The Cost of Compassion

by Russ Reina on March 22, 2012

We all think we know what compassion is and how to show it, but too any of us drop it like a hot rock once we realize that there is a cost to it and we have nowhere to go to work through its aftermath.

Yes, I said “aftermath”. Just like it takes investment to get good in the technical aspects of practicing our chosen modalities, it takes commitment, dedication and investment to incorporate compassion into the work we do.

So how do we practice compassion? I think it’s important to really take the subject seriously. I’m asking each of you to really take an honest look at what compassion means to YOU. I just want you to think and then figure out your own ways to contribute to building a new, more realistic “culture” within the modality you practice; one that has room for the human experience. Interweaving compassion into all aspects of it is a good place to start.

Let’s start with a simple definition of the word “compassion”.

Here’s what The Online Dictionary says:

com·pas·sion? Show Spelled[kuh m-pash-uh n]


1. a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

I checked other dictionaries and they all basically said the same thing. This isn’t reaching out to hold a hand; this is about connecting your emotions to theirs. Now THAT is heavy; especially in the dominant “Culture of Silence” in Western Medicine!

In Wikipedia we find a more in-depth look and among the things it mentions is that it even goes beyond empathy, it is a heart-to-heart thing!

Kelly Grayson, a fellow EMS Blogger and author accurately describes the dominant culture in healthcare today as such:

“We’re told to cultivate professional distance in our careers, to sympathize but not empathize, that objectivity helps us maintain the focus needed to render lifesaving care when the world has turned to chaos around us.”

a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow…accompanied by a desire? How could those experiences possibly fit in to the “professional distance” Kelly just described? Haven’t we been taught that going to those places is much too personal to allow us to render competent care?

Each of us, as individuals, have to figure out the balance between performing at peak capacity and remaining sensitive to the emotional lives of ourselves and the people we serve. But there are no textbooks or on-line courses to teach us how. In fact, let’s get real, how many medics, seriously talk about the ramifications of compassion on themselves at all?

And something else that must be looked at is that there is a price to having compassion; at least as far as what we were taught about being workers in healthcare.

It works something like this.

The people we deal with are often in the most vulnerable moments in their lives. When you express com-passion (literally “suffering with”) you are opening yourself up to sharing that sense of vulnerability.

But wait a minute, isn’t “accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering” exactly the opposite of how we’re told to do our jobs?

So it’s clear, I completely acknowledge that we often must be Warriors who are efficient machines. Yet, when all we are is the Warrior what Kelly describes as “soft-skills” get lost.

My point is this: Compassion is not to be feared. Experiencing that degree of connection with the moments in which you and your patient are involved does not have to interfere with the rendering of competent care. In fact, it can be one of many fuels that allow you to take that extra step that might make all the difference in the life of that patient, and through that, yes, it is a form of healing for yourself.

But you might have to hurt a little as you learn how to use it.

Can you accept that, or is that a bit too terrifying?

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