Think of all the generous, kind people you know who constantly give compassion and care to others, yet continually beat themselves up. Most of us are quite practiced at being supportive and giving to others, especially those of us who find ourselves in caregiver roles. Whether we have a special needs child, a parent with Alzheimer’s, an ill partner, or are in a caregiving profession such as being a nurse, therapist, or teacher, we know to give support, comfort and compassion to the people who need us. But how many of us offer that same level of compassion and care to ourselves?
For some reason our culture tells us that this is the way we should be – women especially. But when caregivers continually give out to others without being kind, caring and supportive toward themselves, they’ll eventually burn out. We need to have self-compassion in order to recharge our batteries and have the emotional energy needed to serve others. If we continually criticize ourselves, especially for the feeling that we’re never doing enough, we’ll become stressed and depressed, and eventually lash out in moments of frustration toward the people we care for.
For the past decade or so I’ve been conducting research on self-compassion, and have found that self-compassion is strongly related to mental health. Self-compassion is also associated with healthy behaviors. It has been shown to help people quit smoking, stay on their diets, exercise, and seek medical care when needed. Moreover, self-compassion has been shown to protect caregivers from burnout and compassion fatigue, and to increase satisfaction with one’s caregiving role.
But what is self-compassion exactly? Drawing on the writings of various Buddhist scholars, I have defined self-compassion as having 3 main components, self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself rather than being harshly critical or judgmental. Common humanity involves recognizing that all humans are imperfect, fail and make mistakes. Mindfulness involves being aware of one’s painful feelings in a clear and balanced manner so that one neither ignores nor obsesses about disliked aspects of oneself or one’s life. Self-compassion can be extended towards the self when suffering occurs through no fault of one’s own – when the external circumstances of life are simply too painful or difficult to bear, or else when our suffering stems from one’s own mistakes, failures or personal inadequacies.
Self-compassion is crucial for caregivers – not only because it helps us forgive ourselves for our inevitable mistakes – but also because it allows us to acknowledge and comfort ourselves for the difficulties of our caregiving role. As a mother of a child with autism, I can tell you what a lifesaver self-compassion was for me (you can learn about my journey with autism in the book and film The Horse Boy – www.horseboymovie.com). Because of the intense sensory issues experienced by autistic children, they are often prone to violent tantrums. When my son screamed and screamed because his nervous system was being overloaded and I couldn’t figure out the cause, I would soothe myself with kindness. When my son lost it in the grocery school and strangers gave me nasty looks because they thought I wasn’t disciplining my child properly, I’d give myself the compassion I wasn’t receiving from others. In short, self-compassion helped me cope, and that put me in the balanced emotional mind state needed to deal skillfully with whatever new challenges confronted me.
If you’re a caregiver, try giving yourself compassion the next time you make a mistake or feel challenged beyond your ability to cope. Not only will it help to get through difficult situations, it will lead to greater happiness and peace of mind.