I began my AMS Phoenix Fellowship by choosing to attend an indigenous cattail basket weaving workshop. I thought it would be fitting to stimulate my creative and aesthetic potential for the fellowship tasks ahead. As you can see, I did not deem my skills to be basket-worthy (yet) and instead opted to create a mat. To me, this was an important inaugural activity for my exploration of the interwoven nature of compassion and self-compassion among health care professionals. I wanted to centre myself with reflection.
Over the past six months, I have been exploring the concept of self-compassion as the foundation for compassion for others with the help of a deep dive into the academic literature and focus group insights from nursing educators and nursing students. Generally, I have found agreement on a basic definition of empathy + action (thoughts/feelings + what we do/how we do it) = compassion. In my fellowship work, I closed each focus group session by showing a digital story that describes a moment of connection between a nurse and a patient who is dying.
Generally, we know and experience compassion through our senses. It becomes an “aha” moment where we say “yes, that’s compassion”. One personal experience of compassion that I had was as a young adult. I had just had dental surgery, was groggy from sedation, in pain with chipmunk cheeks, and in an elevator heading to the parking lot upon discharge where my family member was waiting. It was winter, so luckily I had a scarf to wrap around my face to ensure my anonymity. All I could think of while alone in the elevator was, please don’t let anyone see me like this. Of course the elevator stopped before reaching the ground floor. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a woman got on and stood beside me. As she did so, the scarf across my face fell and I closed my eyes with sheer mortification. Nothing could have seemed worse to me at that moment. Softly, I felt her drape the scarf back into its original position. She said nothing. I kept my eyes closed and wanted to cry in that moment. I felt a profound sense of gratitude to this absolute stranger. I don’t even know what she looked like or who she was. That’s compassion.
When the topic of self-compassion came up in the focus group discussions, the conversation shifted to unexpected places. I asked for examples of self-compassion and heard: “I take a walk”; “I watch movies on Netflix”; “I close my office door”; and “I just go to sleep.” Upon reflection, I have interpreted these activities as opportunities to disconnect. And, more often than not, I also heard the cognitive-emotional components of those actions being described as guilt and self-indulgence. Many noted that these acts were functions of self-protection and survival. This finding is not unique to my work alone. Here is a quote from an American personal growth pioneer, Jennifer Louden:
“Self-care is not selfish or self-indulgent. We cannot nurture others from a dry well. We need to take care of our own needs first, so that we can give from our surplus, our abundance. When we nurture others from a place of fullness, we feel renewed instead of taken advantage of.”
Over the months to come, I am now asking myself these questions:
- If compassion for others involves empathy, why does self-compassion sometimes/often involve guilt?
- If compassion for others involves connection, why does self-compassion sometimes/often involve disconnection?
I will be further exploring self-compassion in the context of renewal past baseline, abundance, and building capacity to thrive (not just survive). Perhaps expanding the basic definition to include: empathy + action + connection = compassion. In case you are wondering, yes I did eventually complete the cattail mat. In fact, I also wove a gold ribbon through the very centre of it. You have to hold the mat a certain way for the light to catch it and then you can see the gold reflection.
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