Compassion, Aspiration and Balance

On Friday, May 18, 2018, Amanda Simonton, MSN, RN, and doctoral student, gave an address to the Class of 2018, encouraging them to live up to their goals of providing excellent health care, but also of taking care of themselves. We think you’ll be challenged as well.

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Graduate student speaking to graduating class

Amanda Simonton addresses the Class of 2018 during a recent convocation

 

 

Good afternoon. Thank you so much for being here; I am honored to be able to speak today and to celebrate the achievements of the graduates in this room. I would like to take a moment to specifically thank my parents, husband, friends and faculty at the School of Nursing for the love, support and patience they have offered me every day of my academic career and throughout my life. I would not be where I am today without you.

I graduated with my Bachelor of Science in Nursing from UT Austin in May 2013 and today I will graduate with my Masters in Science from the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program. Additionally, I am a concurrent 4th year PhD student in the School of Nursing. I see a few of you doing the math. Let me help you — between my undergraduate and graduate degrees I have spent eight years in the School of Nursing and am deeply grateful for every single one. I have gained valuable knowledge, met lifelong friends, and connected with outstanding professors, some of whom are now my mentors.

I spent the majority of my time in graduate school as a teaching assistant, and it’s so nice to see so many familiar faces preparing to walk the stage today.

When the opportunity to speak to the graduating class was presented to me I began to think about what I would have wanted to hear five years ago, the first time I sat in this auditorium. Funny enough, my mind kept coming back to the basics, to one of the first lessons I ever learned as a nursing student. Even after nearly a decade of higher education I came back to one of the fundamental lessons: the C-A-B.

In the early stages of our nursing education we were taught that the fundamental ways to save a person’s life is to address Cardiac, Airway, and Breathing (CAB). Today, I would like to suggest another way to think of the CAB acronym: Compassion, Aspiration (i.e., personal and professional goal-setting), and Balance. I believe putting these intentions into practice in our lives and careers is how we can achieve mental and physical health so that we may be skillful and effective in helping others to achieve or recover their health.

Let’s begin with the letter C: Compassion. The definition of compassion is a deep emotional resonance with the suffering of others. This emotional resonance is powerful and can motivate individuals to do amazing things to help others. As I learned at the UT Austin School of Nursing, to embody the ideals of the nursing profession we must engage our patients with compassion.

This deep compassion and drive to do right by our patients and communities is part of the reason that nurses are consistently ranked as the most trusted profession in our country. And, as many of you may have noticed, this compassion does not stop with our patients; it bleeds into almost every aspect of our lives. However, there is a drawback to this natural compassion many of us carry — burnout. We are warned throughout our education that we must avoid empathetic burnout and compassion fatigue. Yet, we are not a profession that naturally embraces methods to avoid this burnout. How many of us have spent days on end studying for a test, attending clinicals, and juggling other obligations, with little or no thought for our own emotional health?

Fortunately, we are getting better; in the last few years I have seen the School of Nursing implement free meditation and yoga sessions and provide an in-house counselor for mental health needs. But everyone in this room is now or will soon leave the School of Nursing. I implore you to seek these practices out in your own lives. In other words, our compassionate and skillful treatment of our patients must also be directed at ourselves, to insure we cultivate and sustain our compassion for others. Treating ourselves with the same compassion we bring to each of our patients is vital. And although compassion is a deeply important aspect to our careers and lives, in my opinion it is only half of the equation.

Next the letter A: 

Aspiration, which is the other half is of the equation. When I initially discussed my talking points with one of my dear friends, he said, “You better be careful with that word, you’re talking to a room full of nurses who are going to think you mean aspiration in the medical sense.”

Woman graduate in cap and gown

Amanda Simonton

Thanks for that Jon. So let me clarify, I mean personal and professional goalsetting. To “aspire” to attain a place beyond where we are right now, we need to set clear personal and professional aspirations. It is very important that we set goals and intentions for ourselves, or we don’t know where we are going or if we are making progress on our journey.

The nurses I’ve met at the School of Nursing are some of the most fiercely motivated people I’ve ever encountered. It is clear that whatever we set our intentions on can and will be accomplished. So, be mindful of the power of your choices and intentions. While I am biased toward higher education and not-so-secretly hope that many of you will seek out a doctorate, there are many options that we may set our sights on besides higher education, such as clinical leadership, perhaps as a manager or preceptor, advocating for your patients through government action, and leadership in identifying and meeting the needs of your community.

Certainly, we deserve to bask in the sense of accomplishment we have all achieved today, but we should also identify our next goal soon while our minds are still embraced by the certainty that we can achieve lofty and challenging goals. And let’s set our sights high. Always remember that we are Longhorn Nurses; what starts here changes the world and what starts with us changes health care.

Finally, the letter B: for Balance. Balance is a subtle art. Many times we’ve asked patients to eat better, exercise more, take breaks and care for themselves, and yet have not participated in these activities ourselves. Nurses are notorious for letting self-care fall to the wayside.

We have high aspirations for our own professional performance and outstanding energy and focus that we apply to those aspirations. For example, we can stand for 12-hour shifts, put aside our bodily needs in pursuit of enhancing our patients’ needs, smile while being yelled at, and come back the next day ready for more. However, we must keep our compassionate work and our lofty goals and aspirations in balance with the essential needs of our personal lives.

Ask yourself, what feeds my soul? Many of us get soul-nourishing rewards from working with our patients, so I challenge you to find something that has nothing to do with the work you will do within the health care system. Personally, I have found a counterbalance to the work I do in school and with my patients by playing the violin and more recently participating in jiu-jitsu. I am fortunate to have a husband that will remind me to socialize, see a show, and take a few hours away from my professional goals. I also have two cats that will gladly distract me from my studying by lying on my books and computer.

With balance, we can maintain high professional performance standards as well as holistic wellbeing and an ability to flourish in our relationships with our loved ones, which is one of the primary foundations of mental and physical health. We need to be gentle with ourselves, identify our deepest personal needs and feed those, too.

While I am speaking primarily to our graduates today, I am also now calling out to our friends and families: Be vigilantly aware of this new CAB acronym’s meaning in the life of your nurse. As nurses we are intimately involved with all the aspects of human life. We are present when our patients come into this life and when they pass from it; we see individuals in their worst moments and celebrate with them during some of their happiest. We are the frontline of a broken health care system, so when we are in the trenches, it can be easy to burn out and lose our compassion, give up on our aspirations, and lose our balance in our own lives. If we have the loving support of our families, friends, and fellow nurses, we will not lose these things — or ourselves.

It has been an honor to address you all today and to present this new acronym. I know much of this is information you are acutely aware of but I hope, while you are being encouraged to undertake your career and be a light for others in your future endeavors, that you take care to insure your own life is infused with compassion, ablaze with high aspiration, and poised in balance.

Thank you and hook ’em!

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