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Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Word for the Day

Today's Word: self-consciousness

The patient was dying. When the team of nurses and social workers (and me, their student chaplain) talked during morning rounds this was clear. The patient was not responding and several family members were gathered around. The chaplain should stop by, I reasoned, so I headed to the room. This was my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

I stopped by to visit and met a wonderful family and heard stories of an active and unique woman. I became quite interested in the family and stopped by several times that day. Overnight the patient died. The family didn't ask for a chaplain. Later I was told (quite kindly I should say) that I stopped too often and was actually intrusive. That was hard to hear, yet I consider that experience very important and (aside from the discomfort I brought to this family) I am glad it happened.

What made me an intrusion that day?

I know part of the problem was my experience in coming into the lives of people I didn't know. I have learned better questions to ask and how to bring a calm presence. I also know part of the problem is the ability to listen. I expect I should easily discerned the family was coping well and a simple, "I'm available if you need something" would have bee a good way to end my initial visit.

I now know my intrusive visits were about self-consciousness. I mean that literally. When I entered that hospital room I was quite conscious of my own fears and indecisiveness, of my feelings and hopes. I became enamored with this woman's story, but even that was about me and not her or her family. Put another way, when I visited the experience was all about me. If I had tried to be as conscious of the patient and family as of myself, everything would have turned out differently.

I learned a lesson in that unit of CPE which goes like this. When with a patient it's about him/her. Afterward is a time to reflect and then it is all about me. During the visit the focus is on the patient and personal self-consciousness gets in the way of making the visit helpful in meeting their needs. Only after the visit comes a time to reflect on the person, but also on myself. Why did I act like I did? What caused the feelings I had? What do I learn about myself for next time? Self-consciousness can also get in the way of personal reflection, hindering me from hearing criticism or facing the truth about myself.

A couple of thoughts about overcoming self-consciousness..

1. Know your agenda. We all have personal agendas and there is nothing evil about them. But, when hidden, agendas can be a problem. Know your what's on yours.

2. Reflect often. Before going to see someone think about yourself. What is going on that might divert from focusing on the other person (as true for my spouse as for my patients)? Reflect afterward about what happened and why.

3. Have someone you can talk to and to whom you will listen. I am grateful for my manager who gently explained my error and walked with me through it. We all need several someones with whom we can be honest and to whom we give permission to be honest with us.

4. Determine to focus on the other. The three ideas above will help, but it still remains a choice, occasionally a hard choice.

Philosopher Rene Descarte said "Cogito, ergo sum" or "I think, therefore I am." We humans need to be conscious of our life and existence. But once we know, the next and harder step is to be aware of others.

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