Barry Kerzin, MD, the Dalai Lama’s personal physician, is back to dive deeper into: the difference between empathy and compassion, why compassion (versus empathy) is a critical aspect of medical care, generating self compassion, and answers to listener email.
Guest Bio: Barry Kerzin, MD is a US born and trained family physician who for the past several decades has resided as a monk in Dharamshala, India — home of the Tibetan community in exile. In addition to serving as H.H. the Dalai Lama’s personal physician, Dr. Kerzin is the founder of the Altruism in Medicine Institute, whose mission is to increase compassion and resilience among healthcare professionals and extended professional groups, such as police officers, first responders, teachers and leaders.
Self described as “…a doctor, a monk, a teacher, a lazy man. All of these things, yet none of these things,” you can follow Dr. Kerzin on Facebook, Youtube, Instagram or learn more about his story here.
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Mentioned in this episode: The Awake and Aware Physician conference sponsored by Wild Health. Jan 13-15 Sedona Arizona. Use the code CONSCIOUSPHYSICIAN for 15% off (that’s 15% off the whole package – lodging, meals, the course)
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The difference between empathy and compassion;
- Empathy is emotionally standing in the other person’s shoes.
- Taking on the pain of others, especially when working in healthcare, can build up, and that’s where it leads to burnout and creates problems – even though the general stance of empathy is wonderful.
- Compassion is the wish and the action of reducing or eliminating suffering. One way to think of it is ‘a half step back from empathy.’
- Compassion and empathy aren’t exclusive to each other. We’re not trying to lack empathy, we’re trying to build on it to become compassion.
Can compassion be taught?
- It can. Whether or not someone incorporates it into their lives is a different story.
Listener email about having a hard time switching between empathy and compassion;
- A pediatric orthopedic surgeon finds that he has an almost hardwired empathy toward his patients. He feels like he’s not being as good as a clinician or a physician as he can be without taking on his patients’ suffering. This has led to stress and loss of sleep.
Barry’s response to the listener email;
- Empathy being hardwired in this situation is a concept, a metaphor. You have the option of letting go of that concept. It takes time to change your metaphor, but it can be done.
- We’re not throwing out empathy, we’re building on it to be more effective. We are caring with open hearts but not so emotionally attached that we lose perspective.
- We are trained to heal patients. If the patient doesn’t heal and particularly if they die, we may feel like we’re a failure. And that is tangential to guilt.
- Sometimes people don’t get better and sometimes they die. That’s the natural way of things. To expect otherwise is unrealistic.
- Try to step back emotionally. You’re doing everything you can – continue to do that and feel good about it. Taking on a patient’s pain is not necessary and doesn’t help you.
Self compassion after a bad patient outcome;
- One technique is to be more realistic about what happened that day. Sure, there was the event that could have gone better, but remember the myriad things that went well and you did well and celebrate them.
- It’s OK, and even a best practice, to review and analyze what didn’t go well. If that’s your only focus, however, that will be all you remember.
Exercises to help build compassion;
- Tonglen meditation
- Remind yourself “Just as I want to be happy and free of suffering, I want this person to be happy and free of suffering.”
- Continual intentional gratitude
- Forgiveness. Marshall Goldsmith sums this up brilliantly, “Forgiveness means giving up the hope for a better past”
The decision point between accepting people how they are and trying to change them;
- Accept people as they are (we can hardly change ourselves!)
- At the same time, model the skillful behavior
Dr. Kerzin’s 2022 TED talk on understanding compassion
A PBS Special on Dr. Kerzin