Be kind to yourself: Why practicing self-compassion may be parents’ biggest tool for self-care
Kelly Lavin, PhD and Jacqueline V. Cohen, LPC
Have you ever heard of self-compassion? Maybe you have and wondered what it meant. Or maybe you haven’t and are now thinking it sounds silly, or like something that doesn’t apply to you. But what if I told you that the practice of self-compassion is an evidence-based practice that creates resilience through challenging human experiences – like being a parent?
As if parenting wasn’t already challenging, COVID-19 has made existing parenting struggles even more challenging as well as brought additional stressors to families. Research has shown the positive effects of self-compassion, specifically during the pandemic.
But what is self-compassion and how do we become self-compassionate?
What is self-compassion?
Dr. Kristin Neff is a leading researcher studying the benefits of self-compassion. Dr. Neff explains self-compassion is being kind to oneself during times of suffering, just as one would be kind to a good friend or loved one when they are struggling. Dr. Neff goes on further to identify three components of self-compassion.
There can be times you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, or have days you hate being a parent. These are normal, universal, parental emotional experiences. But how often do you judge and criticize yourself for how you feel, isolate yourself in your emotional experience, or define who you are by what you feel? And how does that impact your emotional well being?
What self-compassion is not:
Just as important as it is to understand what self-compassion is, it is important to understand what it is not.
- Self-compassion is not trying to push away our negative emotions nor is it becoming stuck in our negative emotions or in a cycle of shame, leaving you feeling depressed and anxious.
- It isn’t letting yourself off of the hook or giving yourself permission to make undesirable choices. Self-compassion actually allows you to take accountability for your actions.
- It also isn’t about self-esteem. Self-esteem is based on viewing yourself through the lens of how you think others perceive you.
Self-Compassion is Evidence-Based:
Numerous studies have found benefits of self-compassion for parents, and more specifically for expectant and postpartum parents. Recent research also reveals the positive effects self-compassion may have on parents’ well-being and the parent-child relationship during the COVID-19 pandemic.
More specifically, practicing self-compassion may be a protective factor for parents struggling with or at risk of perinatal mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Mothers with higher levels of self-compassion have also been found to better attune with their infants, utilize more adaptive parenting styles, report improvements with breastfeeding difficulties, and experience less parenting stress, as well as feelings of shame and guilt. More research is needed to understand benefits of parental self-compassion on child outcomes but ts positive effects on factors strongly related to child mental health outcomes suggest that practicing self-compassion supports families beyond parents.
How do I become more self-compassionate?
Self-compassion is an intentional practice. Think of it like you are building a new muscle. The more you do it, the stronger it gets. As you practice, will become easier for you over time to naturally respond to yourself from the lens of self-kindness instead of self-criticism and judgement. With time and practice noticing our self-talk and correcting it to be kinder and more understanding, as if we were talking to a good friend), will get easier and easier. Like most things in life, learning is not always linear. Sometimes we move forward and then go back. That is okay. The important part is to remember to recommit by being kind to ourselves as we work on being kind to ourselves.
How about taking what Kristen Neff calls a “self compassion break” right now?
- Ask yourself, “what am I feeling in this present moment?” Be mindful not to judge or criticize yourself for the feeling, deny or exaggerate the feeling, or over-identify with the feeling. Just name the feeling as it is.
- Now, remind yourself that you are never alone in your experience. You don’t have to know anyone who is feeling what you are feeling. But do know that all human beings feel pain or moments of inadequacy at times in their lives. So allow your human experience at this moment.
- Now, wrap your arms around yourself like you are giving yourself a hug, or just place one hand over your heart and one hand on your abdomen, and acknowledge to yourself how hard the feeling is. If this is hard or uncomfortable, then maybe imagine you are talking to a friend, and acknowledge with compassion that what they are feeling is hard, and remind them that they will be ok, and this too shall pass.
- Now ask yourself, what do I need right now in this present moment? Can I give it to myself, or do I need to ask for help from someone else?
Dr. Neff’s research shows that when you go through these steps of acknowledging your human emotional experience with kindness, your body automatically releases oxytocin, a hormone linked to connection,bonding, and positive emotional wellbeing.
- Being a parent means you are busy. You are probably wondering when you are going to have time to include this practice in your daily life.
- The good news is, you can do it anytime or anywhere. You can be driving, getting dressed, feeding your baby, or doing the dishes. You don’t have to find time and a quiet space. It may be good if you can, but you don’t have to.
- Be gentle and patient with yourself as you start to integrate the practice. It isn’t easy for everyone at first. There may be certain core components you struggle with or self protective thinking that make being kind to yourself hard.
- Start out with a mildly uncomfortable emotion. If you wait until a really raw emotion washes over you, you might become too overwhelmed, and it probably won’t work.
- The perinatal period and parenting children ages 5 and under are challenging and stressful. Self-care is important for your mental and physical wellbeing so you can be the kind of parent that you want to be. Self-compassion is an important piece of self-care and can actually make it easier.