I saw a phrase on Instagram last week that caught my attention: empathetic distress.
Psychologist Adam Grant, who is one of my favorite personal development thinkers, explained that empathetic distress is when we see someone hurting and we feel are unable to help. Grant pointed out that empathic distress can lead to withdrawal (isolation) because of overwhelm and exhaustion.
When I re-shared Adam’s post in my Instagram stories, someone sent me a note and said, “YES! This names what I’ve been feeling the past two years.”
Today’s devotional is a shoutout to those of us who have big hearts, but our hearts are filled with heartache for what’s happening in our lives or in our world.
God calls us to care about others, but we must be wise and discerning because we cannot actively care about everybody all the time, especially at the same time. Some of you need to hear this today: Only God can shoulder all your family’s problems, our world’s social issues, world conflict, and the spread of evil. You aren’t God and you weren’t built to carry that load.
What are some clues that you might be in empathetic distress?
- You have a big heart for others but caring deeply for one person’s suffering or feeling distress for lots of people in pain is exhausting you.
- You’re overwhelmed because you see so many problems and you’re tempted to shut everyone and everything out.
- You have a heavy heart all the time and you notice a lack of God’s joy or peace.
If you recognize one or more of these, perhaps today’s devotional is a prompt for you to stop and reflect. I’m going to share a powerful reminder from Jesus and four practical tips for us today.
In Matthew 6, Jesus taught a large group of people from all walks of life, followers, and non-followers in his Sermon on the Mount. There was one portion of his sermon where he addressed the attentiveness of God:
Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? -Matthew 6:26-27 NLT
Jesus reminds us that God is paying attention to everything happening in our world. Think about this: God pays attention to the birds that don’t have jobs or eternal souls, and He still cares about them. Jesus also taught that God pays attention to the flowers in the field that don’t even last long, but God still cares for them.
In a world where it feels like we need to worry about everything, Jesus tells us not to worry because it adds nothing to the quality of our lives. Jesus taught this message to remind us that only God cares, but God is ridiculously in control, friends.
Nothing is happening in your life, your loved ones’ lives, or in our world that escapes God’s notice. He sees the mess and get this: God’s not worried about it. He’s not missing ANY sleep and He is not wringing His hands trying to figure out what to do.
So how do we balance caring about others or the problems in our world, but not letting ourselves get carried away into empathetic distress?
Here are four practical steps to guide you in demonstrating care and concern without carrying burdens that you aren’t supposed to:
- Be wise about how much news content you consume. Watching endless news coverage will only grow your fear, not your faith.
- Pray! God is at work, friends. We may not be able to see it, but faith prompts us to believe it.
- As you pray, be mindful of what God puts on your heart to do – but you do not have to do everything. Leave room for people to need God instead of you potentially trying to be God by handling all of the problems and issues. Here are some supportive things that you can do without fixing problems: you can send encouraging messages, ask them how you can pray for them, support them with a meal, or just sit and let them talk about their struggles.
- Surrender your fears and worries to God because YOU need it. Practically, a next step would be to let go of your worrying, by changing your worry words to worship. What if you started worshipping God each time you noticed that you were worrying? Which one will be healthier for your heart and mind? You can worship in prayer or listen to music. I have a great playlist on Spotify if you need music recommendations.
What do you think about empathetic distress? Does that describe how you’ve been feeling lately? If you’ve been encouraged or you recognize that God’s prompting you to do something, tell us about it.