Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Pity vs. Compassion

"When your fear touches someone's pain it becomes pity; when your love touches someone's pain, it becomes compassion."

---Stephen Levine

Facing a return to work today after a long weekend, this quote speaks to me. It speaks of one of the touchstones of being in a helping profession, and of a life-long journey centered around developing, nurturing, and propagating compassion.

In the face of professional burnout, one can easily turn away from compassion, lose sight of it, and move into less therapeutic and unhelpful territory. This is what one might call compassion fatigue. Pity is an ugly cousin of compassion, but burnout can lead into much uglier territory still, like resentment and anger. Leveled against clients and patients, these emotions whittle away at the therapeutic relationship, leaving nothing but the starkest of connection. These manifestations essentially poison the well of compassion, but hopefully not beyond repair.

For myself, I am extricating myself before the damage is done, to me or others. I am exiting stage left with my compassion fatigued, but still intact and heartfelt. While I may feel badly for those patients whose abandonment issues will be stirred up by my leaving, better for them to face their issues than to face my loss of compassion.

Transitions are never easy. As the year comes to a close, change is inevitable, and I ready myself for the shifting sands and the equally inevitable challenges that change will bring. I will also endeavor to help my patients to do the same.

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