Negative Capacity in Caregiving

Caring for others is one of life’s most difficult tasks because it constantly involves the whole being of the caregiver. Physically, caregivers put wear on their bodies by lifting, pushing, pulling, ducking and yes, sometime dodging. Emotionally, caregivers are run through the full spectrum of expression, often on a daily basis. Spiritually, caregivers rely on their core beliefs about the world and people’s place in it, and wrestle to maintain this center under pressure.

That said, it is funny that caregiving is one of the tasks required for human life. A baby won’t raise and feed and nurture itself. And no person lives in isolation.

So understanding that caring for others is arduous and necessary for life, one naturally asks how can we do it best. There are many approaches that can improve the ability to give care, which taken together come close to this idea of a best approach. But one of these contributing approaches is little or never mentioned. That is the development of negative capacity.

Negative Capacity

Negative capacity is the continuous ability to take in information (sense-perceptions, emotional impressions, etc.) without forming judgment. A greater negative capacity implies that more information derived over a longer time and greater pressure, can be used to form a judgment. A lesser negative capacity implies the opposite.

For caregivers negative capacity is a useful tool that is often formed without reflection. Let’s take an example. Say it’s your first day a caregiver, and you’re 18 years old, fresh out of high school and your work training. You walk in the the door to your first case. The person you will serve tells you to go away. Your first impression might be to tell her to cheer up. You do just that. Then the wind up, and the pitch, and the catch, of the shoe by your face. You did not have the emotional knowledge or reserves to do anything else except ask her to feel better. You spend the next 72 hours rubbing your temples and wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into, and start looking for jobs in food service.

Now let’s say you’re a ten year caregiving veteran. It’s your first day serving this new person. You see this person engaging in behavior that indicates she is angry. She hurls expletives at you, and that shoe to boot (get it? Also, this time you know to dodge) when you ask what’s wrong. You feel the person and her habits, ticks and triggers out. You give them space and time, and build a relationship patiently, bit by bit. When she gets angry, you don’t. Time and experience have shown you the value of gentleness. One day, the person tells you what’s wrong, because she trust you. Your world changes. You can have an effect.

Sounds great in writing, doesn’t it?

But it works, if not all the time, almost all the time. Trust me. If you don’t, ask anyone who has been caregiving for a long time.

This cultivation of a relationship through patience is obviously easier said than done. And sometimes there still may be too much of a block to acquiring trust. But it is clear that the ten year veteran’s approach, which requires more patience and emotional reserves than the 18 year old newbie’s (though there’s nothing inherently wrong with being 18, and fresh energy can be a great benefit to a caregiver), is superior. If the veteran had snapped to a judgment, she may have missed cues she saw, made clear to her by her negative capacity, that allowed the relationship to be built.

The final word here is that the more judgment can be withheld (turning to what someone’s problem is or what will fix someone, or anything like that) and the more receptive the caregiver becomes, the more effective a relationship can be built.. And the more effective relationships that are built, the better caregivers can perform their difficult and necessary job.

End note: The author derived the concept of negative capacity from Robert Greene’s book Mastery (which in turn is derived the concept from the poet, John Keats) which is an excellent book for anyone looking to become a master of one area of human endeavor.

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