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Tag: Self-Compassion

How to Give to Others without Burning Out

In our stressed-out world, many healthcare providers, social workers, and caregivers are suffering from slow, yet painful burnout.

The rest of us, working long hours and raising families, seem to be approaching burnout, too. Sometimes we may feel that we’re too exhausted to keep giving to others, even though giving is a primary source of happiness in our lives.

So how can we keep giving without burning out? We’re told that self-care is the answer: Give yourself a treat; you deserve it. Take some time for yourself. Say no.

Indeed, a research review found that psychologists in training who practice more self-care report feeling less distressed and stressed and more satisfied with life. The question is: What does self-care look like, and how much of it do we need?

As it turns out, the trick is to be focused on and kind to others, but to balance that with taking care of yourself as well. Here are some practices to help you do that.

1. Self-compassion

One particularly potent form of self-care involves transforming our relationship with ourselves, in particular, practicing self-compassion.

Self-compassion is treating yourself as you would a friend – with kindness rather than self-judgment – especially when you fail. Self-compassion is remembering that we all make mistakes, instead of beating ourselves up. And it means being mindful of emotions and thoughts without getting overly immersed in them. Though self-compassion doesn’t mean you get to be indulgent or let yourself off the hook, it also doesn’t mean being too self-critical and harsh.

Elaine Beaumont at the University of Salford has conducted numerous studies looking at the impact of self-compassion on burnout and compassion fatigue. In a study of 100 student midwives – who routinely witness both the miracle of new life and the tragedies that can accompany childbirth – Beaumont and her team found that midwives who had higher levels of self-compassion also showed less burnout and compassion fatigue symptoms. The opposite was true of midwives who were highly self-critical. She repeated this study with different caretaker professions and found similar results in nurses and students training to be counselors and psychotherapists.

In addition to being protected against burnout, people who are more self-compassionate tend to report feeling less stress and negative emotions. They’re also more optimistic and feel more happiness and other positive emotions, among other benefits.

To practice self-compassion, try some of the exercises that pioneering self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff has studied and written about in her book on self-compassion, such as writing a Self-Compassionate Letter, taking a Self-Compassion Break, or asking yourself: How Would I Treat a Friend?

2. Social connection

Caring for ourselves also means seeking social connections to provide practical and emotional support when we’re struggling. A study of nurses found that belonging to a more cohesive group at work helps prevent burnout and compassion fatigue, reducing the effects of stress and trauma.

This should come as no surprise: Social connection, from birth to old age, is one of our greatest human needs. Social connection leads to lower rates of anxiety and depression, strengthens our immune system, and can even lengthen our life.

Researchers agree that social connection has less to do with the number of friends you have than with how connected you feel to the ones you have. In other words, you don’t have to be a social butterfly to reap the benefits; just aim to cultivate an internal sense of belonging with those around you.

How? The tricky part is that stress is linked to self-focus; our stressed minds turn towards me, myself, and I – making us even more miserable and disconnected from others. Meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, and walks in nature, as well as curbing caffeine, can all help us calm down and feel ready to reach out to others. A study we conducted at Stanford showed that loving-kindness meditation can be a quick way to nurture a sense of connection. Better yet, try meditating with a partner!

3. Empathy and compassion

It might seem counterintuitive that empathy – which includes attending to others’ struggles – would help us with our own, particularly for caregivers. But research in social workers shows that having more empathy can also prevent burnout. Brain-imaging research by Tania Singer suggests that compassion training can actually make you better at coping with other people’s suffering – helping you help others without paying the cost yourself.

One potential explanation for this finding is that, by developing feelings like compassion and empathy, we are protected from feeling distressed or overwhelmed in the face of suffering. When you truly connect with another person who is suffering, you can actually feel empowered and energized because you are inspired to uplift that person.

We’ve all had the experience of having a friend ask for help during a time of emergency. In these moments, we are usually capable of so much more than we imagined – we seem to find hidden reserves of energy. Afterward, we end up feeling much better than we did before.

Again, loving-kindness meditation is one way to start to cultivate empathy. When you speak with someone who is suffering, practicing active listening can help you provide comfort and support to them without having to solve their problems.

The benefits of giving

If we can figure out how to continue giving to others without suffering from burnout, we can expect to reap many benefits.

For example, volunteering can have a positive impact on health, with benefits for obesity, blood glucose, blood pressure, and longevity. Older volunteers can derive a great feeling of purpose and self-esteem from volunteering; research shows that it makes them feel happier, more connected to others, and more confident of their self-worth. The benefits of volunteering for well-being seem to be universal, holding across cultures as well as generations.

Other studies have found that we’re happier when we spend money on others, and that we experience more positive emotions when we engage in acts of kindness for others, rather than ourselves.

If you are shy or introverted or even have social anxiety, giving to others can actually still increase your happiness. Although giving tends to feel better when we connect with beneficiaries, for the truly shy or those who don’t have time, even kind acts conducted over the computer can increase well-being.

Self-compassion, social connection, and empathy are powerful forms of self-care – but that doesn’t mean that traditional self-care activities have no place in our lives. Keeping your spirits up with exercise, sleeping in, and making room for fun activities like movies or shopping are important. These pleasures give us short bursts of happiness that can help fuel us and keep us playful in life.

To complement these more physical pleasures, giving and connecting with others in positive ways will bring us long-lasting feelings of joy that come from a life of purpose and meaning. The balance between the two is a ripe recipe for a happy, long, and fulfilling life.

