Shared Misery or Compassion?

As birthworkers and deathworkers, we must find the balance that:

  1. Allows us to show up with ample energy for the people we serve,
  2. And, allows our client/patient space for self-determination.

How do we thread the needle?

As a doula, I want my clients to know that I care. I truly, deeply care. At the same time, I need to avoid becoming swept up in their experience. It’s theirs, after all, not mine, honored as I am to provide support.

A person struggling to stay afloat needs a level-headed witness to:

  1. Acknowledge the situation,
  2. Assess it calmly,
  3. And, swiftly offer the appropriate means to assist (life guard, life preserver).

If that witness were to, instead, succumb to panic and jump in heedlessly, they’d both be more likely to suffer.

In moments of panic during the laboring or dying process, a support person has a choice: Will I escalate the fear by adding in my own? Or, validate while maintaining composure?

“Composure” is gray. We never want to come across as uncaring or robotic. We are receptive listeners and proactive caregivers. We comfort. We attend to suffering. We ensure people don’t feel alone in their journey by staying beside them. We don’t take the lead.

A compass for these murky realms? Compassion. In order to better understand compassion, first, a look at sympathy:

What is Sympathy?

I feel sad/bad for you.

Sympathizing means feeling sorry for someone. It means conjuring up an emotional state of pity in response to someone else’s difficult experience.

Then, empathy:

What is Empathy?

I feel how this feels for you.

Empathizing means taking one step back from sympathy by attempting to envision how we would feel if in the other person’s shoes. Or, we remember how we have felt in a similar circumstance. We think we are meeting someone where they’re at by overlaying our imagined experience onto their reality or our past onto their present.

Sympathy and empathy, while well-intentioned, miss the mark. We’re not able to be fully present. We lose our focus. We’re busy trying to match the other person’s emotional landscape, or we’re distracted by our own memories.

Compassion means dropping an agenda.

You had planned to get an epidural/labor without meds, and now you’ve changed your mind?

Let’s work with this.

You had hoped to go to the respite house for your time of dying, but now wish to stay home?

Let’s talk through this.

We had scheduled a visit to draft birth or vigil wishes, yet now your worries feel too overwhelming?

Let’s sit with this.

Compassion is a practice. It’ll never be a perfect practice. Intention is key. Introspection is paramount. And, self-care is vital. Stay sustained, dear doulas, nurses, aides, doctors, counselors, chaplains, social workers, and family caregivers.

The world needs it.  

Contemplative Doula – YouTube


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