“I’m exhausted! And I don’t want to do this anymore,” I remember saying out loud.
Anne’s family was going through a crisis. Her absent father accentuated her mother’s strong control. Anne was feeling responsible and crumbling under the load. She was in tears each time we talked. She was angry and repulsed by some of her family. I so wanted to relieve her pain. I so wanted to bring comfort and help her to think more clearly.
What I didn’t realize was that I couldn’t “relieve her pain,” and in the process I found myself carrying much of the emotional weight. Granted, each time Anne talked to me she felt a temporary emotional relief. Yet, within days, sometimes hours, she was feeling the weight and would call again.
And after several weeks, I found myself exhausted.
Don’t carry all the emotional weight
This is the third DON’T of good shepherding (for the previous two DON’Ts see 2 Things to Avoid in Shepherding For more Guidelines for Shepherding see Shepherding a Woman’s Heart, Chapter 9.)
We may have the best of intentions in carrying the emotional weight of others’ pain. Perhaps we genuinely feel God wants us to support this person in pain Perhaps unknowingly we are rescuing, people pleasing, co-dependent, or responding to expectations. There are a variety of issues that can enter into our desire to help others. Some are healthy; others not so much. Those who have the gift of mercy often have a greater risk of carrying much of the emotional weight.
But doesn’t the Bible say I should put other’s needs before my own? Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Whew… was I actually doing the right thing to carry Anne’s burden?
Read on: “If any of you think you are something when you are nothing, you deceive yourselves. Each of you should test your own actions. Then can take pride in yourself, without comparing yourself to somebody else, for each of you should carry your own load” (3-5).
These two phrases seem contradictory.
This seeming contradiction may be clarified by an illustration from my husband, Jim. During his years of being a summer canoe instructor Jim would tell campers preparing for a canoe trip to each carry their own backpack filled with a sandwich, sunscreen, and a towel. In the same way, we each have a responsibility to carry our daily load.
But a canoe is too heavy for one camper. Three campers (with their own backpacks in place) will place themselves under a canoe, lift it off the rack and carry it down to the water’s edge. In the same way, the excess weight, the crushing loads of life are too much for one person to bear alone without help. These we carry together, in addition to our own backpacks.
Notice in this illustration, it took three to carry the canoe. As a care-giver, I needed to learn how to process the emotional weight of others and not carry it all myself. (See Know Your Own Limits for more on this.)
As simplistic as it may sound, it sometimes helps me to visually imagine that after I figuratively put my prayers and concerns for Anne down on paper, I walk that piece of paper (with all the emotional concerns on it) out of my office and place it on Jesus’ “in-basket” in his office. Every once in a while I find the paper back on my desk and I virtually get up and walk it back into Jesus’ in-basket and leave it there again, at the foot of the cross.
I’m reminded of the classic example of Jethro saying to Moses, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?” Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will…” (Exodus 18:14-15). People’s expectations, people’s needs, and people’s dependence rest on me. Who else will do this?
Jethro proceeds to show him a better way, which is to involve others in the task. The outcome is, “This will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain and all these people will go home satisfied” (23).
The outcome of implementing this wisdom is good for BOTH you and those to whom you are ministering! Everyone is served better!