Self-compassion. Perhaps this sounds like a contradiction in terms. Compassion is expressed for others, not oneself.
Compassion, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion is about allowing oneself to be with the emotional discomfort of someone else’s suffering with the hope of lessening it. Health care personnel do this every day.
It is part of being human to have feelings toward another being who is suffering, and doctors and nurses deal with suffering as part of their jobs.
Needless to say, this can take a toll. How do we foster resilience and not allow our natural compassionate inclinations to lead to burnout? Self-compassion practice can aid our return us to equilibrium.
The concept of self-compassion comes from loving-kindness meditation, where words wishing health, happiness, safety, and peace to oneself and others are repeated as a meditation. These words can create a benevolent connection to oneself and to the rest of the world as a force of goodwill. The modern usage of self-compassion amplifies this idea. Researcher Kristin Neff, PhD, has demonstrated that self-compassion is strongly associated with emotional well-being and reduced stress.
Neff and her colleague Christopher Germer, PhD, define the three necessary components of self-compassion as self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-kindness is just what it sounds like — being kind to oneself. This may sound simplistic, but medical culture places emphasis on kindness to others, not to self. We are not taught to look at our own suffering and ask ourselves what we need. Common humanity is the idea that we are all in this great “world soup” together; we are not alone but are interconnected in our shared human experience.
The third component, mindfulness, teaches us to pay attention on purpose and in the present moment without judgment. Mindfulness allows us to intentionally use awareness as a means to experience and know each moment of our lives as it is happening — even the difficult ones. These three parts taken together can facilitate increased resilience and well-being. A feeling of wholeness and intimacy with all the parts of life can result.
As a physician and mindfulness teacher, I feel passionate about spreading these concepts within the medical community.
Dissatisfaction and burnout are epidemic in medicine. I have been there myself. As an OB/GYN, I was juggling full-time work, every-other-night call, family, business problems, and malpractice concerns. I was looking for a better way, and this search led me to mindfulness and compassion practices. There was a lot of guilt, shame, anxiety, doubt, and general freaking-out before I realized that I actually had some choice in the whole mess. I eventually moved on from private practice to teaching mindfulness when I realized the fundamental importance of the mind-body connection in our (and my) overall health and well-being.
I know that my experience is not unique and that there are many distressed doctors out there. Neff and Germer have recently developed a research-based six-week adaptation of their mindful self-Compassion curriculum directed specifically at health care professionals. (Disclosure: I took part in testing and critiquing the curriculum.) Inner resiliency training might offer some modicum of relief to the throngs of unhappy doctors and nurses in the medical community. The program is not a panacea but provides some tools for clearly viewing the situation, soothing difficult emotions, and providing context for reconnecting to the reasons you entered medicine in the first place — compassionate care of others.
I have been teaching mindfulness in my community for the past six years. Mindfulness is a great help in plainly facing one’s own distress and disequilibrium. What it does not offer, however, is comfort. Compassion practices offer a balm for these wounds. My plan is to spread this balm far and wide.
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