In my life and line of work, I engage with many individuals who work in what are often called ‘helping professions’. Personally, I think a more accurate descriptor for them is Givers. It’s a privilege to do life with others who have a heart to help the hurting, whether it be physical, mental, emotional or spiritual.
I appreciate the conversations we have. The sense of encouragement and challenge from living and learning among them is a gift I treasure. These Givers are warriors against illness and darkness, against pain and shame. They have made it their life’s mission to push back on the toxins (some literal, some figurative) that plague our fellow man and woman. They stand with those in need of a little help to stand on their own. They give of themselves, not for themselves and it is a beautiful thing.
But, lately, there’s been a common theme among these friends. The past several days I’ve found our conversations centered on their experience of what I would call ETS…
Empty. Tank. Syndrome.
Unfortunately, it’s fairly easy for me to recognize ETS because I too have experienced its symptoms.
At times, it has even taken me out of the fight.
Perhaps you’re familiar with it too.
Before we talk specifics I want to add a disclaimer here.
While I was originally lead to write this because of conversations I was having with helping ‘professionals’, I don’t want to be too exclusive here.
So, if you’re reading this and saying “I’m not a nurse or a counselor or a helping ‘professional’, but some of this ETS stuff sounds familiar.” Let me be clarify...
If you are the one who everyone else comes to for advice, help, guidance, compassion and understanding, I’m talking to you.
If you’re a stay-at-home parent, or running the entire show; job, kids, ageing parents, etc. then you qualify.
If you’re the one who holds the family together, whether that’s two people or inter-generationally, then this post if for you.
If you volunteer countless hours to help the hurting and those in need, pull up a seat at this table.
And if the symptoms (any symptoms) are a fit, then this is for you.
You, are a Giver.
Now, let’s look at a few symptoms and you can decide for yourself if ETS is present in your life. While not universal, here are some of the more common signs:
Fatigue. Not of the ‘I’m really tired’ variety, but the soul-weary fatigue that often goes undetected by those closest to us. We usually fail to see it in ourselves until it threatens to overtake us. It is an almost palpable sense of darkness in our world. A weight on the hurting. The feeling that no matter how much rest you get, you’re exhausted at the deepest level.
Sorrow. Not the ‘I feel sad or melancholy’ sort of sadness. But the sorrow that reaches to the depths of your heart and taints your lens, so that most of what you see is the brokenness of humanity. While you know it’s there, hope seems hard to grasp and it feels overwhelming.
Disconnection. Not the ‘I haven’t seen my friends or loved ones in a while’ sort of disconnection. But rather, the sort of disconnection that can find you in a room filled with people yet you feel disconnected because you are fairly certain they can’t see what you see or feel what you feel.
And last but not least…
Shame. Not the kind of shame that says ‘I don’t want people to know what I did’. It’s a far more subtle, and far more destructive kind of shame. The kind that says ‘What’s wrong with you? You’re the ‘helper’ here. You help others, you can help yourself.’ The kind of shame that causes us to run on physically and emotionally empty tanks until we drop.
Any of these sound familiar? Personally, I’ve experienced them all. But that last one? Oh, that one is a doozy!
In fact, I will go so far as to say it is the mother of the rest of them. When left unchecked it creates room for all the other ‘symptoms’ to grow.
And it’s a lie. Straight from the pit of hell.
I am certain that if the enemy of your soul can convince you that you shouldn’t need help, then eventually you will be depleted. Your cup will be empty and you will have no hope of pouring into others. At least not in a healthy way. You will not be able to help those who need you most.
So, now that we know what ETS looks like, what do we do about it?
Well, first, we have to admit that it’s ok for a helper to need help. Do you believe that? Do you believe its ok to need help; to have problems? I know from personal experience you won’t get very far if you don’t. If you’re struggling with this initial step, perhaps I can help (see what I did there?).
What if you took some of that compassion and grace that you so generously and selflessly dole out by the truckloads to those in need and offered some of it to yourself? What if you attempted to be as kind to yourself as you are to others?
Ok, try this. What if I told you that the best gift you can give to those who need you most is to learn how to be ‘healthfully selfish’ (props to my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Leonard Matheson on coining that lil’ ditty.). The truth is that even in caring well for ourselves, we are caring well for those we care for. (Whew! That’s a lot of ‘caring’!)
If you can admit to this, if you can offer yourself the grace, take the self-compassion then take a look at the ‘symptoms list’ above. Think of one way you can address each of these issues. But start with the shame.
Just slay that stuff right out of existence.
If you need help or practical suggestions on how to address some of these 'symptoms', comment below, send me a private message or email. There are some simple things we can do to help us find the restoration and rest we need.
And if you have a suggestion that has been helpful to you in your quest to be ‘healthfully selfish’, please share! We do our best when we lock arms and learn from each other.
One more thing. That soul-weary feeling? If you’re anything like me, that one sneaks up when least expected. And more often than I care to admit. Let me share something that’s helped me.
Check this out…
“Are you tired? Worn out? ...Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Doesn’t that sound delightfully regenerative? I think so.
This ‘offer’ of rest is from Jesus. You can find it in the eleventh chapter of the book of Matthew, written here from the Message translation.
Jesus has some helpful things to say about how we can rest and reset. I highly recommend checking it out. His supply and sustenance is never-ending. He offers to be our source, when we are empty. And as the ultimate Giver, who better to learn from? Even lessons on how to be healthfully selfish.
Jesus as our source doesn’t necessarily mean everything (as in circumstances) will change. Yet…
Everything. Will. Change.
When we pour out of what is poured into us, from a Source that can’t run dry, imagine the impact we can have in the lives of those in need.
By the way, if you found that you fit into ANY of the categories of ‘Helper’, whether you get a paycheck for it or not, in case you haven’t heard it in a while…THANK YOU!
You make the world a better place. I’d like to tell you that you’re not mad for doing it, but we both know better. So wear it proudly. Besides, all the best people are a bit mad in their vision and persistence to help a world in need.