When you look in the mirror, do you see the face of a friend or an enemy?
How you answer this question can say a lot about your capacity for self-compassion—the ability to treat yourself with kindness and caring.
Penny Donnenfeld, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in counseling caregivers and their families, says self-compassion is about being able to view yourself in the same way you would view a close friend—as a person deserving of love, support, and empathy.
"We're all very familiar with criticizing and comparing ourselves to others—often in an unflattering light," she says. "Self-compassion is about being able to nurture yourself."
Research has linked self-compassion with a bevy of psychological benefits, including: greater happiness, optimism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, as well as lower levels of anxiety, depression, and perfectionism.
Caring for yourself the way you care for others
When taking care of an elderly adult, you may find that it is difficult to treat yourself with the same kind of consideration that you automatically afford to an irritable loved one.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of "Making Change," a Psychology Today blog, points out that being able to care for others with love and gentleness isn't always an indicator that someone can apply that same logic to themselves. "People think of compassion as the way you'd approach someone else who is struggling. They simply don't think about taking that approach with themselves," she says.
If you're like most caregivers, you probably feel as though love is a luxury that you cannot afford to give yourself.
Your compassion must constantly be funneled outwards; to an elderly loved one, a spouse, children, etc. But everyone has their limits. When you fail to honor and accept your understandably limited ability to give, that's when you become most susceptible to exhaustion and burnout.
Healthy self-awareness is an essential component of self-compassion. Being truly compassionate means that you can acknowledge and attend to your needs for rest, relaxation, and health before you become overwhelmed.
Learning to love yourself
If you find it difficult to befriend that face in the mirror, developing a more compassionate view of yourself is likely to be a challenge, but it is possible.
Becker-Phelps suggests keeping a daily journal that chronicles the good things you do throughout the day. Putting the things you've done for an elderly loved one down on paper can help you become more aware of the positive impact you're having, and may make it easier for you to forgive yourself when you slip-up in the future.
You can also explore what self-compassion means to you by contemplating the following questions:
- What does love look like to you? Try to explore what loving yourself means to you. Would you set aside time to exercise, to relax? Would you take up that hobby that you gave up when you started taking care of your mother?
- Is it really selfish? Donnenfeld points out that people often mistake self-compassion with selfishness. But attending to your needs isn't egoistic—it's a smart move when you have people who rely on you for care. "It's about being proactive. If you don't take care of yourself, you won't be able to take care of anyone else," she says. Becker-Phelps suggests thinking about someone you admire for their ability to find balance and peace in their lives (they may or may not be a caregiver). What do they do that enables them to achieve this balance? Do you consider them to be selfish?
- What would you tell your best friend? If a close friend was in your situation and came to you for help what advice would you give them? You would probably tell them that feeling overwhelmed is a natural response to their circumstances and that they should try to relax and get some rest. Having limits is part of being human, but people often find it easier to see and accept the limits of those they love as opposed to their own.
- How would you speak to a child? Becker-Phelps says that this technique is particularly useful for people who have children. Imagine your kid comes to you, crying and overwhelmed, chances are you wouldn't tell them to, "Just suck it up and deal." Try applying the same gentleness to yourself and your situation that you would to your son or daughter.
Self-love isn't about self-pity and it won't increase your odds of becoming narcissistic. It won't make you neglect an aging parent and it doesn't mean that you love them any less—in fact it's quite the opposite.
Learning to recognize and respect all aspects of your humanity—limits included—can enhance your resilience to stress and make you a more compassionate caregiver to an elderly loved one.