Compassion is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Nurses, as a species, are a compassionate group. We’re nurses, in part, because we care immensely about helping people and alleviating distress.
But cultivating compassion can prove difficult in many situations, like the patient who rips out his IVs to create a stir, the family who argues with your expertise using Google as their healthcare expert, or the coworker who snubs you or verbally abuses you.
How do you grow compassion for those difficult times? And why would you?
Cultivating compassion is done much the same way one learns any skill, by starting small and practicing. And there are benefits to expanding your level of compassion that extend beyond just wanting to be nice. This study found that Cognitive-Based Compassionate Training was significantly associated with decreased depression, and that CBTB, along with other forms of mindfulness training were correlated with decreased stress levels, emotional regulation, anxiety and more.
Cultivating compassion can be a positive technique for avoiding burnout and managing stress, both on and off the clock.
Cultivating Compassion: An Exercise
Pema Chodron, is a notable Buddhist nun and author of numerous books about meditation and mindfulness. She describes a simple, though challenging, compassion exercise in her book, “The Places That Scare You.”
Find a quiet, calm place where you can silently focus. Begin by creating a list of people or beings in your life that you can easily access feelings of compassion for. This will help remind you what genuine compassion feels like. Recite a compassionate aspiration: Chodron recommends, “May I be free of suffering and the root of suffering.” However, she suggests you change this to reflect the word choice that feels most natural to you, and be as specific as you’d like.
Once you have a grasp on what true compassion feels like to you, practice with a variety of examples, washing a compassion aspiration for each. Begin with yourself and then move to some of the people or living things on your compassion-ready list. Then imagine a friend, followed by a neutral person, your average stranger on the street. Then, move to a difficult person, someone in your life that stirs up negative feelings. Sit with that for a bit, before visualizing all: you, those who you feel easy compassion for, a friend, a neutral person, and a difficult person, all at once. And finally, try to visualize extending that genuine compassion to all living beings.
Practicing this exercise can give you a tool to call upon during those challenging times where we find it difficult to remain compassionate.
What are your thoughts on cultivating compassion? Were you able to visualize a difficult person in your life to extend compassionate thoughts to? How did that feel? If not, what stopped you?