I think compassion is right up there with Gratitude as one of the most important attitudes to cultivate in life. It is a form of love, a form of kindness, that is non-discriminating, yet is neither overly emotional. It is both detached and caring. In that sense it is like empathy, which is a component of compassion. In fact it is the only way to maintain a caring attitude in a professional capacity without causing oneself to burn out. Empathy is a tool which can be used to cultivate compassion. It is the capacity to put oneself in another’s shoes, to imagine how they might feel, or see the world, whilst maintaining our own sense of self as a separate being, so that we are still able to act rationally. Sympathy is where one identifies with the other’s feelings; we know how they feel because we feel it, or we believe that we know how they feel and react from an emotional position. This is not always helpful, as it often comes across as feeling sorry for them, and can paralyse us from helping the other person to see a way forward. We are stuck in there with them, or worse, we take them to a negative place they weren’t even in. This can happen especially if we have unresolved traumas of our own that resonate in some way with theirs. We are reacting from our own emotions, rather than a rational and calm base. With empathy and compassion, we can be caring and rational at the same time. We can make appropriate decisions, based on both bare facts and the emotional needs of others, without being clouded by our distress on behalf of the other. We can recognise their views and feelings, so that they feel validated, without them feeling that we have taken over and entered their psyche, along with all our baggage.
However, the power of compassion has much greater implications that this. In its ultimate manifestation it is a force for healing. As a practitioner and as a disabled person, I have had many interactions with a variety of health professionals, both as a patient and as a colleague. As I mentioned in my previous article on burnout (see Burnout: A collective responsibility), there is a danger of losing compassion in the healing professions, especially when one is overloaded and feeling unappreciated. The difference it makes to meet a consultant with true compassion is astounding. A certain look, a touch on the arm, a genuine active listening, says “I am here with you”. It says, “I care and feel for you, but I am strong, you can relax in my space”. In that moment there is true connection. We feel understood, supported, respected and validated. The respect is mutual, and the gratitude overflows. We may respect a doctor for their knowledge because we need to have confidence that they know what they are doing, but it is their compassion that makes us want to consult them. Sadly it is not as common in the medical profession as it should be and pracitioners who excel at it are ironically vulnerable to burnout, as everyone wants to see them, and has high expectations of them.
I have had recent experiences of compassion from the busiest of consultants, which has been so meaningful and significant to me that I consider it a part of my healing process and is a factor in my trust and confidence in them. To see even the most highly trained expert hold on to our common humanity is a great relief. There is always a danger of “knowledge is power” becoming “knowledge is power over you” when in fact there is a mutual privilege; as patients we open up our vulnerabilities, our trust is given to the consultant. The “good bedside manner” was once very greatly valued when medicine and technology were not so advanced and a doctor had few other tools but to really listen and to physically touch a person to understand their problem. Now it is easy to order blood tests and scans, to compare results to standards of “normal”. It is too easy to lose sight of the individual, the very real human, that does not always fit in a neat box. We do not grow from textbooks. Much frustration from patients is from not feeling listened to and validated, just as they are. We may not all have medical knowledge, but we have our own internal experience, we know how we feel, and we need to have that heard. We are not only and solely our disease. We are a whole experience. Disease is manifestation of aspects of ourselves and our interactions with the whole. It is the body’s response to challenge. True healing is much deeper than external treatments or interventions. It occurs on many levels. It comes about when the self is reintegrated. Healing of the soul can occur, even in the absence of physical health, just as physical healing can occur initially without deeper healing. It takes much personal courage and soul searching to heal to a level where illness does not recur or manifest in some other form. We need support to do that. Most doctors are very busy and not able to attend to this level of healing, and in fact, that is our own responsibility, but what can be done by others is to begin to create that safe space (see my article on Holding Space), to extend compassion that reminds us we are not alone. It is an energy that in itself has some healing capacity, as we let go of our defences and open up our pains to a person we trust. Fundamentally compassion is about connection, and connection brings healing.
© Janey Colbourne 2016