Do you know one of those women who is so kind and lovely, that with every encounter you vow to be more that way yourself? That’s the case with my friend and colleague, Erica Bennett.
Erica graciously made some time in her schedule recently to share her thoughts on the topic of some her doctoral and post-doctoral research, self-compassion in older adults. Self-compassion can be defined as, “…being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”
So, what does self-compassion look like exactly? Self-compassion has three components:
Erica was first introduced to the topic of self compassion while working with athletes in a mental skills-training role; self-compassion was a relatively new tool to help athletes cope with challenges. At the same time, Erica started working on a project exploring the experiences of older adults (those 65+) living with multiple chronic conditions. From the project results, she co-authored a manuscript about the emotions that surround living with chronic issues, having reduced body function, and dealing with changes in appearance as a result of aging. Combining the experiences in both projects, Erica became interested about why some participants coped more adaptively than others.
Erica decided to investigate whether self-compassion might play a role in positive adaptation to age-related changes. After investigating the related research, Erica found that older adults who were more self compassionate tended to cope better with age-related body changes. For example, older adults with more self compassion seemed to have less resistance to things like using adaptive equipment.
Erica went on to do her doctoral research, and explored how older women thought and felt about self-compassion as a tool to cope with age-related changes. Surprisingly, many women in Erica’s study struggled to see value in self- compassion. However, what was really interesting is that many of them also expressed gratitude for their body, understood that their situation was like others of their age, and had a level of acceptance for changes in their health, which would suggest that they were actually being self-compassionate in some ways.
It's hard to say why women in the study didn’t see the value of being more self-compassionate, but perhaps many of these women saw the idea of self compassion as being weak or soft. I understand this sentiment completely. Although I’m Canadian, my parents immigrated from the UK in the early 1950s after surviving the bombings of the Second World War. I was always taught to be stoic in the face of suffering and that any self-involvement was shameful.
As I have become older, I appreciate why the stiff upper-lip attitude was developed, but I am also acutely aware of the damage that can result by women being too hard on themselves. As we get older, I truly believe we all need radical self-kindness as part of good self-care, especially in the face of the pressures to age “successfully”.
So, is self compassion just being self-indulgent? The research indicates the opposite is true. Think about it; if you're truly self compassionate you proactively work to better your situation. You might ask yourself questions like, “What can I do to better myself?” and, “What can I do to help myself feel better.” In this way self-compassion, could be thought of as a preventative health strategy. Overall, self compassion has been shown to be correlated with better well-being, better adaptation, and better coping.
Let’s unpack each of the self-compassion components a little further. I’ve also added in three quick self-compassion hacks to help you get started.
I've talked about mindfulness in other posts, but in the context of self-compassion we can use mindfulness in order to stop and recognize that we are suffering. Mindfulness also allows us a way to be aware of our reactions, along with a way to recognize the ways in which we speak to ourselves in hard moments. It's easy to feel like we can fall short of expectations - mindfulness gives us a moment to be aware of our internal dialogue.
Step 1: Acknowledgement
The next time you feel stress or suffering, stop, take a breath and acknowledge it. This could be by saying, “I’m uncomfortable” or, “this is hard”. Say whatever works for you as long as it is free from criticism. Acknowledgement of difficult feelings may be an especially valuable tool when we feels less control with aging.
Common humanity is how we can make the distinction between self-compassion and simple self-acceptance. Self- acceptance misses the interconnectedness of our shared experience with other human beings. The notion of common humanity allows us to understand that our suffering is universal and reminds us that our difficult feelings also exist in those around us. Recognizing shared humanity also allows us a way to break the pattern of feeling isolated in our problems.
Step 2: Feel the connection
Remind yourself that this is part of life and others have gone (or are going through) the same thing. The key phrase here is, “I am not alone.” When you feel like your body is changing, know that this is the case for millions of other women as well; we’re all going through similar things.
According to Dr. Kristin Neff, self-kindness means that we work to be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than critical and judgmental. To make this subtle shift we need to understand our shortcomings rather than condemning them. If we can also shift our thinking to a better understanding that self criticism is harmful, we can see that self-kindness goes beyond just ending the behaviour; it also requires an active pursuit of self comfort.
Step 3: Be kind to yourself
In a stressful or uncomfortable time, many women can find themselves being highly self-critical and judgemental, e.g. “What’s wrong with me?” Instead, try to think about how you would talk to a dear friend about a similar situation. Try to shift any self-criticism to self-kindness.
I’ve talked about self-compassion before, but I keep circling back because I truly believe that self-compassion should be an essential part of our self-care toolbox. Let’s just say that it’s been a tough sell 😊. Do you feel resistance to this topic? Why or why not? Why do women balk at the idea of being nicer to themselves? I’d love to get your thoughts.
Your sister in health,
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