Reflections on Self from a NICU Cuddler
“Good morning! I’m your cuddler.” I utter these words every Monday and Friday at 7am. I am a cuddler in Georgetown University’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), six glorious, magical, sometimes boring, hours a week. Over the past year I have spent more than 200 hours holding newborn babies: some of whom were born premature, some of whom were full term with health problems at birth, and some of whom went home and then became ill.
Several months ago, Nebo invited me to write a blog about the human insights I have gained as a cuddler. Everything I considered writing seemed trite; these infants are stronger than we give them credit for—can’t we as adults tap into that? We treat these babies with equal care, regardless of the social or economic status of their family, regardless of the color of their skin—can’t we as adults treat each other the same? I was stuck.
And I stayed stuck, until I participated in a unique ten-person gathering in downtown D.C. The gathering had no “set” agenda, no measurable objectives or outcomes—just an invitation to truly see each other, and likewise to be seen by others. Right off the bat, the gathering lived up to its promise. Instead of the standard introduction (name, where you work, where you live), we were invited to sit silently in front of a camera and be filmed in black and white for one minute. Our only task was to look at the person filming us and simply allow ourselves to “be” and to experience whatever arose. Some of us cried, some of us smiled, some of us furrowed our brows. Most of us did a combination of the above and more.
As each person was filmed, the remaining nine people witnessed that sixty seconds of vulnerability on a huge screen. We took in the joy, the sorrow, the emotion, without judgment. We experienced the beauty of the human on-screen, we connected with them, and we saw them in a way that we never would have had we spoken. Even those who knew someone before arriving experienced the colleague in a completely different way.
Later, we were invited to sit in front of the camera again, for as long as we wanted this time. Our instructions were to do nothing, no-thing. Sit, and allow whatever comes to come. No need to force an idea or focus on a particular topic. Just sit and wait for whatever needs to be said to arrive. More tears, more truth, more vulnerability. Honesty. Connection on a pure, fundamental, deep level.
I felt more seen, and more understood, in those 5 hours than I have in any 5-hour, or even 5-day gathering I’ve experienced in the past. And, as we offered our closing reflections it hit me: our openness with each other that day reminded me of how I feel when I cuddle those newborns.
Everyone who interacts with those infants – parents, medical staff, cuddlers – engages without expectation. We allow them to be, to grow. What a gift if we could offer that same generosity to each other. Yes, to those we are meeting for the first time but even more so to people we have known a long time. Could we free them from the layers and layers of expectations, assumptions or judgments we have wrapped around them, those things hiding their true essence? Are we potentially preventing them from fully living into who they really are or who they want to be?
As a leader, what gift might you offer your peers, your staff, your business associates by being curious about them? And by being vulnerable yourself? Can we see each other as we do these newborns—strong, whole, beautiful? Can we give each other the space to grow and evolve? It’s not easy, but it is possible. And powerful.
Would you like to try this exercise on your own? Here are a few a ways you can explore this activity at home:
Empathy and Compassion Exploration: The Silent Connection Exercise
Objective: To cultivate empathy and compassion for oneself and others through a series of at-home individual coaching exercises inspired by the experience of sitting silently and witnessing vulnerability.
• A quiet and comfortable space
• A camera or smartphone (optional)
• A journal or paper and pen
Exercise 1: Silent Self-Connection
1. Preparation: Find a quiet and comfortable space where you won’t be disturbed. If you have a camera or smartphone on selfie mode, set it up to record yourself for one minute. If not, simply find a mirror or a reflective object to gaze upon.
2. Being Present: Sit comfortably and take a few deep breaths to center yourself. Allow yourself to just “be” in the present moment.
3. Observation: Open your eyes if they were closed and gaze at your reflection on your phone or in the mirror. Doing your best to let go of any judgements as they come, observe your facial expressions, emotions, and any sensations that arise. Let go of any need to portray yourself in a certain way.
4. Reflection: After the minute is up, stop recording (if you were using a camera) or step away from your reflection. If using the camera, you might watch the footage back. Then, write in your journal about your experience. What emotions did you notice? How did you feel during this silent self-connection? What judgments, if any, came up? Practice self-compassion as you reflect on your own vulnerability.
Exercise 2: Empathetic Witnessing
1. Preparation: Find a comfortable space to sit. You won’t need a camera for this exercise.
2. Mindful Presence: Close your eyes and take a few moments to focus on your breath. Gradually bring your attention to the present moment.
3. Imagined Connection: In your mind’s eye, imagine yourself sitting across from someone you know, maybe someone with whom you work. Imagine yourself looking into this person’s face. Imagine their vulnerability, their emotions, and their humanity. Allow yourself to connect with their experience. Can you imagine their eyes, their hair, their laugh? Are you noticing any assumptions or judgments that arise when you think about them?
4. Compassionate Reflection: Open your eyes and take a moment to reflect on this imaginary connection. What emotions did you sense from the person you visualized? What might thoughts, expectations about them might you release? How did this exercise make you feel? Write down your reflections in your journal.
Through these exercises, you’ve tapped into your own vulnerability, observed and connected with others’ vulnerability, and practiced self-expression without judgment. The goal is to cultivate empathy and compassion—both for yourself and for others—by recognizing the shared human experience of emotions and vulnerability. By engaging in these activities regularly, you can continue to nurture these qualities within yourself and extend them to your interactions with others.