It becomes understood that happiness is not dependent on circumstances being exactly as we want them to be, or on ourselves being exactly as we’d like to be. Rather, happiness stems from loving ourselves and our lives exactly as they are, knowing that joy and pain, strength and weakness, glory and failure are all essential to the full human experience.
― Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind
Family caregivers lead lives that often include a multitude of demanding roles. Juggling work, raising families and other responsibilities all while caregiving for someone else can lead to increased stress, anxiety and feelings of unhappiness and at times, an overwhelming sense of not being able to “cope” or “deal with things”.
All to often, I hear from clients or friends, “I need to be a better caregiver”. “I shouldn’t be so quick to anger with my spouse”. “I should make more time for myself.” “I need to take better care of myself.”
And with that our “should” and “need” attitude creates judgement towards ourselves leading to self-criticism. It creates more pain, pressure and discontentment. It rarely motivates us or inspires us to take positive action.
Bear with me here and take a step back in time. When you were a child and faced with stress, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, grief what did you do? Most of us, turned on our heels and ran to our Moms, Dads, grandparents or siblings for comfort and to soothe our pain.
And it worked. That’s because when pain is soothed, our bodies release oxytocin, which is directly related to “increase(d) feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness, and facilitates the ability to feel warmth and compassion for ourselves.” (Neff, K., The Physiology of Self-Compassion. Retrieved from http://self-compassion.org/the-physiology-of-self-compassion)
So why as adults, do we abandon the notion of finding comfort, hope and kindness in the face of demanding and stressful life and caregiving situations, grief and fatigue?
Well for one, we live in a culture that supports the concept of being kind and compassionate to others who are facing life’s struggles but not to ourselves. Rather, self-kindness seems to be less accepted in society. So in one breathe, we will be gentle, kind and understanding when a friend is struggling and in the next breathe, when we are facing our demons, the inner critic and despairing judge shoves and pushes their way into centre court.
Yeesh, what a bully eh?
Secondly, we seem to think if we punish ourselves, physically or emotionally, when we make a mistake or we feel we don’t meet the expectations we’ve set (which are possibly unattainable), this will somehow motivate us to “do better next time or get it right next time.” As Dr. Neff supports – our intellect takes over and our emotional response often goes underground.
When was the last time punishing yourself and talking yourself into a black hole led to a positive result?
Thirdly, we think if we “go easy” on ourselves, we’ll automatically wind up in a pool of self-pity spending our days on the couch eating bon bons or being incredibly self-indulgent by taking a day off work or from being a caregiver. Or worse, what happens if inertia takes over our life?
So, what does being self-compassionate really mean? Dr. Neff’s research shows 3 key elements: self-kindness, recognition of a larger human experience and mindfulness.
Being kind to ourselves in the same way we’d treat ourselves with the same understanding and care in which treat our best friend or even a total stranger in need is an important place to start. How can we be kind to ourselves if we don’t stop and acknowledge our suffering or pain? It’s giving ourselves, as caregivers and quite frankly, human beings, permission to meet our own needs rather than self-judging our perceived inability to cope.
Dr. Neff encourages caregivers to see their role as a larger human experience and to know they aren’t alone. It’s about saying to ourselves, “I’m human. I’m fallible and going to make mistakes like everyone else”.
She also encourages caregivers to be mindful of feelings, especially the painful and negatives ones. It’s about acknowledging that life is imperfect and to hold space and comfort for ourselves in the face of difficult times. It’s a fine balance. Research also shows the importance of not staying too long with negative thoughts.
It turns out that when we are kind to ourselves or showing self-compassion, it leads to increased feelings of happiness, optimism, gratitude, and life satisfaction. It’s even linked to better coping and resiliency in the face of demanding life situations, such as caring for someone else.
For caregivers, self-compassion is shown to lead to more satisfaction caring for someone and decreases the chances of burnout. It helps deal with the grief or challenges by simply looking at ourselves in the mirror and saying, “This is hard right now. It’s only natural that I’m feeling sad or stressed.”
Where do we start when we are so hardwired to be hard on ourselves?
Like any behaviour change model, it’s important to acknowledge: it takes practise and depends on our readiness and willingness for change. For some of us it will be small steps that require less time such as simply acknowledging our self-criticism when it happens, a few hours later or even the next day. For others, it will be a leap with a high readiness and commitment to change and may include reading Dr. Neff’s fabulous book and completing all of the exercises she recommends.
My next blog will give caregivers some key strategies for being more self-compassionate.
If you are a family caregiver and feel you could benefit from talking to professional about your situation, reach out to us. We can help you care for someone without losing yourself in the process.
For more information on Dr. Kristin Neff’s research, click here or listen to her podcast – Listen to Kristin Neff — The Real Meaning of Self-Compassion from Emerging Women: Grace and Fire in Podcasts.
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