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Is it safe to risk compassion?

How I learned to take off my armour as a doctor, and risk connecting with my emotions.

Photography by Lidia at Visuable
Photography by Lidia at Visuable

When I first came across Self-Compassion as a concept, one of my biggest fears was that if I got in touch with my emotions, they might be too big.  They might consume me.   If I dared to delve or open the gates, what would happen to me then?

 I’m a doctor, so I have spent the last twenty years looking into the eyes of people who are distressed, struggling and suffering.  And sometimes dying.  I have had to tell people that I suspect cancer, in adults, and children.  I’ve sat with couples who desperately want children, but for whom IVF hasn’t been successful (or not an option), acknowledging their pain and trying to support them.  I’ve had to explain the limitations of conventional medicine to people desperately seeking respite from persistent symptoms, or sometimes respite from unhappy lives.  I’ve seen victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol problems, as well as those with miraculous cures, and unexplained symptoms.  I’ve spent most days with far too many appointments and not enough time, feeling like I’ve been holding my breath all day, because there is no time between tasks.  No time to drink, eat, pee, or acknowledge my feelings.

I’ve loved this privileged role.  I love hearing what is not said, seeking the true question amongst the list of concerns.  I love piecing together evidence to help solve the mystery of what ails my patients.  I’ve been so inspired by courage and humility and gratitude in so many people.

However, it took a toll.   I developed an invisible armour to cope with the constant demand and the depths of emotion.  For some years I took on the bright breezy practical shield of the female GP, who gave the impression of coping with everything, and not needing to feel her emotions. I believed it to be true! 

This strategy worked well, for a while.

The trouble with wearing armour, or carrying a shield is that it makes you less accessible to your patients.  Less real.  More distant.  Patients can tell when we distance ourselves, as if we aren’t the same species, and they feel less heard.

The other problem is that life still happens around you, and keeping up a pretence is exhausting.  Within my family, there was a fair share of tragedies and challenges, and instead of acknowledging my various griefs, I carried on as if they weren’t relevant.  After a while, I felt like I had lost touch with what I felt about anything, but I knew I was carrying a huge pot of sadness and exhaustion around inside me.  I knew I couldn’t stay like this but I was scared to admit it.

I came across Self-Compassion because a friend mentioned that Kristen Neff was running a course near Amsterdam.  I wasn’t at all sure this was a good idea, but I read her book (“Self-Compassion”) because I was curious about why my friend had mentioned it to me.  What did she see in me that I couldn’t see myself?

I realized later that what she saw was a woman who was striving to be all things to all people, whilst deep down feeling scared of her vulnerability.  Not broken, but spending a lot of energy keeping up a strong outer shell.

Through my studies, I discovered that learning to be self-compassionate offers us another option for dealing with our emotions.  We don’t have to choose between maintaining the British Stiff Upper Lip, or collapse in a needy pool of tears.  The process of becoming aware of our emotions, and learning to see emotions as useful information, rather than something to be feared, is a gradual one.  It was empowering to realize that I was not broken, that it is normal for all humans to struggle, and that I could embrace my emotions positively rather than running away from them.

Through learning self-compassion, I learned to deal with Shame and other painful emotions, deepened my relationships, and discovered a more daring, creative, playful version of myself.  I was free of the armour and suddenly felt so much more connected with humans across the world.  Gone was the feeling of isolation, replaced with a deep peace and the full technicolor range of emotions.

Having experienced the fear of self-compassion I completely understand why other doctors would resist taking this training.   I was scared, and I was reluctant to recognize that I needed help with this.  But I know I was incredibly lucky to have this opportunity mid-way through my career, whilst I still have time to enjoy working and living differently.  I never thought I’d be writing a blog about finding deep contentment, but that is what this training gave me.

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