Monday, May 6, 2013

Preventing Burnout With True Compassion

@mihaela_V on Twitter asked 'Any tips re: compassion w/o taking on others' suffering?' That's a great question, and one I can answer based on my limited experience as both a mental health professional, and a practitioner of mindfulness. 

Early on in my career, when I worked as a psychiatric social worker, I remember coming home every day from the hospital feeling drained and with little left to give to myself and my family members. The explanation was simple. I was taking on the suffering of those I was meant to help. And the remedy, as suggested by my supervisor, was clear. I needed to strengthen boundaries between me and the patients. Whenever faced with difficult material, I learned to summon images of door being shut, and fences going up. It helped some, but not really. 

The reason is, I did not know what true compassion was.

Fast forward thirty years, and my experience is so different now . . . Mindfulness has enabled me to   bring compassion first to myself, and second to others in my care. And in the process, I have discovered the joy of serving without feeling burdened by it.

UC Berkeley Center for Greater Good has one of the best definitions of compassion:

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

To Leigh Brasington, I owe this clear articulation of what compassion is, and what it is not, and what happens when it is not practiced correctly. Here are my notes from last year retreat with Leigh:

The far enemy of compassion is cruelty. Its near enemy is pity. We risk burnout when we get attached to results, and we insist on relieving the other person's suffering.

Practically, this has meant approaching the other person's suffering like this:

I meet you and I sit with you. I allow myself to feel all of the suffering in this moment, yours and mine. I discern what is yours and what is mine, and what are my reactions to yours and my suffering. And I pay particular attention to any tightness in my mind or body, for it is always a sign unnecessary clinging, which we know is the real troublemaker. What am I wanting that is not possible? What am I pushing away that cannot be done away with? Sitting with her who is sharing her great mental suffering with me, can I let myself feel her anguish, her depression, her hopelessness? Can I stay with the extreme unpleasantness of it all? No need to do anything, other than 'seeing' the whole package, and finding the ebbs and flows of breath in between. Same way I would deal with my own suffering. In the joining and the shared acknowledgment of the suffering lies the possibility of healing. And without the rub from ego-induced clinging, the other's suffering does not stick but leaves instead joy in its trail. Joy from heart open fully, not defended. 

May this be helpful to you whose heart wants to open, and bring relief to the other who is hurting. 

1 comment:

  1. Dear Marguerite,

    Thank you very much for offering support and wisdom in this post. Some words you wrote struck a chord deep in my heart. The first is:

    "We risk burnout when we get attached to results, and we insist on relieving the other person's suffering."

    I have never thought that insisting on fixing the problem is a cause of burnout. But it makes so much sense - especially when there is nothing I can do about it. I've been consumed by a dear friend's struggle with schizophrenia. She is temporarily lost in a schizophrenic episode, and I want her back so badly, and I thought if I can only think of the right thing to say, maybe I can persuade her to go to the hospital... but I can't get through. It's been hard to recognize what I can and cannot do, and come to terms with that.

    The second one is:
    "I discern what is yours and what is mine, and what are my reactions to yours and my suffering."

    I got lost, for one full day, in empathy so deep I could not regain my composure or focus on work. I need to remember these words. And I will come back and read your words on how to do so, on paying attention to tightness in the body, and taking the time to observe and honor that.

    The third thing that jumped off the computer screen right into my heart was:

    "Mindfulness has enabled me to bring compassion first to myself, and second to others in my care."

    I've heard of self-compassion a lot, but somehow it hasn't registered until a couple of weeks ago, when this theme has popped up again and again. I used to always forget about self-compassion. I've read Tara Brach's book on True Refuge. She states very clearly that mindfulness and compassion work together, like 2 wings. Somehow, I'd leave self-compassion out. I'm only now beginning to learn how important it is and your words reinforce this.

    Thank you, thank you, for teaching me so much through this post.

    @mihaela_v

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