Compassion is always in season.
In this episode, we discuss 4 ideas to help parents maintain sustainable compassion.
1 - Choosing compassion over empathy
2 - Honoring boundaries
3 - Connecting to source, and
4 - Applying GRACE--a specific framework developed by Dr. Joan Halifax for practicing compassion “in the trenches”
"Life is the practice . . . when the practice gets hard, love yourself (and others) more."
*Original music composed for Compassion Parenting by Ben Rodriguez https://soundcloud.com/bennicurious
This episode is the first in the series on “Seasons.” Though seasons of life and parenting change, the one constant element--the aspect that we seek to keep fresh and renewed always--is love. Why? Because the wisdom literature states that “Charity (or love) never faileth.” (I Cor 13: 4-8). I don’t know about you, but I’d like a guaranteed strategy! Like all profound yet simple truths, however, it’s the implementation that’s the challenge...
Love is the foundation of effective parenting--it’s always in season, even through dark winters or long summers. You might be thinking, “Well of course I love my kids!” Yes, you have an underlying bond & an underlying intention, but how tuned-in to it are you day-to-day and moment-to-moment? How tuned into it am I?
Today, we’ll be speaking specifically about one facet of love, sustainable compassion, within the context of parenting. This ties intimately to the work I do, which is to help parents foster a grounded, loving presence. (You can learn more at https://compassionparenting.com
--the link’s in the show notes).
Parenting itself is like a marathon (or even an ultra-marathon!). Unlike regular marathons, life’s marathons sometimes don’t give us a chance to fully prepare. We often feel the pace is outside our control--something arbitrary or externally set. We may forget or feel unable to refuel. But yet we run, and we run, and we run.
From 2007 to 2016, not only did I have responsibilities as a mom to a large family, but I also cared for my aging mom, AND worked part-time as a pediatrician. At the end of this period, my mom needed total care. Two strokes had left her bed-ridden, with only the use of one arm. She required tube feeding, bathing, turning & changing. My sister and I performed this care while caring for families of our own. It was a season of ultra-caregiving during which I was often depleted, exhausted, & existing in “survival mode.” But I did survive.
Maybe you have found yourself in an ultra-caregiving situation: caring for a child who has a chronic illness, caring for an aging parent, parenting within the context of your own mental or physical health issues, or even facing the new challenges of parenting within a pandemic. How can we survive while buffering ourselves against burnout?
Burnout has been defined as “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” Anyone listening relate to that?
Just so you know you’ve got company, I host a parenting community and membership. Within it I did an informal poll about current levels of burnout on a scale of 0-10. The average among respondents was 10.5. These are solid, dedicated parents, yet they are not immune to burnout and neither are you or I.
In this episode, I’m going to share 4 ideas that may help:
- [First…] Choosing compassion over empathy
- [Next…] Honoring boundaries
- [Then…] Connecting to source
- [& finally….] Applying the Halifax GRACE model--a specific framework for practicing compassion “in the trenches”
So what’s the issue with empathy? Empathy is good, right? Well, I’m going to make the case that particularly in extreme situations, compassion may be better and more sustainable. The first to introduce me to this distinction was Dr. Joan Halifax in her beautiful book, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear & Courage Meet. Though often the terms are used nearly interchangeably, there’s an important difference between them. Empathy literally means “in feeling or suffering,” but compassion is “feeling or suffering with.” You can only hold or be “in” so much suffering, but you can stand alongside it, like a vigil, for longer. That’s choosing compassion over empathy. Joan Halifax spent years as a hospice volunteer literally standing vigil with individuals and families in suffering. She’s developed trainings to help caregivers and front-line workers maintain compassion despite having to endure and witness ongoing emotional stress. Dr. Halifax has also created a framework with the acronym GRACE, that I’ll share later in the episode.
This work fully applies to parents as well. Yes, when crisis hits, the helping professionals are there, but who is in the innermost circle? It is you, the parents. It’s been you at the bedside of your sick child. It’s been you sitting alongside your 3rd grader while they try to learn the times tables with a virtual class of 28 over zoom. It’s been you waiting up for your teenager at midnight. It’s you navigating hard conversations, big emotions, & family crises.
On a practical day-to-day basis, what does this mean? How is compassion, “feeling with” applied? When your child is having a meltdown (whether they’re 2 or 16), you can still be a caring parent without getting roped in. In fact, you can be even more effective when you don’t get roped in. We can be there with our kids, offering care while “decoupling” our emotions from theirs like unhooking a trailer hitch. Then we can be steady & offer wise, loving support.
