The One Thing Caregivers Need to Know: How to Care for Themselves

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The phrase Nobody's Perfect typed on a piece of lined paper pinned to a cork notice board
The phrase Nobody's Perfect typed on a piece of lined paper pinned to a cork notice board

Think of all the generous, kind people you know who constantly give compassion and care to others, yet continually beat themselves up. "You're so stupid," they tell themselves. " I can't believe you screwed up like that!"

Would you talk this way to a friend -- or even to a stranger, for that matter? Of course not (or at least, I hope not!). Most of us are quite practiced at being kind toward the important people in our lives. We let them know it's okay to be human when they fail. We reassure them of our respect and support when they're feeling bad about themselves. We comfort them when they're going through hard times. But how many of us offer that same level of compassion to ourselves?

For some reason, our culture tells us that this is the way we should be. But when caregivers continually give out to others without being kind, caring and supportive toward themselves, they'll eventually burn out. Whether it's a professional caregiver dealing with challenging clients or work frustrations, or a parent with a special needs child, they need to have self-compassion in order to be their best.

For over the past decade I've been conducting research on self-compassion, and have found that self-compassion is strongly related to mental health (see for more information). Self-compassionate people are less depressed, anxious, stressed, and perfectionistic. They are also happier, more resilient, socially connected, optimistic, and satisfied with their lives than those who are not self-compassionate. Self-compassion is also associated with healthy behaviors. It has been shown to help people quit smoking, stay with 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.

It makes sense. When our inner voice continually criticizes and berates us we end up feeling worthless, incompetent and insecure -- and we often end up in negative cycles of self sabotage and self harm. However, when our inner voice plays the role of a supportive and compassionate friend even in times of challenge or failure, we feel safe, accepted, and able to do our best.

But what is self-compassion, exactly? I define self-compassion as having three 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. Instead of taking a cold 'stiff-upper-lip' approach in times of suffering, self-kindness offers us comfort. Common humanity involves recognizing that all humans are imperfect, fail, and make mistakes. It connects one's own flawed condition to the shared human condition so that one can take greater perspective towards one's personal shortcomings and difficulties. 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.

A big bigger barrier to self-compassion is the belief that it will lead to self-indulgence and passivity, but research shows it does just the opposite. Because self-compassion involves the desire to alleviate suffering, it actually encourages growth and motivation. Just as a compassionate mother doesn't let her son skip school and eat ice cream all day, but instead requires that he does his homework, eat his spinach, and so on, self-compassion encourages us to do what is needed to help us be healthy and happy.

Self-criticism, on the other hand, is a lousy motivator. It makes us depressed and lose faith in ourselves. It also inhibits our ability to acknowledge necessary areas of change because we're afraid of the self-judgment that will follow.

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 challenges 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). 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 store 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 arose.

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.

True healing requires more than just medicine and treatment, which is why we've teamed up with Dignity Health to discuss how compassion and a human touch can benefit our health and our lives in myriad ways.

Do you have a personal story about compassion or big acts of kindness that you'd like to contribute? Let us know at or by tweeting with #PowerofHumanity.