Who Comes First?

Empathy and compassion are two of the most wonderful character traits in my opinion. I feel this way because these traits lack selfishness and embrace loving and caring for others. After all, isn’t that what Christ has called us to? While these are great traits to have, I have also seen how individuals who are empathetic and compassionate tend to put others above caring for themselves. This can become detrimental when serving the needs of others and giving so much (emotionally and physically) leads to complete depletion of the individual.

This topic is forefront on my mind because I know I tend to be this way and I have witnessed it in countless conversations with clients. I truly believe that the ability to be compassionate and empathetic is a gift. Our world can be so selfish. It is refreshing to find individuals willing to love, give and lend an ear. Doing so, however, requires a thoughtful balance.

This balance means that there must first be an element of self-care. In practical terms this could look like getting proper sleep, good nutrition, exercise, and a healthy work/life balance. Even deeper than that is internal work such as healthy boundaries, knowing, understanding, and expressing emotions, learning healthy communication, and processing past trauma and mental health challenges. Doing this type of work, whether alone or with professional help, is necessary to be able to properly care for others. Otherwise, it becomes about pleasing people and doing everything for them. To use a cup metaphor; this can lead to a rather empty cup for the one doing all the pouring out.

One more recent example I have seen of empathy and compassion was a young client (with her mom) in my office who kept stating that everything was fine when asked about a difficult situation their family is going through. When pressed, she expressed sadness and discomfort, but was hesitant to do so because she wanted to protect her mom from any hurt or pain. While a beautiful example of compassion and empathy, this is an example of someone who puts another above herself. This can be harmful if she doesn’t learn how to stay in touch with what she is feeling and express it in a healthy way. Otherwise, bottled up emotion can cause challenges down the road.

I have seen this in my own life as well as a parent. While some aspects of parenting do require sacrifice, complete depletion of myself will not make me a better parent to love and care for my children. It is important for me to have healthy boundaries and make sure that I am processing my emotions to better teach my children how to do so.

Jesus was a wonderful example of empathy and compassion. While He certainly poured out more than any other person ever could, Jesus still took time to get away. He often went away, alone, to pray. This refreshed his spirit and body. He also took time away to rest and eat. If Jesus is our ultimate example, it means we should work to emulate Him. This means that we should have empathy and compassion, but not at the expense of ourselves.

I encourage you to do some self-evaluation. Do you tend to put others’ wants or needs before yours? Do you often feel tired and worn down from constant giving? Do you tend to hide your emotions, thoughts, or feelings to protect others? If you may answer yes to any of these questions, you may want to evaluate how you can create a healthier balance of self-care and giving of self. With the help of a professional therapist, and our ultimate helper and guide (God) we can create this balance and continue loving people out of the overflow of letting God love us.

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