How to Awaken Self-Compassion

While it may sound easy, practicing compassion for ourselves is quite the difficult task. Creating a practice to integrate self-compassionate feelings into your life will heal your mind and body, and open your heart to new heights.

Try this 10-step practice.

Self-compassion involves becoming aware of the presence of suffering in our bodies, emotions, thoughts, and actions – and then taking steps to diminish the suffering. Compassion is the natural and spontaneous feeling that arises when we witness suffering, and that triggers our taking action to alleviate the suffering. While it may sound easy, practicing compassion for ourselves is the more difficult of the two. Creating a practice to integrate self-compassionate feelings into your life can heal your mind and body, and open your heart to new heights.

Benefits of Self-Compassion

Research indicates that cultivating self-compassion can contribute to beneficial physical, emotional-mental, and interpersonal changes, such as:

  • Modulates hormonal functioning, especially of oxytocin and cortisol
  • Reduces the intensity and frequency of negative and chronic stress reactions
  • Copes with difficult emotional experiences
  • Moderates depression and anxiety
  • Increases emotional well being
  • Mitigates negative thinking, including rumination
  • Improves interpersonal relationships
  • Enhances patience, generosity, gratitude, acceptance, humility, openness, and gentleness

10 Steps to Self-Compassion

Set aside 15 minutes the first time you do this practice. Read through the sequence to get a feel for the flow of the practice before you begin. You will develop your own pace and rhythm as your practice grows, extending or decreasing the amount of time you need to get the most out of it.

Lie down or take a comfortable seat that feels both relaxed and alert.

Practice mindful breath: Become aware of your breath; breathe naturally while noticing in-breathing and out-breathing. Anchor your attention to a specific body-part, for examples you can focus at the tip of the nostrils or lips, sensing air entering and exiting the body, or you can focus on your belly as it rises while breathing in, and falls while breathing out.

Place one or both hands over the region of the heart, and bring a mental picture or memory of a loved one into awareness, someone with whom you have experienced a feeling of unconditional acceptance. This may be a human being or an animal, any being whose presence elicits natural happiness.

Recognize that your loved one, like all beings, experiences the vulnerabilities and the aspirations that life brings. He or she is subject to the sufferings of pain, accidents, disease, undo fear, or sadness, and eventual dying and death.

Bring the presence of this person into your heart-space while silently repeating the following:

  • May you be safe
  • May you be well
  • May you be happy
  • May you live with ease

As you notice that your attention has wandered elsewhere, gently encourage your attention back to the presence of the loved one at your heart center, and resume the practice of repeating each of the four phrases.

Add yourself to the goodwill you are generating from the space of your heart, repeating the following phrases:

  • May you and I be safe
  • May you and I be well
  • May you and I be happy
  • May you and I live with ease

Repeat these or other phrases that feel natural to you, while cultivating an attitude of openness, acceptance, and loving-kindness.

Picture the entirety of your mind-body. Gently and slowly begin to scan your body by moving your attention:

  • From the crown of the head down the neck, shoulders, both arms, hands and fingers
  • Along the front and back of the upper torso, and then the pelvic region
  • Up the body from the toes all the way to the crown of the head
  • Toward any areas of pleasantness and unpleasantness

Offer compassionate loving kindness to yourself by repeating the following phrases:

  • May I be safe
  • May I be well
  • May I be happy
  • May I live with ease

If it feels safe, then revisit areas of unpleasantness while holding a part of the mind-body in the heart space.

Consider naming the mind-body part within the phrases, for example:

  • “May the knee that I am trying to take care of be well …”
  • “May the fear that I have tried to push away be at ease …”
  • “May I be at ease with the negative thoughts that I have fought for so many years …”

Conclude your practice by bringing awareness back to the entire mind-body, and sensing the entirety of your being as a singular organism intimately connected with all other life forms. As you breathe, feel your connection with all of life. Lie or sit for some time in silence.

Shorter Options for a Self-Compassion Practice

At any time in your day, you can practice self-compassion, even if you only have 15 or 30 seconds. Whether you’re at work and feeling stressed, at home with your family, or anywhere you feel you need a little extra self-love, take a moment to activate self-compassion by bringing loving kindness to your awareness.

7-Day Self-Compassion Challenge

Form an intention to practice for seven consecutive days to see how the powerful the benefits can be. If possible, practice at the same time each day. After one week of practice, ask yourself:

  • What was your experience?
  • Has practicing self-compassion catalyzed more personal awareness? If yes, of what?
  • Has practicing triggered answers on what to do to alleviate your suffering?
  • Have you taken actions you had not taken before doing this practice?
  • Evaluate whether you want to commit to practicing for another week, and then another…

Formally practicing each day generates, solidifies, and strengthens deeply positive experiences in your life that literally etch into the brain. Being compassionate with yourself generates acceptance of your humanness and the humanness of others, an essential quality for a fuller awakening. Your focus shifts from the time-bound personal narrative of the small ego-self to present-moment compassionate awareness. When you awaken self-compassion, you can strengthen your familiarity with your essential nature and reconnect with the vast fullness of the All/the One/the Ground of Being.

After a steady practice, you will find yourself more often spontaneously feeling self-compassion, even when you’re not practicing.

I offer you two day forgiveness course in Cape Town, Johannesburg, New York, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Melbourne, Los Angeles, Chicago, Ontario, ‎Dublin and Auckland.