One of the astonishing realities of nursing is the inherent exposure to human vulnerability at its extremes. Whether bearing witness to candid joy or profound loss, the role of the nurse as a champion for compassion is essential to the profession’s social benefit. How we interact with patients in these intimate moments is an opportunity to examine our own capacity as caregivers. Developing an awareness of our compassion helps us make a real difference in the lives of others and reinforces our value within the workplace.
Not unlike patience, humility, or diligence, compassion is practiced and refined over time. We can create great change with small but meaningful acts of kindness and understanding. The key is to recognize within ourselves the power of empathic responses. Salus aegroti suprema lex esto–the well-being of the patient shall be the most important law. As we incorporate compassion into our daily tasks, we create an abundant environment for calm and assurance.
How does one remain compassionate despite the stresses and challenges of nursing?
We can start by addressing these fundamental concerns:
1) Who in my life has demonstrated compassion when I needed it?
2) When have I felt it difficult to express compassion?
3) Where do I see compassion fitting in with my current skillset?
4) How have I shown compassion to myself and others?
5) Why is compassion important to me?
Once you have answered these questions, consider the following as a model for understanding compassion:
Exercising compassion is primarily an ability to differentiate between two core ideas–story and character. The “story” refers to the narrative we each create about ourselves separate from the truth of our lives. Assumptions, fear, worry, doubt. These are a few of the associated risks with self-fiction. We aren’t always right and we may not know the full extent of the facts, but that doesn’t stop the mind from creating a false sense of our reality. Compassion arises from understanding this psychological tendency in ourselves and others while being able to respond to it appropriately to reduce unnecessary suffering.
Identifying the narratives our patients have created for themselves can help us better offer our support, but taking the next step in cultivating compassion is all about the character behind the story. After all, recognizing the humanity in another brings us closer to understanding our own lives. The patients we serve can teach us a great deal about compassion by being the mirror that reflects the results of our work and values.
Once we start to perceive the individual as the foundation instead of their story, we can more easily connect with others in a compassionate way because we have taken away the barriers that prevent us from seeing the common bonds we share.