Pictured left to right: Dr. Lesley Koven, Nicole Del Rosario
By: Nicole Del Rosario and Dr. Lesley Koven
Department of Clinical Health Psychology, Victoria Hospital
Caregiving for a relative is often accompanied by unique challenges such as changes in roles, uncertainty, isolation, and grief. With the complex mental, emotional, and physical demands that caregivers manage, it is no surprise that they often experience elevated rates of depression, higher perceived stress, and lower levels of well-being.
Common strategies for caregivers to bolster personal well-being include setting boundaries, setting aside personal time, and seeking social support. Most of us have heard airlines give instructions to place our oxygen masks before assisting others. We cannot pour from an empty cup.
Likewise, we can’t be effective caregivers if we aren’t also taking care of ourselves. Yet, even with reminders that caregivers have the right to pursue personal interests and set boundaries, it can be challenging to engage in self-care for many reasons.
One barrier to self-care is feeling unworthy of setting time aside for ourselves. We often know how to give support, comfort and compassion to the people who need us. But we have a hard time offering that same type of compassion and care to ourselves. Engaging in self-compassion can be a way to soothe our inner critic and navigate caring for ourselves as we provide care for others.
What is self-compassion?
Research has supported the benefits of self-compassion, such as increased gratitude, better relationships with others, increased resiliency, and reduced stress.
Essentially, self-compassion involves recognizing our shared humanity (accepting mistakes and suffering as a shared human experience), self-kindness (being supportive and understanding of ourselves when we’re having a hard time rather than being harsh and self-critical), and mindfulness (noticing and acknowledging difficult thoughts and emotions without judgment).
Often, caregivers struggle with unpleasant feelings arising from caregiving. These emotions can surface early on or after years of caring. It is difficult to anticipate the responsibilities and sacrifices one makes when caregiving, and there is no timeline for feeling stressed or overwhelmed. These unpleasant emotions can lead to our inner critic piping up criticisms such as “I shouldn’t get so frustrated” or “I should make more time for myself.” These self-criticisms can lead to feelings of anger, guilt, and shame that perpetuate the cycle of struggle.
By developing self-compassion, we can notice when a struggle is arising, recognize that this is part of being human, and be kind to ourselves in this process.
Ways to start a self-compassion practice:
A good way to begin practicing self-compassion is to try to incorporate this new skill into our daily routine. As with learning any new skill, it takes time and practice.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher in self-compassion, has shared the following reflection that can be repeated to oneself as embodying self-compassion;
“This is a moment of suffering, suffering is a part of life. Let me be kind to myself in this moment. Let me give myself the compassion I need.”
Most of us have experience providing care for others through work as a healthcare professional or family member. The benefits of practicing self-compassion are applicable across all these experiences. Guided practices, exercises, and tips for getting started can be found at www.self-compassion.org