The Importance of Self-Compassion

This post is part of the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion movement. On the 20th of every month, over 1000 bloggers feature posts related to compassion. I did not participate in March because I was traveling. This month, I am happy to return to lending my voice to those sharing posts related to this month’s topic: Nurturing

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During the month of April, I have attended several seminars and conferences for  caregivers. These events, often organized by community organizations or agencies which support caregivers, are important as they connect the community with available supports.

Most people have served as a caregiver at some time in their life. If you have not, just give it time and I’m sure you will be called upon to step into this vital role.

In the United States, the National Alliance for Caregiving is a non-profit coalition of national organizations which focuses on advocacy and research to advance family caregiving. Every five years, in partnership with AARP, they publish a study on family caregiving in the United States. The 2015 results will be released in June of this year. The most recent data available on their website are from the 2009 study. According to that survey, in the United States most caregivers are female (66 percent), and typically provide care for a relative. Fourteen percent (or 1 in 7) of caregivers provide care over and above regular parenting to a child with a disability. Seven out of ten caregivers provide care to someone over age 50. The average caregiver provides 20 hours of care each week. You can read the full report of the 2009 survey here.

In my personal and professional life I have learned caregivers need support managing their own health and stress, in addition to help caring for a loved one. No single person can be the sole provider for another. Nobody can “go it alone” for very long without caregiver burnout.

What is caregiver burnout? I heard it described Saturday by a representative from the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association as, “the physical, emotional and mental fatigue caused by doing or taking on more than you can handle in a caregiving situation.”

Caregiver burnout may cause caregivers to feel resentful towards the family member who needs care. Caregivers may demonstrate increased anxiety, depression, or irritability. They may withdraw from social activities or family events. They may face new illness or sickness caused by disruption of sleep or eating patterns. In some extreme cases, they may want to cause harm to themselves of the person for whom they are caring.

How do we avoid caregiver burnout? Listening to workshops this month and reading some online lists, I think the key to avoiding caregiver burnout is practicing self-compassion.

Self-compassion is not selfishness. It is not self-pity. It is not self-indulgence.

Self-compassion is treating ourselves with the same understanding and care we display to others who are suffering. It is offering kindness to ourselves rather than judgement or criticism. Self-compassion is looking at a difficult situation around us and saying, “this is tough – how can I care for myself now?”

Self-compassion is one form of nurturing ourselves. When we show ourselves compassion, we recognize our humanness and frailty. We understand we are only one person, and allow ourselves to be imperfect. We are patient with ourselves, and acknowledge we may forget or make mistakes from time to time.

I am not good at self-compassion. I am not so understanding and forgiving of myself. I am judgmental and critical. I expect more from myself and I am disappointed when I don’t live up to the expectations I have set for myself – even if those expectations are not what some would call realistic.

Yet, if a friend makes a mistake and doesn’t show up for dinner on Thursday because she thinks we were meant to get together on Friday, I forgive her. When one of my Personal Assistants accidentally scratches me while she is taking off my socks, I don’t hold it against her. When a colleague brings me the wrong item from the storage closet, I don’t get upset.

Of course, I am not perfect. I make mistakes and disappoint those who may rely on me. I know I am only human, but rarely do I accept my humanity and practice self-compassion or self-kindness.

My head is full of what I call the “ought to” and “should do” voices. These are the thoughts like the one which tells me I should go to calling hours for a friend’s son even though I have worked a 53 hour work week and my body is too weak to transfer in and out of my van one more time. Or the one which suggests I push off my monthly therapeutic massage for another week to attend a baby shower for a distant friend who hasn’t spoken to me in four months.

I don’t always listen to those voices. I skipped the baby shower and kept the massage appointment. But acting in a manner of self-compassion took effort. For me, if often does.

In her book Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfullness and Self-Compassion, Dr. Elisha Goldstein states, “Self-compassion doesn’t come naturally to us, and there’s an evolutionary reason for this: the brain is hard-wired to cling like Velcro to our negative voices and to act like Teflon when it comes to the positive ones.”

It’s helpful to know I am not alone in my efforts to be more self-compassionate, and there may be a reason. The caregivers I met at Saturday’s conference had similar stories. They shared feelings of guilt at taking time away from loved ones to engage in activities which nurtured their own soul. Many described times where they felt they had to be perfect in their attempts at care.

If our brains are indeed wired to cling to negative voices, maybe self-compassion starts with changing our self-talk or those voices we hear in our head. Instead of saying “ought to,” “should do” or “why didn’t you” we could try “if there is time,” “maybe” or “I really did my best.” We can begin to stop saying “yes” when we really mean “no.” That last one is a personal struggle.

I suspect we all want to offer our best selves to others, particularly those who depend on us. One way to do that is to recognize we are worthy of the same nurturing and compassion we give to those around us, and then to act in a manner of kindness towards ourselves as well as those we care for.

 

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4 thoughts on “The Importance of Self-Compassion

  1. “we all want to offer our best selves to others, particularly those who depend on us” – you’re absolutely right! And, that’s why self-compassion and self-nurturing are vital! Thanks for a very thoughtful post!

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  2. If I had a pound or even a dollar for every post in 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion that says, “I am not good at self-compassion” I’d be a rich woman! I’ve also read that we are programmed to cling to negative emotions – to prepare ourselves for encounters with wolves and tigers. But I think that we have learned a lot of this because of social conditioning – children are generally expected to comply with adults’ wishes, which does carry the subtle message that they are less important. Of course, depending on how we ask for compliance (or demand it) the child can still feel as if s/he matters. And then there’s modelling – if we as adults model deferring to others’ needs before our own, then by example that’s what we teach our children. It’s a tricky balance.
    I totally agree with you that observing self-talk is the key to becoming more self-compassionate, and that self-compassion is the key to avoiding burn-out. Not easy, but the more we practice it, the more it becomes possible at least some of the time!
    You might like Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff – a great book on the subject.
    Thanks for your valuable contribution to 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion.

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    • Yvonne, I noticed that trend too! And you bring up many important considerations. I have done a better job listening to my self-talk and changing it to be more compassionate. It has helped.

      I’m almost done with the book you recommended 🙂

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