Self-Compassion for Caregivers — Try a Little Tenderness

Brain Injury Blog 

Self-Compassion for Caregivers — Try a Little Tenderness

by Janet M. Cromer, RN, MA, LMHC

Scenes from the waiting room

If you are a family caregiver for a person who has a brain injury this scene might look familiar. You are sitting in the physical therapy waiting room and can’t help sneaking glances at that couple across the room. The young husband, Sam, sits slumped in his wheelchair, speaks slowly with garbled phrases and jabs at his communication board to convey that he needs a drink of water. His shaved head is crossed with heavy sutures, and his left arm hangs limply. His wife, Sally, bends forward patiently, offering him words, her forehead furrowed with the effort to understand him and make him comfortable. Their three year old son entertains himself by tossing magazines in the air as he sings.

You send her a kind thought and think, “She must have the patience of a saint. I don’t think I could handle all that.” Meanwhile, you are waiting with your wife, who had a ruptured aneurysm four years ago. She still needs a lot of help to eat, dress, and use the toilet. Unfortunately, her personality was changed by the brain injury, so she is critical of your efforts, and doesn’t say “Thank you” very often. You gave up your job to stay home and help her recover as much as possible, so money is tight and friends have gone back to their own lives.

Finally, the physical therapist motions you in and asks, “How are you doing, Mr. Brown?” You shrug and reply, “I don’t do Joan’s exercises enough; I should get her out to the park more often; and the laundry is a mile high.”

Meanwhile, Sally has been watching you. She’s thinking, “Will I be as patient and devoted as that man in a few years? I have so much to learn and juggle now. He’s a really special guy.”

Why is it that family caregivers often feel empathy and compassion for their survivor and other caregivers, but rarely stop to wrap ourselves in a cloak of compassion?

I can tell you why I found it hard sometimes. After my husband Alan suffered a severe anoxic brain injury after a cardiac arrest, I was filled with awareness and grief for his losses and pain. No matter how hard or stressful our new life became for me, I looked at Alan’s new life and felt I had no right to complain or feel sorry for myself.

I was also completely immersed in learning all I could to help with his recovery and daily functioning. I plowed a tremendous amount of love and work into our new life, yet often felt more aware of what I couldn’t do, didn’t know, or couldn’t change than the reality that my contributions were reflected in Alan’s gradual improvement.  Does any of this resonate with you?

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is one of the greatest gifts a caregiver can receive. And the only one who can bestow this gift is the caregiver! There are a few essential elements within self-compassion that we can practice: self-kindness, mindfulness, and a sense of our common humanity.

1.      Self-kindness- Try to be as good to yourself as you are to your survivor or family. The form might vary with your situation and needs, but we all need daily breaks for a personal pleasure, respite breaks, little indulgences (big ones are good too!). One major sources of caregiver stress is our own expectations, ideals, and criticism. We can get caught in the trap of thinking we have to do everything perfectly and be constantly attentive to the sick person. And yes, I know that professionals and family members can sometimes add to those lofty expectations. When you catch yourself muttering harsh criticisms, STOP and look at your expectations. Are they realistic, or could you bring them down a few notches? Think about the advice you would give to a cherished friend, and say the same things gently to yourself. Take credit for, and pleasure in, the positive changes you and the survivor are making.

2.      Mindfulness- Mindfulness is a big and wonderful subject of its own, but basically it means living in the present moment as fully as possible without judging or exaggerating our feelings or experiences. It means being aware of both the good and difficult, and open to new approaches. It means considering your situation with a curious heart rather than a critical mind. There are many fine books and classes about mindfulness.

3.      Common humanity- We are each a unique human being, no more and no less. That means we have both tremendous potential and the limits of being “only human.” It’s a relief to realize that no one is perfect! We all make mistakes, stumble, and try again. Self-compassion teaches us to forgive our mistakes and lack of knowledge, and move on. Even caregivers are only human, not Super Human! We are also connected in a marvelous network of family caregivers that stretches beyond ages and diagnoses to embrace all who strive to make life better for someone they care about. Participating in a support group can offer a sense of connectedness, plus the opportunity to hear how others see your best qualities.

Before we can feel true compassion for others, we need to feel compassion for ourselves. Self-compassion can help buffer the stress of caregiving, and reduce the risk of compassion fatigue.


Germer, C.K. The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. Guilford Press, 2009.


June 19, 2012

4 responses to “Self-Compassion for Caregivers — Try a Little Tenderness”

  1. Janet Cromer says:

    Hello Caregiver4abit, Sorry for late response. Yes, only a fellow caregiver would understand my Plant Watering Decision in the midst of Alan’s illness. When I entered the sun room and saw 4 straggly plants, I said to them, “OK, I can take care of only 2 of you, so 2 have to go. I can only water and nurture so much right now!”

  2. Janet, I know yesterday I made a plea to another family caregiver who was there for me. Sometimes they are the only ones who truly understand the daily struggle and the guilt, as your man said, for the laundry piled sky high. For me today, it is the tile floor needs swept and washed. Not a big job. Just not getting done and not going to today. Sometimes our old lives come back to haunt us as well. I love this blog and would like to email to some family and friends if you don’t mind. Well done, yet again. gin

  3. Janet Cromer says:

    I always find that practicing self-compassion makes me more compassionate towards others. A win-win way to live!

  4. Marilyn Lash says:

    You are so right – the caregiver is often the last person to take care – thank you so much for you insight.

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