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Commentary: A little self-compassion can go a long way

Cara Cerullo
Rich Egger
Cara Cerullo

In the book, “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” authors, and sisters, Emily and Amelia Nagoski reflect on the assumptions of human giver syndrome. “At the heart of human giver syndrome, lies the deeply buried, unspoken assumption that women should give everything, every moment of their lives, every drop of energy, to the care of others. ‘Self-care’ is, indeed, selfish because it uses personal resources to promote a giver’s well-being, rather than someone else’s.”

As a society, it is time to decrease the negative connotation associated with the word “selfish.” It is time to empower women to care for themselves first without the shame or guilt associated with self-care practice. (My name is Cara Cerullo, and I am a selfish social worker).

In my role as a helping professional, and as a woman, wife, daughter, sister and friend, I’ve been made to believe that my time is best spent in service to others. While I find great purpose, and joy, in my reciprocal relationships with others, I’ve learned that my honest, and intimate, relationship to self is of equal or greater value and drives my energy for interpersonal relationships. I’ve had to learn to take note of, and pay close attention to the harmful consequences of burnout. The World Health Organization identifies three symptoms of burnout including emotional exhaustion, cynicism and reduced sense of personal efficacy or accomplishment in one’s job. Burnout culture has often implied that it is the individual’s job to be responsible for managing the consequences associated with burnout. While we understand that it is an interaction between the environment or the organization and the individual, we will focus on what is within our control at this moment, which is our own response.

As women, we often find ourselves overextended in our careers and in our home lives. It should not be of great surprise that women are more susceptible to burnout than men. Yet, does self-care become another task to achieve? While it seems impossible to promote self-care with competing responsibilities, what’s the consequence if we don’t?

While it is not a cure, perhaps a deterrent to burnout is mindful self-compassion. Dr. Kristen Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer, authors of the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, suggest that self-compassion has three elements. Those include self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. The first, self-kindness, encourages us to treat ourselves with the same compassion we often provide to others when they are struggling. The second, common humanity, reminds us that human suffering is inevitable, and that we are not alone in our suffering. Lastly, the concept of mindfulness entails a non-judgmental acceptance of the present moment and acceptance of all thoughts and feelings that may arise from a given situation.

Consider the last time you supported someone who was struggling. What were the methods you utilized to show kindness in the midst of their suffering? What were the messages you shared? Now consider a moment of suffering you personally experienced. How did you treat yourself in your own moment of suffering? Instead of kindness, did you offer criticism? Was this a criticism based on patriarchal expectations? How did this criticism leave you feeling?

Instead, let’s look at this from the lens of self-compassion. In order to exercise self-kindness, one might offer grace to themselves or speak to themselves in an encouraging tone. Perhaps when making an error at work, one reminds themself that, “It’s okay to make mistakes. Mistakes are fixable.” Looking past one’s own experiences to ponder how others have faced similar situations links us in common humanity. In the same scenario outlined above, we recognize that we are not alone. “We are all human and all humans make mistakes. Nobody is perfect.” Finally, we allow ourselves to feel the embarrassment, guilt and anxiety that might come with making an error at work, but we do so without judgment. This moment and these feelings will pass.

As women, we are taught to sacrifice ourselves for the well-being of our families, institutions, and communities. This arrangement inevitably leads to burnout and low life satisfaction. While we cannot change oppressive systems overnight, we can choose to reject the idea that we must suffer so that others may flourish by treating ourselves with self-compassion. If we treated ourselves with self-compassion in times of distress, imagine the relief we might feel! In moments of burnout and misery is an opportunity to be selfish and take back the stigma. In time, the ripples of these actions just might change the world.

Cara Cerullo is Director of the University Counseling Center at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.