Self Compassion and Empathy


Last night on RN.FM Radio, nurse and well-known author Carol Gino spoke eloquently about the need for nurses to develop self compassion before they can truly experience empathy for their patients. She was so right.

We need to teach compassion for the self so that empathy for others can be developed.”—-Carol Gino on RN.FM Radio.

Whether you’re a nurse or not, compassion for the self is paramount, and when we skip ourselves when thinking about the practice of compassion, we have misplaced—perhaps purposefully—a major aspect of the compassion calculation.

On the show, Carol waxed poetic about the ways in which nurses are wounded and wound one another. In nursing school, we’re told to empathize with patients, but we’re also admonished to “not get too close” and keep our boundaries firm. That’s all well and good, but what about our boundaries with ourselves and our own emotional lives? How do we connect with the fact that we’re cut off from our own feeling nature, going about our business with the affect of an automaton, albeit an overworked and over-stressed automaton?

While there are rare nursing schools that actively utilize theoretical structures such as Jean Watson’s Caring Theory, most schools spend the majority of the educational process cramming knowledge down fledgling nurses’ throats, paying little heed to the self care and self compassion that are essential to being a truly effective nurse.

In the world of nursing education, we give compassion—especially self compassion—short shrift, and new and seasoned nurses suffer for it. It is a demanding career, and as we usher these new nursing brethren through the educational process, we forget to remind them that caring for themselves and their own emotional lives is of equal importance to patient care. When those new graduates bound out of school with the enthusiasm of the newly anointed nurse, how can we have so utterly failed to give them some of the basic tools of survival that they need as they rush headlong into the fray?

Compassion is key, and it begins with compassion for the self, as nurse author Michael Ortiz Hill states in his newest book, “The Craft of Compassion at the Bedside of the Ill“. We nurses need to nurture that seed of compassion within ourselves—for ourselves—and that nurturing will, as Carol Gino stated so clearly, be the proper spiritual fertilizer for our powers of empathy.


This post first appeared on Keith’s blog, Digital Doorway.