During my law enforcement career, my comrades and I were repeatedly instructed to use caution when responding to an emergency call because, as the saying went, you were no good to anyone and a drain on available resources if you were involved in a vehicle crash on the way.
In a similar fashion, biblical counselors, like first responders and other crisis care agents, are susceptible to a phenomenon known as compassion fatigue. While compassion fatigue may not leave the counselor stranded in an overturned vehicle, it does threaten to sideline them for a lack of awareness or appropriate caution.
Fortunately, like most car crashes, it is largely preventable.
In clinical settings, compassion fatigue is sometimes referred to as “secondary trauma” or “vicarious traumatization.” It may also be considered similar to a type of PTSD that affects those who provide soul care to trauma victims.
While there may be no consensus at this time as to what to call it, what is clear is that caregivers are always at some risk of experiencing its effects.
Identifying the Danger
Compassion fatigue may be thought of as the result of working with a counselee whose story affects the counselor in a way that is more profound than others do. Or, it may be the result of counseling long hours in a relatively short timeframe. This concern for caregivers sounds much like the more generalized condition known as “burnout.”
On this related issue of “burnout,” Brad Hambrick offers a helpful definition that connects with this discussion:
Burnout occurs when the things that we once relied upon for life and energy become a source of discouragement and a drain. Burnout occurs when we begin to live as if caring were a necessary enemy, and we begin to prefer the “living death” of numbness to “caring exhaustion” of Christian relationships and service.
There is no precise method of predicting how or when compassion fatigue may strike the heart and soul of a counselor. Wisdom and discernment from an accountability partner or team of colleagues who can speak honestly with and to the counselor are keys to recovery and prevention.
Physically, counselors may experience symptoms like those of their counselees, e.g., sleep loss, headaches, dizziness, claustrophobia, body sensations, and weight loss. Emotionally, counselors may find themselves wanting to withdraw, or feeling anxious, depressed, tired, or short-tempered.
Any combination of these symptoms that represent a marked or noticeable departure from normal functioning could signal that the counselor is spiritually and physically fatigued. To help us better understand, we might draw from what medical doctors tell us about hydration: once you are thirsty, you already may be dehydrated. Likewise, it may be that by the time counselors notice any of the above symptoms, they have already gone too far.
Help for the Helper
This might mean, therefore, that the time to call a counseling timeout has already arrived, and this must be done for the sake of the counselor, loved ones, and the people he or she serves.
Changes to the counselor’s schedule should be considered for a season, on a case-by-case basis, until the counselor is emotionally and spiritually ready to re-enter service. This may be especially true if it can be reasonably determined that work quality has been compromised and/or the counselor’s family life has been suffering.
Making necessary changes may be more or less difficult depending on whether the counselor’s work is vocational or within the scope of lay service in a local church, but a failure to act could produce disastrous consequences that far surpass the taking of a timeout.
Some level of tiredness, even exhaustion, in the work of counseling is a possibility for all counselors. The existence of compassion fatigue and the accompanying battle against it is a reminder that we are finite beings with real limitations.
An Ounce of Prevention
Awareness of these issues should give rise to intentional measures in order to help ensure that counselors are protected. While guarding the counselor’s heart against compassion fatigue may involve any number of wise, practical steps (i.e. time management, Sabbath rest, accountability, case management, etc.), the foundation of prevention and healing is trust and rest in the work of Christ. The hope that counselors extend to counselees is the same hope upon which their faith rests, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Contained in the gospel are reminders for counselors that only God is infinite. Only He, working in and through the power of His word and Spirit, is able to accomplish the goal of biblical soul care: sanctification.
Counselor, you cannot “heal thyself” or those you serve. That is not intended to discourage you, but it is a biblical truth intended to foster reliance upon Christ alone (John 15:5).
Indeed, those of us who counsel come to each session with the same need that the preacher declared to a young Charles Spurgeon in 1850, on the morning of his conversion: “Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do but to look and live.” If we begin and remain here, ever looking to Christ, we may well guard hearts and keep from finding ourselves in a condition where we are too tired to care.
Join the Conversation
Has compassion fatigue been a threat to your work as a counselor? How have you guarded against its effects?
 Brad Hambrick, Burnout: Resting in God’s Fairness (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2013), 1.
 Steven J. Lawson, The Gospel Focus of Charles Spurgeon (A Long Line of Godly Men Profile) (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2012), 5.