Emotional fatigue

I have known for a long time that my primary response to stress is fatigue. I’ve come to recognise the qualitative difference between emotional fatigue and real fatigue. Nonetheless, the last ten days or so have been eye opening to me.

This week I have been teaching a module on the Master of Theology program at Stellenbosch. It is the first time I have taught this module. I am teaching with a very experienced and wise colleague, but still I do need to know what I am doing!

Last week I felt utterly exhausted – the feeling of mentally moving through treacle. I recognised it as emotional fatigue, and I knew that it was associated with my stress over teaching this course. What has surprised me, is that while I have certainly found this week tiring, I am less tired than I was last week!

It makes me realise the tremendous tax of emotional fatigue. It is slightly shocking to me that the fatigue associated with anticipation and uncertainty has been so much greater than the fatigue of actually doing the job! That internally generated stress is actually more taxing the external demand!

It makes me realise the terrible cost of procrastination. In this case the time to deal with the task at hand was fixed, but when it is not fixed I so easily procrastinate and fatigue takes over.


Periodically over the last year or so, I’ve been thinking about leadership. I have managed to divest myself of two leadership positions which I had found unduly burdensome. Both positions I had been asked to step into because I seemed the right sort of person. Both ended up draining me tremendously.

The obvious conclusion seemed to be that I am just not much of leader.

But then I recognise that there are several other situations where I am clearly the leader, although there is no formal title. In these situations I lead because I can’t help myself. I am passionate about the outcome and I have significant experience in the area.

So, it turns out that I have two qualitatively different experiences of leadership. In the first case, where it is a role I have taken on, I found it to be a tremendous emotional burden. That burden far outweighs the nature of the task!! But when I lead because it is a necessary part of my being in that dynamic I don’t feel the same burden.

In the latter case, the emotional tax is associated with the occasional complexity of tasks associated leadership, not with the role itself. I think part of the emotional burden of leadership which has been thrust upon me is the desire to perform to the satisfaction of those who have asked me to step up.

It is an interesting and slightly painful insight. Surely, by now, I should be free of the need to please others or impress others? Apparently not!

More importantly, it gives me a crucial point of discernment – am I taking this on because it is the right thing to do, or am I taking it on because I want to be seen to be capable or helpful or whatever else. If it is the latter I should probably steer clear until I have found my interior freedom.

My view is not the whole picture

In the last while I have had a series of conversations with a good friend. We have been discussing a situation in his life which has resonances in my own. By this I mean I bring baggage to the conversation.

I have been aware of the need to take time over my responses. Learning to sift the wheat of genuine concern from the chaff of fear.

It has been a fascinating process for me, as I have begun to really respect the other as other. It has forced me to recognise that his story is not the same as my story. His motivations are not my motivations. And crucially, neither of us is right or wrong, it is genuinely just different.

For me, this is a process of discernment. My knee-jerk response of what is right may not be accurate. The challenge is that the knee-jerk response is so often so clear and so easily justified. But I am really learning that my own point of view may not be the whole picture.

In fact, my own view cannot possibly be the big picture!

I am learning the importance of having a measured conversation. Taking time to pause and consider my own responses. Beginning to recognise when I need to not speak because I cannot speak out of freedom. And having the courage to speak again once I have found that freedom once more.

It is an extraordinary privilege to be allowed to participate in another person’s discernment.


I really hope most people find forgiveness easier than I do.

This week I’ve had an interesting experience. In that wonderful world of social networking I stumbled across a photograph of a person who caused me a great deal of pain many years ago. Time and time again over the intervening years I have combed over the events and each time managed to let go a little more.

Stumbling across that photograph this week was a great gift, because I realised that the emotional ties to that particular incident have finally fallen slack. When I look at the happy, relaxed face of this person I can celebrate her joy. And I realise that I have finally forgiven.

More than that, I feel like I have finally discovered what it is to forgive. I believe forgiveness is a grace. Something to be prayed for, not something I can will myself into. Nonetheless it has taken a fair bit of interior work over the years to loosen the emotional threads. Now, finally, the threads can be pulled a bit and it doesn’t evoke a response in me.

I thought I had forgiven this person a few years ago when I finally was able to lay to rest the sense of blame. But this is one step further, and it is truly freedom.

Relationships are minefields

There are several relationships between people around me at the moment which have the potential to end in a train wreck. In each case there is a significant, potentially explosive, factor which is lurking. In some cases, both members are consciously aware of its presence, in some, just one member is.

But in watching these relationships unfold, it occurs to me, that actually all relationships are minefields. Baggage from childhood, from unresolved past experiences and a huge lack of self-knowledge set the scene. All of us have charges which are just waiting to be triggered.

The interesting thing though, is that the triggering need not necessarily be disastrous. In a truly loving, supportive relationship, the explosion can be safely contained. Perhaps what we should seek in relationship is not a clear field, but rather a companion who has dealt enough with their own inner turmoil that they are not too frightened by our explosions.

Perhaps growth and maturation in relationships is not about helping the other completely avoid the mines, but occasionally it may be setting the conditions so that it can be safely discharged.

Holding the space

For many years one of the primary metaphors I use in spiritual direction training has been ‘holding the space’. Nonetheless, I was personally reminded of the importance of this a few days ago.

Whilst I have given dozens of quiet mornings and quiet days over the last several years, I haven’t attended very many. On Saturday I attended a quiet day led by a couple in our parish. My attendance was mostly spurred on by the fact that the day had been an idea hatched between my editor and I.

It was a most remarkable day for me. Something that has been building in me for several months finally found expression. But I know that I would not have found that outlet had it not been for caring containment of the quiet day leaders. Had I taken myself off for the day on my own (something very easy for me to do) I would not have risked venturing into the space. Precisely because I knew the space was contained and that I was ‘held’, I had the freedom to explore.

I have been tremendously blessed in my spiritual directors over the years – I see now, in a new way, the way they have assisted my exploration. It also makes me realise why I have been hesitant to take my own retreat in the absence of any direction. Maybe one day I will have the capacity to do a ‘self-directed’ retreat. But I know beyond all doubt – I am not there yet!

Uncertainty is vital for faith

I have been walking alongside others in their faith journeys for over a decade now in the ministry of spiritual direction. As I reflect on those people who have had transformational experiences which I have been privileged to witness, I realize that there is one element which unites them. Every single one has been willing to grapple with uncertainty in their faith journey.

That uncertainty shows up in different ways. For some it is an acknowledgement of resistance in prayer, for others a struggle with elements of Scripture, or a struggle with church doctrine. The point is there is a flavour of the Roman soldier ‘I believe, help my unbelief’. There is also a sense of mystery about the nature of God.

Uncertainty affords an openness; a willingness to be surprised by God, and perhaps surprised by oneself too!

Uncertainty, far from being problematic, may be the gateway to redemption.