Cura Personalis: A Mindful Way to Find Joy in Medicine
Welcome to Mindfulness in Medicine, an ongoing column by best-selling author Anne Bruce, designed to cultivate leadership and collaborative relationships among hospital leaders, nurses, providers, and ancillary staff. Mindfulness is a powerful leadership tool that enhances emotional intelligence. It is a tool that, when practiced, can help us develop and implement emotional intelligence in medicine. It is a tool that, when practiced, can help us develop and implement relational coaching skills and illuminate various ways to improve hospital operations and cross-departmental performance. Mindfulness also improves our capacity for decision-making and participatory medicine, all while enhancing our own health and well-being. Your comments and insights on these postings are greatly valued.
The Jesuits teach a belief system called cura personalis, which translated from Latin means "caring for the whole person."
This mantra is not restricted to any one religion, profession, or culture. It simply teaches that every person needs to be mindful of various aspects of his or her life, especially when faced with extraordinary stress.
In medicine, taking care of one’s self promotes, and sometimes equals, the quality of care we give to others. In fact, it's so crucial that the Georgetown University School of Medicine explicitly teaches the concept of cura personalis. The curriculum encourages students to maintain life balance and pay close attention to the harmful signals of debilitating stress.
Of course, when it comes to practicing medicine in the real world, this is more easily said than done. Although I'm not a healthcare provider, I know a thing or two about giving too hard, pushing down feelings, and burning out. Here's my story.
Being Mindful of Giving Too Much
A few years ago, my husband became very ill. He suffered complications from a surgery he underwent, which led to a series of health challenges. The timing for both of us was tough.
Not only was I running a consulting and training practice, hosting a radio show, and traveling abroad on speaking engagements, I had just signed a deal with my publisher to write my 15th book. To further complicate matters, we were in the final stages of moving to a new home in a different state.
My husband focused on the move so that I could do my work. However, his health continued to worsen. I became his caregiver and provided emotional support to our distressed children, family and friends.
I've made a career out of teaching mindfulness and self-awareness. But at this point, I did not see self-care as an option. So I chose self-deprivation. I gave until it hurt (much like many healthcare providers I know).
Here are some mindful ways to know when you have abandoned self-care:
- You say things like, “No one appreciates the things I do.” But what you most likely mean is that you have taken on too much. (In my case, no one forced me to write another book or produce and host a TV show segment. But I think deep down, I was hoping someone would notice and appreciate all I'd sacrificed.)
- You may catch yourself saying, "I never have 'me' time." But what you’re really saying is, "I don’t take time for my whole person."
- You may complain, "I always wind up having to do everything myself," when the truth is you don’t ask for help.
Whether you’re an author, physician, advanced provider, or administrator, uncovering the signs of self-deprivation is important for our survival (and in medicine, patients’ survival).
Get Help and Seek Guidance
Eventually, when I had to admit that I was over my head, I sought counseling from someone who was experienced in supporting caregivers of spouses in crisis.
One day during a session, she looked at me and said, “It seems that when you are burdened and overwhelmed with all of this, you do the exact opposite of caring for yourself. You don’t ask for help. You don’t clear your calendar. You're not even mindful of the basics, like focusing on your breathing. That’s why you feel so anxious. You’ve fallen into a pattern of self-neglect."
This entire concept of self-deprivation shocked me. It was something I’d never considered. But I finally admitted that I felt deprived. I realized that it was affecting not only me but also everyone who depended on me.
She went on to say, “Rather than practicing self-care, you shift into overdrive.”
Does any of this sound familiar to you?
I think when you become an expert in caring for others, whether you’re a doctor or an author, it's easy to start flying solo when you're stressed. You stop talking about your experiences, retreat into yourself, and just start sucking it up.
And the higher up you are in your career status, the easier it is to fall into this pattern. At Georgetown University Medical School, they warn young med students of this exact dilemma.
A Mindful Exercise to Determine What Exactly You’re Being Deprived Of
In your journal, tablet, or laptop, complete the following statement:
I feel deprived and ignore self-care when I…
Examples might include:
- Don’t sleep
- Don’t take "me" time
- Feel pressure at work
- Say "yes" to too many responsibilities
- Don’t receive affection I usually get from my spouse or partner
Now take time to review the list you’ve made. Does it help to explain why your tank is on empty or you feel resentful?
As a healthcare provider, you are always dealing with extenuating circumstances, because you are caring for the sick. But isn’t this all the more reason to practice cura personalis?
I learned through my own experience that we all have a choice. We can honor our whole person, as the Jesuits teach, or move through the day feeling deprived and angry.
It’s really that simple. Becoming more mindful helped me to let go and nourish my head, heart, emotions, and my career. By practicing cura personalis, I sharpened my inner compass, began listening to my inner voice of reason, and practiced better self-care. I went on to write a life-coaching book that became a bestseller and allowed me to expand my work and enjoy life to the fullest.
But none of that would have happened if I deprived myself of what I needed to be my best and serve others. If you ever catch yourself thinking of self-care as selfish, shake off that thought and reframe it as a form of giving. Because the people in your life need you to be the best provider, parent, child, colleague, and leader you can be.