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When you’re out of compassion and have none left to give

exhausted woman

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 10/23/22

Take stock and put a plan in place -- it's not selfish, but allows you to love and serve the people entrusted to you.

“I’ll play with you in half an hour, darling, I promise,” I mutter to my toddler as I slowly but firmly close the door to our bedroom with her on the other side of it. “Daddy just needs a few minutes by himself.”

Closing the door, however gently, on my daughter, makes my heart hurt. But I’m exhausted. I’ve just spent the morning with her, playing dolls, making breakfast, reading books, and playing board games she doesn’t actually know how to play.

I learned a long time ago that I need to pay careful attention to my interior emotional state, otherwise I spiral into depressive melancholy. I can’t help but feel guilty, though, anytime I claim alone time. I reproach myself that I ought to be able to do with less. I ought to be able to give more. I ought to be less selfish. I picture my daughter holding her doll and waiting for me to play with her.

To make it worse, I know full well that the day will come when my children are grown up and gone and I’ll desperately miss the time I used to spend with them.

The absolute and exhausting commitment of being a parent

My friend Katy Carl, in her novel As Earth Without Water, writes that, for a mother, it’s almost like once you go into labor it never ends. Motherhood is a lifelong commitment to suffering with and for your child. The physical suffering of the birth doesn’t exactly go away. It changes and deepens into emotional and spiritual suffering.

As a father, I feel a similar permanence to my vocation. My commitment to my children is absolute. So much so that, not too long ago when my daughter fell and chipped her tooth, I think I cried more than she did because I felt the sting of not being able to protect her or take away the pain. I would rather it had been my own tooth that was chipped.

The problem is, our children need so much from us on a daily basis – time and attention, cooking and cleaning, listening to their endless stories, mediating their arguments, drying their tears, absorbing their temper tantrums, being insistently hugged to the point of developing claustrophobia, pushing them on the swing.

For the most part, I treasure it and dread the day when I won’t have them around. Other times, though, I’m convinced I’m a bad parent for temporarily needing distance. Often, I push through tiredness because it’s my duty but internally I’m bored. That makes me feel even worse. Why am I bored when I should be thrilled with the joy of parenting? But I can’t give what I don’t have. The more I try, the emptier my hands become.

Caring for the caregiver — including yourself

I know that many people in what are called the “caring professions,” such as doctors, nurses, and teachers, have the same experience. On a daily basis, the job requires compassion. After a while, there’s simply no more compassion to give.

As a priest, I’ve had that experience. There can be long stretches during which I’m dealing with difficult people or need to be present with families during emotionally charged circumstances like funerals or marriage counseling. The stress would silently build up until, before I knew it, I would get annoyed at a totally random, innocent parishioner simply for needing a small amount of my time. I didn’t want to listen, talk, meet, do anything really at all. I was out of love to give.

How do we keep this from happening? How do we cultivate and maintain compassion?

I took an honest look at what I require to stay healthy. Every day, I have a small amount of quiet time before Mass during which I “check in” with myself. I give my activities that day to God, think about what I’m thankful for, and ask him to be present with me throughout the day. If I’m feeling emotionally tired, I resolve to put guilt behind me about taking the time I need. The process isn’t perfect. Sometimes I’m overly lazy and other times I still work through exhaustion, but I handle things way better than before.

I’ve also come to a better understanding of the strain that empathy creates. Empathy can actually cause emotional burnout because, as we carry the burdens of others, those burdens weigh us down even if the problems aren’t ours. I need to process not only my own emotions, but also the turmoil that has come my way via empathy. This, I suppose, reveals the power of empathy and why it’s such a valuable gift we give to each other.

Making a concrete plan

Finally, I make no apologies for setting reasonable boundaries. It isn’t wrong to need alone time each day, particularly if that’s how you fill up the empathy reservoir. Don’t feel guilty for telling your toddler you need 15 minutes — although I’ve found it better to simply wake up before them so I have that half an hour in the morning of quiet time. Then I’m usually good for the day.

Do what you need to stay healthy. Eat well. Exercise. Read a book. Sit in the sun. The fruits of self-care, remember, are not for you alone. If you have more energy, you’ll be in a better frame of mind and will have more to give away to others.

It’s such an odd balance we try to achieve, this need to guard our inner life so that we can make genuine, energizing connections with each other. If anything, it reveals how closely linked the interior life is linked with our exterior actions. Everything flows from the same source.

This is why it’s so important to guard the ability to remain empathetic and compassionate. We guard them like we might guard glowing embers in a fire pit on a cold, dark night, at any moment ready to burst into flame. If, at times, we need to close doors, the goal is always to open them back up.

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