How practicing self-compassion improves caregiver health
This blog is about a topic that fascinates me – self-compassion. It’s a topic that very much touches on an important tool for family caregivers, and I want to share some things I’ve learned.
Self-compassion is a concept in healthy living. Learning it and practicing it can be every bit as beneficial to our well-being as exercise and good nutrition.
It’s also a way to think about how we relate to others, how we establish strong connections, and how we can learn to feel less anxious about the chaotic times we live in.
These are ideas that can benefit anyone, but especially family caregivers, whose responsibilities are infused with compassion for their loved ones.
A while ago I listened to one of my favorite podcasts, Hidden Brain, when the topic was being kind to yourself. I heard psychologist Kristin Neff talk about her research on self-compassion as a tool for self-improvement. What she said inspired me to read her first book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (Kristin Neff, Ph.D., 2011).
I’m not usually excited about self-help books, but I quickly devoured this one and highly recommend it.
The book offers stories, personal examples, and practical exercises for dealing with the self-criticism that can be so damaging to our well-being. In its pages I found gems of research-based advice that felt authentic – ideas on how to find immediate respite from our daily challenges. And assurances that over time, with practice, the effects can be healing.
You can find the book through both the King County and Seattle Public Library systems.
If you’re a family caregiver, you’ve received lots of reminders to take care of yourself. Sometimes that feels impossible – there’s no time, there are too many distractions, and if only there were more willing hands to help.
Practicing self-compassion might be the tool that makes a difference – it’s readily available at no cost, easy to find time for, and benefits everyone in your caregiving family.
Caregivers have compassion for others — why are they hard on themselves?
Caring for others is something that comes naturally. We humans evolved as caregivers for our children, which has helped to ensure the survival of our species.
The very nature of caregiving involves compassion, an emotional effort basic to delivering help when someone is suffering. Whether you offer support with kindness and empathy or do it because you have no choice, all family caregivers demonstrate some amount of compassion for their loved ones.
How ironic, then, that so many caregivers understand and practice compassion for others but neglect their own needs in the process. Their focus turns toward those they care for and away from themselves.
When self-care becomes a luxury instead of a necessity, caregivers often put it at the bottom of their to-do list. Compassion is for others, not themselves. Why is this so? If you’re a caregiver, do any of these resonate for you?
You become self-critical. This involves feeling like you’re not doing enough for your loved one. If you’ve pushed your regular family obligations aside to care for them, you probably feel as if you’re failing those as well. You have a hard time forgiving yourself for unavoidable mistakes. You might have a strong inner critic. In caregiving situations, this can compromise not only the care you’re providing but also your personal well-being.
You start to isolate yourself. You may feel as if you’re alone with the caregiving challenges you face. Rather than understanding that some suffering is part of everyone’s human experience, you focus on your own pain and lose important connections with others. Read our recent SeaCare blog on caregiver loneliness and self-isolation.
You experience compassion fatigue. A phrase coined nearly 30 years ago to describe how nurses seemed to lose their ability to nurture, compassion fatigue happens to caregivers. It occurs as a result of continually dealing with another’s pain and emotional trauma. It’s a decline in your ability to empathize and provide loving care. Symptoms include physical exhaustion, feeling detached, and self-blame.
How self-compassion can benefit both caregiver and care recipient
I like to think of practicing self-compassion as a gateway to self-care – that activity that always seems just out of reach for family caregivers.
It’s like a battery recharge that leaves you renewed and better able to tend to your loved one’s needs without fear of draining your own reserves.
Self-compassion goes hand-in-hand with mental health and healthy behaviors. According to psychologist Kristin Neff, it helps caregivers avoid burnout and also makes the caregiving role more satisfying.
Neff defines the concept as having three elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. These elements are important in tackling the challenges for caregivers that can spiral out of control and result in poor self-care.
Self-kindness is the antidote to your inner critic. It allows you to demonstrate the same understanding to yourself as you would extend to a friend. When there’s pain or failure, self-kindness helps you comfort yourself rather than ignoring or criticizing what’s happening. When you stop being self-critical, you’re better able to accept your worth as a human being. You understand the value you bring to your caregiving relationship. Self-kindness does wonders for reducing your stress and anxiety.
Common humanity stresses that our lives are interconnected with others. It requires you to recognize that everyone makes mistakes, suffers failures, and has moments of insecurity. It may feel as if others are more successful and carefree, but the fact is that weakness and disappointment are part of the human condition. We’re all in it together, and feeling your connection to the whole human race helps to reduce the anxiety of feeling alone.
Mindfulness allows you to see things as they are. As you practice self-compassion, you need to be aware of any pain, guilt, or loneliness you have. It might seem counterproductive to put yourself in the midst of your weakness, even for just a little while, but by acknowledging it you’re then able to comfort yourself. One key to mindfulness is accepting what’s happening without judgment. This takes practice but is the perfect prelude to self-compassion. Acting mindfully helps to put you in a calmer state of mind, lower your pulse, and take the edge off of anger and frustration.
Simple ways to practice self-compassion
Family caregivers don’t have much time to spare. Being constantly busy tending to loved ones fills each day to overflowing. For this reason, learning self-compassion is ideal for caregivers because it can be practiced anywhere, any time, in short bursts or longer sessions.
The daily rigors of caregiving provide lots of opportunities to put self-compassion to work. While anyone can benefit from the practice, it seems especially well-suited for caregivers, who find themselves in a role that has probably caused an upheaval in their normal routine.
If you are comfortable with your caregiving and appreciative of the time you spend doing it, you might find self-compassion exercises to be interesting and enriching. If caregiving has you at wit’s end, practicing self-compassion is a way to begin restoring balance and well-being to your life.
Kristin Neff has assembled a comprehensive workbook with stories, techniques, exercises, and guided meditations that provide a detailed plan for developing self-compassion – The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive. It’s a worthwhile $15 purchase.
You can also get much of the same material HERE, without spending a cent. You’ll find quick exercises called Self-Compassion Break, How Would You Treat a Friend, Supportive Touch, and Taking Care of the Caregiver, among others. These will provide an overview of the concepts Dr. Neff has developed, and encourage you to learn more.
At SeaCare we promote caregiver self-care. We understand the challenges our families face as they strive to maintain quality of life for all involved. Contact us to learn more – we can help.
Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.
If you or a loved one you know are looking for additional support during this time and are interested in scheduling a free in-home assessment, please contact SeaCare In-Home Care Services today! A SeaCare family member is standing by. 425-559-4339.