Mindfulness, care workers and compassion fatigue

| By Ruth Taylor
Mindfulness, care workers and compassion fatigue
We talk to Norfolk GP Dr Elisabeth Hopman about her own practice of Mindful Self-Compassion and the benefits of this latest innovation in mindfulness for those involved in caring for others.

How did you first come to be involved with Mindful Self-Compassion? What drew you to it?

I first went to an 8 week mindfulness and wellbeing course back in 2010 following a period of challenging significant life events and losses, triggered by the sudden death of my sister.  Although my family were a bit sceptical of its benefits – it wasn’t mainstream as it is now - I was very keen to try something different to help me through.  It turned out this wasn’t the optimal time to engage with it – I was too overwhelmed. But I was still very drawn to the approach and a few years later I found myself back in another group.  This time it really sunk in on a cognitive and emotional level; despite my best efforts, and I had all the books, the practices were still hard to maintain. Things then started to fall into place for me as I had the opportunity to attend a Mindful Self-Compassion weekend led by its founders; it was just inspirational! In 2016, I joined an 8 week Self- Compassion course locally.  Life was busy – juggling children, home, long hours at work – but during these sessions, I was able to take some time out and get back to a real sense of who I was behind all those demands. The energy in the room, the power of the guided practices and the discipline of being honest with who I really was, felt potentially life changing.
What do you feel you have gained from developing a Mindful Self-Compassion practice?

I have repeated the course again since then because it’s like a thread running through my life, sometimes I drop it and then I pick it up again when I need to, when things are difficult.  Mostly I’ve found it’s a way of being a little bit more forgiving to myself – we are our own hardest task master and critic, working to both our own expectations and someone else’s and feeling torn between the two. Mindful Self-Compassion allows you to find yourself. It peels off layers, a bit like an onion, to connect with the core of who you really are. For me it was liberating – like a lark, freed from its cage and allowed to soar!  Modern life, with all its pressures, controls us all if we allow it. This is not a self indulgence, rather a necessity for building resilience. Now I absolutely believe self-care, kindness and nurturing are essential to being true to yourself and ultimately self actualisation. Mindful Self-Compassion gave me permission to explore and enabled that journey.  
What does Mindful Self-Compassion mean for you day to day?
I’ve gained a sense of self nurturing, although I don’t practice every day. Despite best intentions, life too readily intervenes. The breathing is very anchoring and the holding practices are very powerful. I tend to practice opportunistically rather than formally. When I need it. What I do notice is that I don’t react when my buttons are pressed as much. I am much less contentious and much more conflict averse - but in a good way.  It seems to helps contain emotions and feelings that might otherwise spill over.  

Has it helped in your work as a GP ?  
In many ways.  There’s so little kindness in the world and when we’re in the depths of difficulty ourselves it feels very sad that we can’t offer it to others.  But actually it’s simple – we can develop this simple befriending relationship to ourselves and then when we help ourselves, we start to help others.  Its two sides of the same coin.  You can’t help others, unless you start to help yourself.  GP’s do get compassion fatigue, we are privy to the intricacies of patients’ often very challenging lives.  Although our work does not involve the intensity of continuous hours of exposure to these difficulties, in the way perhaps support workers are; our contact is in shorter bursts. 

Do you feel it has something to offer care workers and care givers who might be experiencing compassion fatigue ?
Absolutely.  It’s difficult because unless you change the working conditions they’re always going to take an enormous toll.  But you can forget, that actually you can model good practice yourself and this is not just beneficial for you, it has a huge impact on others, the people you care for.  Just as when you plant a mustard seed, it takes time to sow, to grow.   It’s not immediately visible.  Already the language of self-compassion has entered into the vernacular and I find that encouraging.  As a Magistrate, I see a lot of humanity and compassion in the Court staff, Magistrates, the solicitors.  It turns up in unexpected places.  The whole way of doing things in society at the moment, everyone for themselves, being competitive, can feels it goes against this.  But self-compassion is a whole new way of thinking.  It helps you to nurture your sense of self in relation to all this – to believe in your innate sense of what is right for you  - and support your own flourishing.

For more info about our Mindful Self-Compassion courses for workplaces, please click here   https://www.norwichmind.org.uk/getdoc/3c1c16b2-78da-4e45-b662-554e7da95a99/mindfulness-self-compassion.aspx
For our forthcoming Mindful Self-Compassion course for the public, click here https://www.norwichmind.org.uk/mindfulness/mindfulness-courses-1-1-sessions

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