that would be the end of it.

However, once the state of euphoria ended, I became aware that my normally optimistic outlook as a high-energy, “fix-it” person was gone! Exhaustion both physically and emotionally had taken their place. It felt as if there was no compassion left in me for her or anyone else. Within a couple of weeks I was on the verge of depression. The friend who first spoke the words “compassion fatigue” to me, wisely explained that unless I went to God and dealt with this it could turn into deep depression.

I had prayed when it first happened. And I was praying each day during daily devotions and throughout the day. But I had thought this was not that big of a deal and I would soon be the same person I had been prior to my compassion fatigue. When she shared that with me, I went to the Lord in prayer and cried out for mercy and grace in a situation that I had perhaps not created, but had allowed to get to the place it had because of not setting boundaries. I assumed it would take some considerable time before I was able to reach out in compassion toward anyone again. Instead, there was an immediate change in me! God heard and He answered loud and clear. “This is your gift I gave you. Go help others, but in my strength. Pray… set boundaries and I will do the rest.”

I wrote a letter to this woman explaining why I could not talk to her anymore about the things in her past. I also apologized for letting the relationship come to the place it did because of not setting boundaries – and then I set the boundaries that should have been there all along.

I wish I could say everything is fine between her and I, but it isn’t. She has chosen to be push me away because I have had to end several conversations prematurely when she crossed over the boundary line. And, guess what?! I am OK with that. I have prayed and I have set boundaries and I have His strength now in the situation. Whether it ever turns around or not, I am where God wants me.

If we don’t set boundaries, compassion fatigue may render us unable to help anyone! I know that often our “helps” gift gets in the way and we feel like we are to sacrifice ourselves in terms of time, energy and advice to help those in need around us. That isn’t what God has called us to. He calls us to be wise! …and a big part of wisdom is knowing when boundaries need to be set and then sticking to them once they are set.

May I challenge you, my fellow helpers?
1. Look at each relationship where you are a helper and pray about whether there need to be boundaries set, or perhaps modified to protect you emotionally and perhaps physically.
2. Give yourself permission to allow the limits of the boundaries you have set to be pushed back a little when you are comfortable with that.  …it won’t seem as strict.
I have let this woman talk about things that cross the boundary line as long as it
is not too stressful or abusive to me. Once she pushes past either of those… I tell her
I can no longer talk to her because she has crossed the boundaries, and end the call
or walk away.
3. Begin each new relationship by praying about what boundaries need to be set.

I am finding that each time I set a new boundary or enforce an in-place boundary it gets easier. What a wonderful perk!  I also am experiencing a freedom I have rarely felt in my life. Instead of my emotional strength being sapped, I am spurred on with new energy for helping her when the boundaries are respected along with more compassion and energy to help others God places before me. I am sure you will too!