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Moments of compassion

22 Apr

Work was hideous today. I felt like I was banging my head up against a brick wall, trying to get heard about ‘risk issues’ I am professionally responsible for communicating but powerless to act on. Lots of phone calls, dead ends and defensiveness. My heart raced and I exploded in a mess of tears in the office stairwell.

On returning home I wanted to skip karate, order a 14″ pizza, drink 2 cans of cider and pass out on the couch.

I found my self ruminating over all the crap that I had encountered during the day.

I stopped and noticed what I was doing.

As an experiment I tried, instead to notice all the compassion I had encountered through out the day:

The positive, inspirational blogs I read on the loo this morning.

Bronwyn returning her ball to me during our walk.

My colleague listening to me and supporting me.

The team secretary who decided not to bother putting through non-urgent calls.

The colleague who filled up my coffee cup without asking.

The colleague who contained me in the stair well.

The lady from social services who took me seriously.

My husband who took a panicked phone call from me at work. And listened.

My puppies who delighted in my return from work and licked my weary face.

All the people who liked and followed my blog 😉

Me, who despite tendencies towards the unhelpful took herself off to karate.

My karate sensei, who caused me so much pain I forgot about all the mental stresses of the day.

It worked, I feel better, I feel supported and emotionally regulated.

Thank you 🙂

Learning from Containment

6 Jan

About a year ago I had a valuable life experience. The problem was: I didn’t really want a valuable life experience! I was too busy trying to get through to appreciate new learning possibilities. This post will describe just one of the many lessons I learned from this experience. For obvious reasons It has taken me a long time to get round to writing it but I hope it will make some of the others easier to write.

Background

During my training I had some opportunity to chose my clinical placements. I expressed an interest in working with people with life threatening or terminal illnesses. We had received some excellent teaching on working in the area and I felt that I could make a real difference to people at an incredibly difficult time in their lives.

As my year long placement in Learning Disability Services drew to an end I received notification that I was to be placed in a General Hospital’s Oncology Service.

My previous supervisor expressed concern that, without a spiritual framework for understanding existential issues I would find working in this area incredibly difficult. I was aware of her own spiritual framework and it’s importance to her, but was somewhat dismissive of it’s applicability to myself.

The Experience

Arriving on placement I spent some time sitting in on sessions with my new supervisor. I realised quite soon that, in order to cope with my recent dog-bereavement and the demands of a doctoral course, I had shut off all of my emotional self. This had not been a serious problem when advising care teams on how best to prevent and respond to ‘challenging’ behaviour. I saw, however, that in a 1:1 therapeutic situation, much empathy was required.

In order to provide containment for people in a state of emotional desperation and existential crisis you have to allow yourself to feel, at least a little, of what they are feeling. Or, at the very least, acknowledge that it is possible for you to feel it. If you are terrified of what someone else is feeling, you can not effectively communicate that their emotions are acceptable, manageable and containable.

I spent my first supervision session in tears. I explained that I had realised I would have to allow myself to feel sad in order to connect with the emotional lives of my clients and that I didn’t really want to feel sad. My supervisor was familiar with this experience, from both her clients and (I interpreted) her own experience. She taught me about Mindfulness and about Compassion Focused Therapy, she suggested I use these techniques both on myself and with my clients.

I felt I was managing quite well, until a month into the placement, I had my own Cancer scare. Fortunately, this has been resolved without further issue. Unfortunately, I was unaware of what the outcome would be until sometime later in my placement. While I wouldn’t usually have shared this news with a supervisor I felt I had no choice.

I expected my supervisor to give me a way out of the placement, to agree that it was just too hard and that I probably couldn’t cope. Looking back I believe I also suspected she would find my emotions unbearable.

Funnily enough, my supervisor offered me containment. She was empathic but boundaried. She understood I was having a hard time but didn’t think I should give up. She thought my emotions were difficult but not unmanageable. She offered me tissues and a chocolate, but didn’t send me home.

The Lesson(s)

I learned that

  • Even at their extremes, my emotions are bearable.
  • If I stop pushing my emotions away, they stop being so scary.
  • The human body can only sustain an extreme emotional state for a short period of time. Yes, that emotion will probably come back, but you have already learned about your ability to cope with it and that your world will not end through allowing yourself to feel it.
  • Judging my emotional experience is not particularly helpful.
  • Noticing, acknowledging and accepting my emotional world makes it feel more manageable.

As a result of these lessons I was able to sit with clients who filled the room with their sadness and desperation. Clients who felt unable to show those emotions to their families for fear of hurting and losing them.

I hope that, in doing so, I was able to teach them that their emotions were acceptable, manageable and containable.

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