Published on in Children's Doctor
Lisa Zaoutis, MD, who served as Pediatric Residency Program Director at CHOP from 2012 to 2019, spoke at June’s graduation. This column is adapted from her remarks.
The Compassion Bucket
There’s a myth for pediatricians that goes something like this: “We are all, always, completely, and infinitely compassionate professionals.”
We’d like to believe we have a well of compassion inside of us that never goes dry. Nope. But don’t be disheartened. Be reassured that you’re as human as the rest of us.
What do we do when our compassion bucket comes up empty?
When we have the time and place to do so, we find a way to restore ourselves. We start by accepting our very natural limitations, instead of beating ourselves up. After all, we are not bad people. We are depleted, tapped out. And we need a little kindness and compassion for ourselves. Then we each need to find our own way to replenish our stores.
Maybe we confide—OK, whine—to someone who will help us hold and process it all. Maybe we take our dog for an extra-long walk. Maybe we curl up on our couch with a glass of wine for a few episodes of The Bachelor.
Or maybe we treat ourselves to a TWO-scoop ice cream cone. And thus we begin to refill our well of compassion.
But what happens if that time and place is not available right now? You do what the rest of us do when we run out of compassion. We fake it. Don’t be so shocked. Parents have been doing this for years for their kids. Kids have been doing it for years for their parents. We do it for our friends, our partners, our teachers, our coaches.
Let’s stop pretending that we don’t. If we acted as cranky and fed up as we actually felt, it would make everything worse. You’d feel worse and everyone around you would be worse off. Then you’d have an even bigger challenge in front of you.
So how do you fake it?
First, attempt a caring demeanor. If you succeed in the smallest way, it creates a positive impact. If you have a positive impact, I find it actually makes me feel a little less awful. If I feel a little less awful, sometimes I actually find actual caring feelings that were still clinging to the bottom of my bucket.
The process actually buoys me up a little, at least temporarily. How do I avoid feeling like a complete phony? I try to remind myself that I always have the intention to care. Most of the time that will get me through my compassion dry spells.