Today caps off National Caregiver Month. All month long, senior centers nationwide have offered workshops, including one I attended November 5 at Northshore Senior Center in Bothell, Washington. “Self-Compassion for the Caregiver” explained self-compassion and offered tips to achieve it. In my view, it’s a great subject for us who care for our aging parents.
What is self-compassion? Workshop leaders Janet Zielasko and Jeannie DeSmet cited the work of Dr. Kristin Neff, author of “Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself and Leave Insecurity Behind.” According to her, self-compassion involves viewing ourselves kindly, offering the same level of support and understanding we would give a friend.
If you care for your aging parent–either full or part-time–you can’t do everything perfectly. You’re human, and you have too many things to do. But Neff’s research suggests that all of us, including caregivers of aging parents–can be healthier, if we accept our weaknesses and give ourselves a break. Preliminary data seems to indicate that people who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety. They’re happier and more optimistic.
So how do we do it? Zielasko and DeSmet gave three keys to self-compassion to workshop participants, who were mainly caregivers.
1. Cultivate self-kindness. Western culture stresses kindness to others, but not too ourselves. When you get angry with an aging parent, your first reaction might be, “I should be more patient. I shouldn’t get angry.” But then you get angry with yourself for getting angry. Self-compassion asks you to remind yourself that you are human and the situation is difficult. DeSmet suggests actually comforting yourself when you don’t measure up to your own standards, and giving yourself tolerance and forgiveness. “Make a peace offering to yourself of warmth and empathy.”
2. Recognize our common humanity. When we’re in a difficult situation, it helps to be around others who, too, may be struggling in some way. Support groups, either online or in person, are one way we can find strength to be kinder to ourselves. So can church groups, going out to coffee with friends, and jogging with a neighbor. One of the best benefits of being with people, in any setting, is laughing at the situations we find ourselves in. That’s a bonus all in itself.
3. Be mindful of your situation. Mindfulness is holding our experience in balance, neither exaggerating it or denying it, says DeSmet. “When we’re mindful there’s less need to escape a painful situation. Our motivation is to ‘care,’ not to ‘cure.'” Happiness stems from loving ourselves–and our lives–as they are, she adds. One way to aid in mindfulness is to practice deep breathing, which anchors our minds. As we do, we can stop, look and listen, observing our emotions and paying attention to them.
How are you doing with self-compassion? Would you like to talk about it and how it might help your relationship with your aging parent?