Oxford Languages dictionary defines suffering as the ‘state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.’
In Chapter 5 of the Nurse Coaching Integrative Approaches for Health and Wellbeing, INCA Co-Founder, Dr. Barbara Dossey dives so much deeper and defines suffering as,
“an individual’s experience of struggle based on a reinforced story around anxiety, distress, or pain. It can manifest as behavioral, emotional, mental, moral, physical, social and/or spiritual signs of distress; it is anguish experienced-internal and external-as a threat to one’s composure, integrity, sense of self, or the fulfillment of expectations”
-(2015, Dossey, Luck, Schaub, p.86).
You, fellow Nurse, as a human witness suffering through mechanisms like moral distress, emotional labor, change, moral suffering, and soul pain. You experience suffering minute to minute, both personally and professionally.
You are called upon to “be with” sorrow and use your skills of presence with others and with yourself.
There’s a unique balancing skill required to acknowledge the suffering you witness with compassion without the ‘need to fix’, and not to absorb the manifestations of suffering so it becomes overwhelming to yourself.
I never knew what that meant… ‘to not take on the suffering so it becomes overwhelming to myself’.
I was an ICU Nurse for many years. I was protocol driven, yes and no, black, and white. It’s just how it was, and how I practiced as a Nurse. I didn’t know I was burned out; I just knew I needed to make a change in my Nursing career, or I would quit the profession for good.
I discovered the International Nurse Coach Association | Integrative Nurse Coach® Academy while in school advancing my degree and I jumped into the Integrative Nurse Coach® Certificate Program, unintentionally knowing it was where I needed to be in that moment.
I had no idea how I had absorbed so much grief, suffering and sadness at that time. Now, reflecting upon my history through this blog, I am shedding another layer of anguish as tears stream down my cheeks.
I recall one precious moment (of so, so many) in my Integrative Nurse Coaching training. We were called upon to use the holistic modality of art to explore our relationship to suffering. Our prompt, “What is suffering to you?”
I sat staring at a few crayons and blank paper for what seemed like an eternity. I’d never been asked, or even thought of this question in my career that had been so filled with pain.
How could I unpack the years, the baggage, the stories, the squashed emotion with six crayons and a white sheet of paper? My palms were sweaty, my stomach flipped, and my heart ached.
So, in my mind, I asked myself again, “what is suffering to me?”
I felt like the square of paper represented my life at that moment. Blank. I had been stifling my feelings for years. I recall very clearly in Nursing school being told, ‘do not cry with your patients’, ‘do not show your feelings, as your patients are already dealing with so much’. Another professor said, ‘you are too joyful’, and another mentor later said, ‘You must be strong, never let them see your weakness’.
At work in the ICU, I looked to my Nurse colleagues, no one else seemed to show emotions either. We were tough, caring, yes, but oh so, stoic, flat, and unflustered. Those who (on the rarest of occasions) shed a tear had been shamed.
The emotional labor of hiding sadness, suffering, anger, and fear while my outsides appeared calm and unflustered had taken its toll, as I stared frozen, at the white, blank canvas before me.
Emotional Labor is described by Hochschild as the “…management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display” (1983).
In my experiences as a Nurse, I had learned it was expected that Nurses cannot, and should not publicly display their feelings in facial expressions, body positions or behaviors, despite the obvious trauma, sorrow, suffering and pain experienced moment to moment. Be tough, be fearless, and stay detached seemed to be the motto.
And yet, for 15+ years, this masking of feelings had left me numb and disconnected to my true feelings and had me neglecting my authenticity.
My Nursing history showed itself as an inability to use the crayons and paper before me to answer the elusive question… “What is suffering to me?”
I recall breathing in deeply and sighing out just as deep. I picked up my favorite color, teal blue, and began scratching on my paper in heavy, hard, thick strokes…
And so it began, the self-reflection, unearthing and unraveling of years of programming. ‘Do not show emotion’. I kept scratching. ‘You are too joyful’. Scratch, scratch, scratch. ‘Crying is for the weak’. I picked up green…. ‘You are too soft.’ And then, purple, orange and red.
Until I drew this (yes, I still have this 11 years later)…
And written on the back of my ‘suffering art’ in green crayon MY definition of suffering…
“Suffering or sorrowfulness is a place that is heavy on your head, on your body, your heart. It blocks your body, mind, and soul from being seen or felt (although you wish you could be seen and felt and understood). It is a barrier for self and others, yet it has possibility for renewal and new growth.”
Nurse Coaching Integrative Approaches for Health and Wellbeing textbook, written by Barbara Dossey, Susan Luck and Bonney Schaub, speaks extensively to the human element of suffering and notes…
- acknowledge the suffering
- give voice to the suffering
- bear witness to the suffering
- create and implement a self-care plan
- develop a supportive work environment
I would never have dreamed up the idea or the intention to explore my many stories of suffering if I did not embark on my Integrative Nurse Coach® Certificate Program journey.
It is here, in this supportive Community that I began my healing and continue to do so, even as I write these vulnerable words
Please join us, your wisdom and stories help us all heal.
Nurse Coach Nicole xo
Other Resources on Suffering
- Explore more as INCA Senior Faculty and Alumna Holly Kapusinski shares her thoughts on suffering in Episode 33 of the Integrative Nurse Coaches in ACTION! podcast, Valuing Stories of Suffering, here, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.
- “How to Release Stories of Suffering to Protect Your Own Energy: Tips form Integrative Nurse Coaching Students”
After two decades as an Intensive Care Nurse caring for the sickest of patients, Nicole left the one-size fits all healthcare industry, and created Blue Monarch Health, where she is; Active Aging Specialist, Health Protection Expert and Head Motivator! Instead of waiting for you to get sick, she meets you where you live, work and play, to enhance your health and vitality.
Nicole listens deeply, and takes you by the hand to co-create a health and vitality plan with you, so you can really do it in your life. She is an authentic, heart-centered stick of dynamite, who focuses your energies, builds up your strengths, and leverages your unique gifts!
Nicole Vienneau achieved a Master’s in Nursing Science from the University of Arizona, a board certification in Integrative Nurse Coaching from the American Holistic Nurses Credentialing Corporation, and is Senior Faculty with the Integrative Nurse Coach® Academy. She is a Functional Aging Specialist, personal trainer, yoga teacher, and group fitness instructor and a retired Reebok-sponsored Fitness Athlete. When she’s not coaching clients or writing blogs, or hosting the Integrative Nurse Coaches in ACTION! Podcast, you can find her teaching active older adult fitness classes, volunteering with the Alzheimer’s Association, lounging in the sun with her cat babies, or on a hike with her awesome husband.