Caring for Ourselves as We Care for Others

Betsy Taylor, PhD, North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Raleigh, North Carolina

August 2018|Wellbeing|Peer Reviewed

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Caring for Ourselves as We Care for Others

Veterinary medical professionals dispense compassionate care all day long to anxious, suffering animals, clients making emotionally difficult decisions, and colleagues working with challenging cases and stressed clients. This care feels second nature—but how often do we give the same compassionate care to ourselves?

Everyday challenges for veterinary professionals include1:

  • Client complaints and expectations
  • Dealing with personal, staff, or client grief
  • Demands of a busy practice (eg, long hours, work overload)
  • Educational debt
  • Ethical challenges that may lead to moral distress
  • Patient deaths from illness or euthanasia
  • Practice management responsibilities
  • Professional error concerns

Despite these challenges, many forge ahead with little thought to the personal toll these stressors take.

Looking for Compassion

A nagging internal voice that is harshly self-critical may invade the thoughts of veterinary team members as they strive to provide exceptional care. For example, they may hear: 

  • I should have caught that earlier. What’s wrong with me?
  • I can’t believe I didn’t refer that case sooner—anyone else would have!
  • How can I expect the staff to trust me when I don’t even trust myself?
  • I shouldn’t be working with people—how could I lose my cool like that?

Whether this negative voice originated from our own personal histories (ie, critical or neglectful parents or other significant people) or the nurturing of perfectionism in a high achievement-oriented setting (eg, professional veterinary training), we know that a chronic barrage of self-criticism certainly decreases overall wellbeing and sets the stage for mental health disorders (eg, depression, anxiety, eating disorders) and can negatively affect interpersonal relationships.2

When we are looking for compassion, we need someone who is deeply rooted, able to bend, and, most of all, embraces us for our strengths and struggles,” notes Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.3 Could that someone be ourselves?

We are learning more about self-compassion and its immense psychological benefits. Research has identified correlations between self-compassion and reduced levels of depression and anxiety and enhanced positive attributes (eg, emotional intelligence, wisdom, life satisfaction, social connectedness).4 What if veterinary professionals turned their highly attuned traits of compassion and empathy toward themselves?

What Is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion is the same feeling as the kindness and concern we feel for others whom we recognize are suffering and want to help,” says Dr. Kristen Neff, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin College of Education, who has conducted seminal self-compassion research.4

Think about how we respond to a frightened child or a grieving close friend. Our hearts naturally open and we want to help. Self-compassion is simply directing these human tendencies of empathy and kindness toward oneself. Self-compassion is also associated with decreased depression and anxiety and better general wellbeing, motivation, the ability to cope with difficult emotional experiences, and enhanced interpersonal functioning.4

Core Components

Three factors are inherent in self-compassion.5

  • Self-Kindness (ie, understanding and accepting our fallibility and treating ourselves gently and with care): Self-kindness requires an attitude of mindfulness so we can be aware that we are flooding ourselves with self-criticism and shame, as well as setting an intention to comfort and support ourselves at these times. (See What Does Self-Compassion Sound Like?) Self-kindness can be difficult when we do not feel fully deserving. Neff stresses that self-compassion is not self-pity or self-indulgence (ie, letting oneself off the hook). Rather, self-compassion is kindly acknowledging and accepting our suffering to avoid overreacting or feeling overwhelmed.

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  • Recognition of common humanity: Because feeling pain, making mistakes, and letting ourselves and others down are parts of the human condition, we deserve the same compassion and support that we offer others. Humans are social animals. Just as we need to feel part of an accepting community that values us as we are, we also need to accept our own fallibility as legitimate and human.
  • Mindfulness (ie, awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally 6): Mindful awareness allows us to be fully present in the experiences of our bodies, minds, and hearts so we can recognize joy and wellbeing as well as suffering and pain. Mindfulness also delays judgment in favor of kind attention and curiosity about experiences. Those who regularly pause to pay attention to their thoughts and feelings in a nonevaluative way are much more likely to treat themselves with warmth and compassion.

What Does Self-Compassion Sound Like?

  • It is okay that I feel (upset, scared, angry, unsure).
  • This is really hard and frustrating. Anybody would be uncertain what to do.
  • I feel disappointed in myself. What do I need right now to feel better?
  • Even though it feels like the end of the world in this moment, I will get through this.
  • Instead of overreacting, what if I just take a breath and a moment for myself?
  • We are all human, and we all make mistakes.
  • I can treat myself with love and care in this moment instead of beating myself up.
  • It is normal to feel afraid sometimes. Whom can I ask for support and comfort?
  • This hurts—I need to take care of myself right now.

Conclusion

Maintaining an enduring sense of wellbeing is a challenge for veterinary professionals. We must offer the same compassionate care to ourselves that we give to others—that can make all the difference during a busy, stressful day and throughout our career. We need to incorporate self-compassion into our lives and remind ourselves and others that self-care is no longer an option but an ethical responsibility to our patients and clients, our profession, and ourselves.

Take Action

The author recommends Dr. Kristen Neff’s self-compassion practices.5

  1. Complete the self-compassion scale: self-compassion.org/test-how-self-compassionate-you-are
  2. Imagine what you might say to a close friend who is going through a hard time and then direct the same caring words toward yourself.
  3. Pay attention to the words of your internal self-critic. Can you try to change the critical tone to one of soothing care for yourself? 
  4. Practice mindfulness, which incorporates a nonjudgmental attitude toward yourself and the world. 
  5. Take a self-compassion break when you notice you are feeling stressed or upset. Repeat the following phrase(s) to yourself (or put them in your own words):
    1. This is a moment of suffering. (Ow, this hurts.)
    2. Suffering is a part of life. (Other people feel this way, too.)
    3. May I be kind to myself. (May I learn to accept myself as I am.)
  6. Engage in self-soothing touch. Give yourself a gentle hug, place your hand over your heart, or cradle your face in your hands.
  7. Listen to a loving-kindness or self-compassion meditation: self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#guided-meditations
  8. Keep a self-compassion journal in which you process events of the day through a perspective of self-kindness.

References

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