Background: When the brutality of illness outstrips the powers of medical technology, part of the fallout lands squarely on front-line clinicians. In our experience, this kind of helplessness has cognitive, emotional, and somatic components.
Objectives: Could we approach our own experiences of helplessness differently? Here we draw on social psychology and neuroscience to define a new approach.
Methods: First, we show how clinicians can reframe helplessness as a self-barometer indicating their level of engagement with a patient. Second, we discuss how to shift deliberately from hyper- or hypo-engagement toward a constructive zone of clinical work, using an approach summarized as "RENEW": recognizing, embracing, nourishing, embodying, and weaving--to enable clinicians from all professional disciplines to sustain their service to patients and families.