Does this sound cold or mean? It isn’t at all. It’s a technique for survival and pacing and sustainability. It allows your heart to keep caring. In the healthcare space there’s a term called “compassion fatigue” (which maybe would be more accurately named empathy fatigue”) that describes a burnout state among caregivers--a “loss of the ability to nurture.” Certainly this is not a permanent state, but does require repair work when we find ourselves in it.
As we’ve discussed, the first fix is shifting from empathy toward compassion.
Now let’s talk about boundaries. To me, boundaries are about making decisions based on priorities and then honoring them. Prentis Hemphill has said, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” When parents find themselves “blowing up” or “losing it,” it’s often because of quietly accommodating a series of boundary violations. Let me give you a classic example: bedtime.
You help your kids get ready for bed, you try to tuck them in. They delay, they want a snack, they want another story. They have to do just “one more thing.” They need to run & get something. They want to tell you just “one more thing.” On the surface, it seems pretty peaceful but suddenly you shout, “Go to bed!!” Your kids are sad, you’re sad.
Maybe next time it could end differently, but how?
-you could just let them do all those “one more things” until they’re so tired they finally crash (which usually means you’re too tired now too, to talk to your spouse, to get your work done, or just to have some necessary downtime). Maybe they’re happy, but you’re not and you start getting resentful. It’s not sustainable.
Instead, consider this:
-right at the moment you feel the inner tension rising, you could communicate about it authentically. (Maybe after the 1st or 2nd delay tactic instead of the 15th!) You could say, “You know what? We’ve had a good day & I want it to stay that way. Now it is bedtime and you need to go to bed. Not “one more” anything. I love you!!”
Our kids will push against our boundaries. That’s how they test whether the edge is real. Our boundaries won’t look exactly like other people’s and they may change day-to-day because of the specific context. That’s all okay. That’s what communication is for.
Now for tool # 3. Connecting to source.
In our society, there is often a disconnect from the spiritual. We talk of attributes like love, but disconnect the ideas from their origins, like cut flowers. Without connection to source or root, our love can wither or dry up pretty fast. Whether you’re religious or not, love is not free-standing. Mother Theresa reportedly said that she’d spend her mornings praying to feel God’s love and then spend the day sharing it. Whether you tap into a divine source or into a sense of common humanity, let your love have root in something bigger than yourself.
All this sounds good in theory, but what about in practice...in the center of the struggle or crisis? For our 4th tool, let’s return to the work of Dr. Joan Halifax. To medical professionals, clergy, social activists, humanitarian workers, Dr. Halifax has taught the GRACE model, and I think it applies equally well to us as parents, for we are the ultimate front-line caregivers.
Let us practice GRACE, G.R.A.C.E. to sustain us in our work.
G stands for gather attention. It’s about pausing to ground (or center) ourselves.
R stands for recall intention. This is about aligning ourselves moment-to-moment with our vision--our greatest wishes for our kids and ourselves.
A is attune to self and others. We must attune to our kids and ourselves to discern the true needs in a given situation.
C-- consider what will serve. Our “considering” may not bring us to the easiest, most convenient, or most popular conclusion, but it will likely guide us to the wisest one.
E is Engage and End. We carry out the plan from the previous step and then we move on, without baggage, without regret or rumination, to the next thing.
Because in parenting there always is “the next thing.”
Truly, love is the most powerful parenting tool in the universe. It’s a simple thought, yet a profound and taxing path that I hope we can explore together through this podcast.
Now, some final thoughts. Recently I was at a yoga class and the instructor said, “When the practice gets hard, love yourself more. The message hit me so deeply. Yet so often we do the exact opposite of this. If you remember nothing more from today’s episode, remember this: “When the practice gets hard, love yourself (and others) more.” What is the practice? In my yoga class it was a specifically challenging pose. But the ultimate practice is life itself.
© Mary Illions Wilde, MD
IG @compassionparenting https://www.instagram.com/compassionparenting
Free parenting FB group "Parenting Well: Raising Compassionate & Productive Humans" https://www.facebook.com/groups/parentingwell
To learn more about the Compassion Parenting Membership, go to https://compassionparenting.com
Original music composed for Compassion Parenting by Ben Rodriguez https://soundcloud.com/bennicurious
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xo, Dr. Mary