May 2022

In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, Dr. Sonja A. Olson reviews 5 ways that compassion contributes to us being our best veterinary caregiving selves. This is an important step in wellbeing and building resilience in our veterinary profession.

By Dr. Sonja A. Olson

5 Ways Compassion Contributes to Us Being Our Best Veterinary Caregiving Selves

Cultivating compassion for ourselves, others, and the world around us is not a passive process. In the very wise words of the mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, “compassion is a verb”: “…we believe compassion is a feeling, something that we either possess or don’t…We should not be waiting for or trying to feel compassion. Compassion is something we should be doing. It takes effort to find it and practice to cultivate it.”

Caregivers as a general rule have many demands upon their attention and energy, personally and professionally. Self-compassion and compassion can serve as a means to balance our energy investments. By cultivating compassion, we are both delivering meaningful care to our community, and we replenish our own reserves. This does take attention and intention. Why should we invest the effort and energy to fortify our compassion and compassionate-care practices? This is fundamental to mitigating compassion fatigue and empathic distress where we become so depleted in our energies that caring for anyone or for anything becomes exhausting. The compassionate core of our being is intact but seems increasingly out of reach. Without intentional, mindful attention to our own well-being, those caregiving activities that give us purpose and are deeply meaningful to us become far more challenging, or impossible.

You have a choice. You can counteract such fatigue and distress through awareness, a commitment to your own self-care, and to fostering compassion for yourself and for others. The beautiful thing about humans is that compassion is a deep well that can be repeatedly replenished when we do good for ourselves and for others.

Let’s explore how! These are 5 ways that compassion shows up to fortify us as caregivers:

1. Self-compassion for our mental health. We need self-compassion as the foundation to mental health, to ethical care giving, and to flourishing in our lives lies. Consider giving ourselves permission to redirect the generosity and kindness that we selflessly give to our patients towards our own well-being. This is not indulgent. This is necessary. Replenishment and restoration of our physical, mental, and emotional health is imperative to do the hard but meaningful work of veterinary medicine. we can then explore and create our own, unique fortifying self-care regimen. Only you know what you need to feel replenished and ready to care for others again.

2. Self-compassion to refill our cup and replenish our energy. We are indeed worthy of care. Each of needs to determine what we need and how to refill our batteries effectively. Reading, music, gardening, running, yoga, daydreaming, doodling, walking the dog, spending time outdoors – exploring and identifying what we need and then finding the sources of replenishment that are effective for us. When our own energy needs are met and we are our healthiest selves, we have energy to spare. We are fortified and are ready to care for others once again.

Picture of two hands reaching for each other

3. Self-compassion to say ‘yes’ to you. Self-care is not selfish. It is essential. We need healthy boundaries in order to make the time for intentional and regular self-care. Healthy boundaries are difficult to identify, draw, and maintain. Setting boundaries may take practice but if we want to be both physically and emotionally healthy, we need to practice! Creating healthy boundaries is empowering. By recognizing the need to set and enforce limits, you protect your self-esteem, maintain self-respect, and enjoy healthy relationships. This is all key in having a sense of control over the invaluable and finite resources of time and energy in our lives. Work-life integration and holistic health support are fundamental to protecting us from compassion fatigue and burnout.

4. Self-compassion includes having realistic expectations of yourself and others. Although many of us feel like being ‘superhuman’ is part of our caregiving job description, that is setting us up for an unhealthy and unsustainable professional path. Taking the time to consider honestly and kindly what you need to be a thriving ‘you’, and what does your caregiving team need, is a viable approach towards the creation of healthier individuals and environments for great medicine to be practiced. Care for all supports growth, well-being, and compassion satisfaction in the important work we do.

5. Compassion supports realistic energy infusions. Micro-breaks for ourselves and for our colleagues during the work shift can be developed as easy-to-use, practical self-care moments. This is a whole topic in and of itself. Research supports that intentional ‘mini-resets’ of your brain, your body, and your emotions for 5-8 minutes, several times per day, restores energy, increases focus, and regulates emotions. As a result, we can be more efficient in our work tasks, more skillful in our communications with colleagues and clients, and more productive overall with increased vitality. Micro-breaks boost cognitive functioning and as a result, few medical mistakes occur. Win! So, take those few moments to take a lap around the hospital, listen to HeadSpace for a 1–3-minute guided meditation, tune into some of your favorite music, step outside and get some air and a fresh perspective, go pet that cute cat or dog (good for you and for them!), or have an impromptu ‘dance off’ with your teammates (or a plank challenge!). Even more simple, get some water, get a healthy snack, make your “bladder gladder” and take a few extra minutes before returning to your work tasks.

Investing in yourself is necessary. It is fundamental to being a healthy, thriving caregiver in challenging personal and professional environments. It is within our reach and possible with small action steps daily. Be patient and persistent in your practices. Perhaps consider this healthy approach of the wise Martin Luther King, Jr: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”

Yes. Yes, we can. For our own sake and for the sake of all that we care about, let’s choose to be great at cultivating compassion every day.

  1. Finding a way to say “yes” is an important part of our philosophy at our hospital. Somehow, however, it never occurred to me to apply this to myself! This article has impressed upon me the necessity of not only allowing, but actively seeking and planning self-care. Even 5-8 minutes several times per day spent doing something enjoyable can have a significant impact on overall well-being. I will be putting this plan into action immediately, reminding myself that this is not self-indulgence, rather, it is compassion in action for someone worthy of loving care–myself!

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