There’s been a culture shift in medicine in which individuals and systems have been making self-care and self-compassion more of a priority. Whether or not the interventions to that end have been effective is another story, but given the levels of burnout, depression and suicide among healthcare workers I think we are at least moving in a good direction.
Since starting college, I thought I was pretty good about being compassionate towards myself. For a variety of reasons, I stopped placing all my self-worth in my grades and academic performance. I was forgiving of myself for my shortcomings, and I was good about taking time for myself when school was getting overwhelming. From then to starting medical school, I continued to focus more and more on myself; getting to know myself, being more reflective, and really understanding my personal values.
But at some point, I think I overshot. I started justifying unhealthy habits by writing them off as “self-care.” Self-care and self-compassion doesn’t mean taking a nap, playing video games, catching up on your backlog of unconsumed media or “treating yo self” every time you meet resistance in your work or feel tired, which has been becoming a pattern for me over the past year.
When thinking about compassion in general I like the Dalai Lama’s description in The Book of Joy and how he differentiates in from empathy. He says that empathy is liking finding someone stuck under a giant boulder and then chillin’ under the boulder with them, whereas in compassion you get under the boulder with them, but then actively work with them to remove it.
In the case of self-compassion, both the person under the boulder and the bystander are you, and the boulder is suffering. Using the word suffering sounds so dramatic, but suffering can take a lot of forms, but the way different people experience suffering is often similar or can at least feel similar (does that make them equal?). Subjecting myself to tedious work or “boring” work can feel like a form of personal suffering and watching a video about how Mantis Shrimp strikes create generate enough force to boil water at the bottom of the ocean relieves that suffering.
However, the guilt of not reaching my potential and of not doing work that will help me one day better serve others is also a form of suffering. The question I need to ask myself is which of these is this rock really made of.