Caregiving is a Reflection of Self-Compassion

Have you ever wondered whether you were ready to take on the awesome responsibility of caring for another person? It is reasonable to question ourselves, doubt our abilities and even contemplate abdicating the responsibility to those we deem more capable. But what if we came to understand that we already have the seeds of compassionate skill deep in our cells?

Our lives begin in utter vulnerability and dependency while we are also cognitively incapable of being fearful or doubtful. Survival in the womb depends on parental recognition, imagination, compassionate regard and nurturance.

Dance of Parent-Child Relationships

If we are fortunate, we exit the womb with an adequate amount of what is needed to survive, yet physical pain remains central to our infancy. The dance of adequate parent-child relationships includes the call of suffering, followed by the response of soothing, and back and forth.

We become human through this dance of compassion, even before we know the true meaning of pain, suffering and attention. At some point in childhood and adolescence, the responsibility of self-soothing is handed off from our parental figure(s) onto ourselves.

Life can feel unfair, yet we have the seeds of self-compassion deeply planted in us. How can we best water these seeds?

Consideration of ‘Self’

There are times we may not think we deserve compassionate regard, even when we want it. Humans are complex. We start out like many other creatures, but we become highly intelligent. Despite, or perhaps because of our intelligence, two beliefs we contend with—self-doubt and unworthiness—can hinder our capacity to hold ourselves in compassionate regard.

As we mature, we recognize we can’t set all the terms of all our relationships. We often face a choice: Do I attend to my own suffering (even if I don’t know if I can)? Or do I avoid the opportunity to care about myself (because I don’t believe I am worthy)?

Questions like these, which may come with the call to serve as a caregiver, can generate moments of self-doubt.This is normal, unless the doubt persists or evolves into believing we are neither worthy nor capable of self-care.

Should you find yourself in this space, you may begin “un-racking” yourself through remembering your precious holding capacity.

Precious Holding Capacity

Many of us have been physical containers for the birth of a child, but how many of us have recognized ourselves as self-containers for own precious material? Is it possible for a box to be a box for itself?

Ancient wisdom tells us that conventional ways of understanding things prevent us from seeing that the box needs the space inside and outside to hold precious material.

Containers hold aspects of themselves that are beyond conventional description. Likewise, humans can hold aspects of themselves that are beyond conventional descriptions.

One example of this is our ability to hold and shape precious stories. A story understood at the age of 7 will be understood differently at ages 27 or 37. Likewise, a story told at the age of 7 will not be the same story told decades later.

Being a container for our changing narratives demonstrates our capacity for compassionate regard because our stories are often connected to pain and suffering. When we hold painful stories with less shame, guilt or judgment, we hold ourselves with compassionate regard.

Visualization Exercise

To practice holding yourself in compassionate regard, try this visualization I call Rocking Your Baby Self:

1. Sit down, close your eyes and imagine you are an infant swaddled in a soft, warm blanket.

2. Shift your imagination to adulthood. Bring your arms to a cradle position, and then draw your hands together.

3. Notice your chest expanding and feel your breathing deepen. Compassion is already in you.

4. Bring your hands together, using your right to support your left (or vice versa). Strength is already in you.

5. Turn your head toward where you would anticipate a baby’s head to be, and imagine yourself as a baby.

As you widen your field of imagination, you simultaneously become the parental figure and the baby. Your baby body is in the supine position, cradled in your adult arms, as your parental eyes look lovingly into your infant eyes.

This is an interdependent posture and holding of great vulnerability and great strength, highlighting two seemingly paradoxical states that ushered you into life.

Try to feel the sensation of relaxing your spine and gently flexing your arms. As your parental eyes gaze lovingly into your baby eyes, smile slightly as you hum.

Slowly allow your cradled arms to sway back and forth, rocking your baby self. Notice your breath as you imagine holding yourself, and relax.

Notice any psychological or physical resistance to this embodied visualization and come out of it if the visualization produces intensely negative emotions.

If so, soothe yourself by bringing your attention to your breath and the sensations around your nostrils until your body becomes calm.

Paradoxical Regard

When we look at ourselves through a spiritual lens, we experience a paradoxical consciousness. This means we are able to perceive contradictions that could be truths.

When we think of the word “regard,” we may think of holding best wishes for others, but not ourselves. Cultivating a consciousness that appreciates paradox helps us heal splits between ourselves and the rest of phenomena. This means when we have regard for the world, we have regard for ourselves. And the opposite should be true, too.

Paradoxical consciousness supports your baby self and your parental self. It is essential to having compassionate regard.

We are a vulnerable, intelligent, and strong species that thrives on adequate interdependence. As complex beings, we can feel wounded and also receive nurturance between birth and death.

Cycle of Life

In the middle of our comings-and-goings, we may call out in pain and suffering and there is a response. The dance commences throughout life, and here we are now, caring for another while we also have needs.

Let’s rest in confidence that the cycle of life continually calls to engage in the act of caring, even when we may not feel able to respond adequately.

It helps to remember that our intelligence sometimes obscures the experience of having had good enough care. But let us not underestimate ourselves. The seeds of compassionate skill, indeed, lie deep in our cells.

About the Author

Pamela Ayo Yetunde, J.D., M.A., Th.D., is a pastoral counselor, co-founder of Center of the Heart and founder of Audre: Spiritual Care for Women With Cancer, which through which she worked with the CaringBridge Research Collaborative on a study of spiritual support in clinic settings among women with cancer.  She is author of books including Black & Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation and Freedom.