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Balancing compassion and self-care in a troubled world

Originating from the Latin “compatī,” (to suffer together), compassion can lead to a greater understanding of human suffering. However, the vulnerability that comes along with compassion can often lead to increased feelings of stress and anxiety. In the video below, psychologist Robert J. Wicks describes the consequences of inordinate compassion. The accompanying excerpt from Night Call discusses resiliency psychology and the importance of incorporating relaxation and reflection into our daily routines.

When nineteenth- century author Robert Louis Stevenson was a small child in rural Scotland, he lived in a hillside house just outside the local village. At night during the winter months, he would wait until evening was coming and would position himself by the window facing the village below. He would watch carefully for the arrival of the lamplighter who would walk through the village with a torch, setting light to each street lamp. Finally, when he at last caught first glimpse of him he would yell to his mother who was busy preparing dinner in the kitchen, “Look mom! There’s the per­son who pokes holes in the darkness.”

Anyone who truly seeks to be compassionate seeks to do just that: poke holes in the darkness of someone else’s experi­ence of life so they may see new light in how they view them­selves and the situation. Yet, unless we attend to our own senses of inner peace, resiliency, self- care, and maintenance of a healthy per­spective, we can’t share what we don’t have. Accordingly, taking the reflective space for silence and possibly, solitude, so we can be mindful and renew ourselves during enjoyable and challenging times is essential.

Image credit: “Sunset-Street-Lamp-Light-Warmth-Backlight-Sky” by Manolofranco. CC0 via Pixabay.

Yet the response to this need is often a dismissive one, espe­cially by busy parents or those who hold professional roles as caregivers: “I wish I had the time. With all that I must do on the job and given the needs at home, it is impossible.” Or some even respond, “Get real! Who has the freedom to take a personal retreat?”

Although such comments are understandable, they often miss the mark and are surprisingly impractical. First, denial and avoidance of the personal needs of a caregiver is a recipe for disaster. When healing and helping professionals or as caring individuals in general we avoid taking out quiet time, we set ourselves up for undisciplined activism that leads to unneces­sary burnout. In addition, without allowing time for reflection, we also run the risk of acting out certain behaviors that may be unhelpful to ourselves or others— what is often referred to by professionals as “boundary violations.”

When we feel vulnerable and overtaxed, the temptation to do inappropriate things under the aegis of “I deserve some­thing for me as well” can result in inappropriate relations with those we serve and serve with. Finally, the question all of us who care must ask ourselves is, “How practical is it to race to my grave— even if it is seemingly in the process of doing good for others?”

The minimal answer is not to merely promise to take long retreats someday (although actually taking one is cer­tainly a sensible step and not a luxury for those of us who have the room to do this). The response is, at a minimum, to take advantage of the crumbs of “alonetime” (being in solitude and reflective when within a group) that are already there in our schedules. Once we do this, then we have to decide how to spend that time. First and foremost, we can take the time simply to relax, sit comfortably but preferably up straight, focus on something in front of us, and simply breathe normally and allow the quiet time to envelop us. During this time, possibly repeatedly counting from one to four or reflecting on a word that means something to us (“gentle,” “refreshing,” “ocean,” . . . ) will help us relax and center. Thoughts will come to us and like a train, we need to let them go through our minds without either entertaining or trying to avoid them. Such times, even for a few moments, can renew and teach us much.

Secondly, we can take time out to reflect on a theme of renewal and perspective. In doing this, a “self-directed resiliency retreat” becomes something both possible and practical because it can be undertaken for a few moments in the morning, while taking a lunchtime walk, or before bedtime. During this brief time, it may provide a nest of knowledge that the “retreatant” can turn into personal wisdom by applying it to her or his own life.

Whether the few moments are taken at the office or during designated time alone at home, the following themes can eas­ily jumpstart a conversation with self or provide the material for discussing the theme with a colleague, friend, or family member.

Even helping professionals who guide others must remind ourselves that no one can or will do it for us. When we open space for reflection and personal renewal, not only will we benefit ourselves, but others who count on us to be aware and resilient will receive the reward of a quality sense of presence from us as well. Self- compassion and self- renewal go hand in hand with compassion and the renewal of others.

Featured image credit: “balance-stone-nature-meditation” by TuendeBede. CC0 via Pixabay.

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