Caregivers Must Take Care of Themselves
"With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.”–Kristin Neff1
Think of this: A dear friend is in tears because she had a fight with her boyfriend. Your response likely would be to show sympathy and support, give her a shoulder to cry on and a big hug, and perhaps offer relationship advice. But what if you were in that situation? Would you be able to give yourself the same comfort? Veterinary professionals provide care to others every day, but few think about caring for themselves.
Having self-compassion does not just mean making yourself feel good. It means recognizing your pain, knowing you cannot always control what happens, and accepting things as they are. Learning self-compassion involves the following steps.1Notice you are suffering.
This may be the most difficult step. Slow down, recognize you are hurting, and think about the cause of your feelings before they get worse.
Self-compassion.org (see Resources) provides many free meditations, including this Self-Compassion Break that takes only 5 minutes and can be done in the middle of a busy day or during lunch or break time:
- Identification: Think about the difficult situation and feel the stress and emotional discomfort in your body.
- Mindfulness: Say to yourself, This is a moment of suffering, This hurts, or This is stress.
- Common Humanity: Say to yourself, Suffering is a part of life, I am not alone—other people feel this way, or We all struggle in our lives.
- Put your hands over your heart and feel its warmth.
- Say to yourself, May I be kind to myself, May I give myself the compassion that I need, May I learn to accept myself as I am, May I forgive myself, May I be strong, or May I be patient.
Other exercises, with instructions, are also available on self-compassion.org:
- Exploring self-compassion through writing (eg, a self-compassion journal)
- Observing situations from different “chairs”
- Changing critical self-talk and identifying what you really want
Most veterinary professionals choose a career in veterinary medicine because of their desire to alleviate suffering. At the practice, you are outward-focused, using your energy to comfort and heal your patients and their owners without any hesitation but seldom helping yourself when you need comfort (eg, when a patient dies unexpectedly). Compassion fatigue takes over when you become so tired that no compassion is left—to be able to take the best care of your patients, you must keep some of that compassion for your own healing.Be kind to yourself.
If a friend or team member treats you badly, you probably would not consider the person a friend. Are you your own friend? If not, take time to know yourself better and recognize your own needs. Identifying the recurring theme or schema in your emotions can help develop self-compassion.2 For example, are you often pessimistic, focused on failure, or prone to mistrust? Naming the schema can help identify and eliminate it more effectively.
Realize the saying You are only human is true. People are imperfect. You likely do not berate a friend or team member who makes a mistake, so why beat yourself up?
[ad override]Know the pitfalls.
You also need to understand the traps you can fall into when practicing self-compassion.1
What Self-Compassion Is Not1
Do not fall into these traps:
- Do not let yourself think you are the only person suffering, which is easy to do when you are down. Do not isolate and get wrapped up in yourself; reach out to others who can help you move forward.
- Do not be tempted to make excuses. For example, using the I am suffering, so I am just going to call in sick all week and lay on the couch approach is not healthy in the long run because you are not facing the problem.
- Self-esteem vs self-compassion
- Know the difference. Self-esteem is your perception of your own worth and having too little or too much can be dangerous. Too little self-esteem can lead to depression and lack of motivation, whereas too much can lead to self-absorption and arrogance. Self-compassion is self-care.
You have just attended your third euthanasia this week, every day has been fully booked with appointments, and you just snapped at a team member when she asked for your help. How should you handle it?
- Stop. Recognize you are suffering and do not want to continue feeling this way.
- Decide you want to feel better and show yourself some kindness.
- Remember that calling in sick the next day to hang out on the couch is not what you need.
- Instead, take a walk on your lunch break, listen to uplifting music, and apologize to your team member when you return to work.
Most important is that you realize taking care of yourself is just as critical as taking care of your patients.
When you make changes to be more self-compassionate, realize you are making changes because you care about yourself, not because you are unacceptable the way you are. Do not be hard on yourself because you need to become self-compassionate—remember, no one is perfect. Most important is that you have realized taking care of yourself is just as critical as taking care of your patients.
Recognize when team members are struggling, whether from long hours or after a patient has been euthanized, and encourage them to step back and take care of themselves.
Hold practice team meetings and train team members on self-compassion skills, emphasizing they must hold back some energy for themselves rather than allow compassion fatigue to take over.
Veterinary nurses are often on the front lines when dealing with difficult or sad cases, and they should always be willing and ready to take a 5-minute break from work to take a deep breath, acknowledge their emotions, and let go of their stress and/or sad feelings as much as possible.
Grieving clients likely will have many interactions with client care team members, who should know not only how to provide support and empathy to clients but also how to give themselves the same level of care and comfort.