Six Ways Family Caregivers Can Practice Self-Compassion

Worried woman at her desk

Annie couldn't stop thinking about it: She made a mistake on a document at work yesterday. Then when she got home, her father, who has Alzheimer's disease, accused her of hiding his glasses. "I don't know where they are — I told you a hundred times!” snapped Annie. Later the recriminations seemed to run on a loop though her head. "I'm a bad employee and a terrible caregiver," she kept thinking.

Most of us know that when it comes to caring for others, it's important to have compassion. Studies show that patients who believe their doctor or other healthcare provider truly cares about them tend to have a better outcome — and the same goes for people who receive care from family members.

But do caregivers treat themselves with compassion? That's a different story. We often judge ourselves harshly if we don't live up to our own expectations. Experts remind us to practice self-compassion, which means, in a nutshell, extending to ourselves the same kindness and understanding that we would to others.

This is challenging for many of us, but we can learn. Instead of beating ourselves up for perceived shortcomings, we can recognize that we are doing the best we can. Rather than suppressing feelings of regret, we can open ourselves to them and understand that this is part of being human.

Practicing self-compassion is good for our health.

Researchers from the University of Oxford in the U.K. recently conducted an experiment to observe and measure the physical effects of self-compassion. They noted that test subjects who were instructed to be kind to themselves "not only reported feeling more self-compassion and connection with others, but also showed a bodily response consistent with feelings of relaxation and safety. Their heart rates dropped, as did the variation in length of time between heartbeats — a healthy sign of a heart that can respond flexibly to situations."

Said study author Dr. Hans Kirschner, "These findings suggest that being kind to oneself switches off the threat response and puts the body in a state of safety and relaxation that is important for regeneration and healing."

Family caregivers may find it extra challenging to practice self-compassion techniques. Caregiving can be stressful and it's hard to find a minute to focus on yourself! But studies show that doctors and nurses who practice self-compassion do a better job of caring for patients — and the same goes for family caregivers.

Here are six tips that can help:

1. Be wary of that critical voice in your head. Maybe you find yourself thinking, "Oh no, I forgot to call Dad last night. How could I be such an airhead?" Replace that script with, "I was so busy with all the duties I have that I forgot to call Dad. When people are really busy, they make mistakes like that. I'll call him tonight." If negative self-talk seems to be your default mode, talk to a counselor. You can unlearn that bad habit.

2. Picture yourself as part of the human community. It is a trait of our species to care deeply about the well-being of people we love. So if we think we've let a loved one down, the feelings of distress can grow out of proportion. Rather than judging yourself for not doing enough, or for not living up to your self-imposed standards, think of it like this: "I love my mom and want her to be happy, so when I couldn't visit last week, it made me feel bad. Like any other human, I can't always meet my loved ones' needs perfectly."

3. Be aware of your emotions and don't try to suppress them. We can get into a cycle of feeling bad about something … then feeling bad about feeling bad … then trying to tuck our feelings away, only to find them continuing to intrude upon our thoughts. If you're feeling bad about something, sit still and try to experience your feelings fully without judgement. This is a form of meditation that can provide peace and perspective.

Woman hugs herself

4. Treat yourself as you would a dear friend. Experts point out that we are much more likely to extend compassion to friends than to ourselves! What would Annie at the beginning of this article tell a friend who was in the same situation? Probably something like, "Wow, it must be hard to be patient with your dad all the time, and you do so much for him. I don't blame you for losing your cool sometimes!" Then she'd probably give her friend a big hug. Why not give yourself a hug? Experts say it's an effective way to soothe and comfort yourself.

5. Put aside visions you might have of "the perfect caregiver." That person doesn’t exist! Unless you genuinely believe there are problems in the way you are handling your loved one's care, know that you are doing the best you can. If you were to make a list of all your duties, it would no doubt be a lot longer than you think.

6. Take time for yourself. "Caregiver burnout" is a real thing. If you're trying to do it all, stress will make it hard to be kind to yourself. If you catch yourself feeling guilty when you ask for help, repeat as often as necessary: "Taking care of me enables me to take better care of my loved one." There’s an oft-quoted analogy in caregiving: "Put on your own oxygen mask first." Ask family members to help. Consider hiring professional in-home care. And look into an online or in-person support group, where you can receive — and give — supportive feedback in a safe environment.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.