Sustainable Compassion for Those Who Serve

Forty- to fifty-percent of teachers quit their job within their first five years of teaching. Nurses, doctors and other medical professionals report increasingly less satisfaction in their work. Incidence of suicide among social workers is on the rise. Clergy suffer from depression and other medical issues.

Part of the problem is systemic—our social service providers are overworked and under-resourced. Yet another part of the problem is cultural, and stems from our beliefs about what compassion is and how we cultivate it.

Compassion is not a self-help technique

Many in social service are led to believe that exhaustion and burnout come with the job. Taking time for oneself can be seen as selfish. Requesting help from others can be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Yet these assumptions are holding us back: being cared for is what empowers one’s ability to care for others. Without being open and vulnerable to receive care from another, our ability to care for others—including our children, families, patients, students, and so on—is built on a fragile foundation.

Overcoming these obstacles requires that we recognize and challenge some of our deeply held beliefs about care. Learning new way of conceptualizing and cultivating compassion can help us gain the confidence and tools to work with and overcome these blocks.

We live in a highly individualistic culture that tends to view compassion and other contemplative trainings simply as techniques through which a person remakes him or herself into a more kind and caring person.

Yet this frame places the burden of healing and transformation solely on the person’s shoulders, and misses the deep relational framework of many ancient wisdom and spiritual traditions from which many of our modern contemplative programs are drawn.

In these traditions, loving care and compassion are not understood to emerge simply through one’s own efforts; instead they are understood to emerge in relation to others. We learn to care for others in the same way that we have been seen, held and cared for.

In other words, we love in the way we have been loved; we care in the way we have been cared for.

Tapping into the relational dimension of loving care and compassion

We can replicate this kind of relational starting point for such practices in our current context, at least to some degree, but it needs to begin from within our own experience. We can begin to tap into this relational dimension of care and compassion first by recalling a moment of caring connection from any time in our lives—a moment of care and acceptance, in which someone was with you in a simple loving way, rooting for you, wishing you well, laughing with you, happy you exist in that moment.

This image of care may be a memory of someone from childhood whom you loved being with, or a moment of genuine connection from any part of your life—a warm smile, a welcoming gaze—with someone, such as a teacher, a friend, a mentor, or even a stranger.

We can relive that moment as if it were present right now, and by re-experiencing ourselves as seen and loved within it, beyond our familiar, self-critical or reductive thoughts of ourselves to whatever extent is possible right now.

Taking a few moments to recall such moments regularly can help us remember many other instances of care that have permeated our lives. With repetition, we can learn to accept the deep worth and potential in us that is the object of such unconditional care, empowering us to see others similarly in their deep worth and potential.

It is by returning repeatedly to these moments of unconditional care in which we are held and deeply seen that we can begin to extend care to others, not as an isolated self, but as someone grounded in care, who learns to extend the same care and compassion to others in a way that is not subject to empathy fatigue or burnout.

john makransky, Ph.d. & brooke d. lavelle, Ph.D.

A previous version of this post was published by Tricycle. *Learn more about our upcoming Sustainable Compassion Training Workshop March 12-13 in San Francisco, CA.

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