The importance of self-compassion for doctors
13 September 2021
Having compassion for oneself is no different to having compassion for others. With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend. Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards ourselves when we are experiencing a difficult time, failure, or notice something we don’t like about ourselves.
Instead of just ignoring our pain with a ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality, we stop to tell ourselves, “This is really difficult right now, how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?” Instead of mercilessly judging and criticising ourselves for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means we are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings. After all, who ever said we are supposed to be perfect?
There are three elements to self-compassion:
1. Self-kindness versus self-judgment
Self-compassionate people recognise that being imperfect, failing and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.
2. Common humanity versus isolation
Self-compassion involves recognising that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone.
3. Mindfulness versus over-identification
Self-compassion involves putting our own situation into a larger perspective. It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness.
For doctors, self-compassion may include:
- Taking time to start the day with a nutritious breakfast and mindfulness meditation or yoga, or your favourite form of exercise to equip you for the day ahead.
- Taking time to prepare a daily work priority list over a coffee with colleagues.
- Asking a colleague to talk you through a procedure you haven’t done before.
- Taking toilet breaks and drinking plenty of water.
- Acknowledging a patient complaint as something you can improve on without being angry with yourself.
- Having a lunch break no matter how busy you are, so that you are energised for the afternoon.
- Saying no to an extra shift request which clashes with your plans, without guilt.
- Spacing your clinic list to allow time for running late if you need to spend longer with a patient.
- Seeking a second opinion from a colleague for a patient you are concerned about to provide peace of mind for everyone.
- When you scratch the paintwork on your car by hitting a trolley in the supermarket carpark, remembering it is only a car and it can be repaired.
- Ordering take away without guilt when you burn dinner while helping you child with their homework.
- Acknowledging your disappointment about a failed exam, but planning a holiday and break from study to recover before you start preparing to re-sit.
- Relaxing before going to bed and mentally setting aside any anxiety or concerns by journaling or writing a to-do list for tomorrow.
Visit self-compassion.org for more information about self-compassion. Dr Kristin Neff (PhD) is widely recognised as one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion.
AMA Victoria Coordinator of Doctor Wellbeing