Engage: Self-compassion – you are a caregiver, but do you care for yourself?

What do you think of the word ‘self-compassion’? What are your first thoughts when you hear this expression? This is something we ask participants at the beginning of our BASW seminars when discussing the importance of self-care, and how a strong caregiver identity can stop you from taking care of yourself.

In recent sessions, participants, who were mainly Social Workers and social work students, seemed relatively familiar with this word, and reported positive impressions of self-compassion: ‘care’, ‘caring’, ‘love’, ‘understanding’, and ‘awareness’. At the same time though, some participants noted difficulties with actually practicing self-compassion, using words such as ‘difficult’, ‘hard’, ‘selfish’ and ‘rare’.

Social Workers and social work students are aware of the importance of self-compassion, however they also feel it is hard to practice self-compassion.

This may be somewhat understandable considering the way the code of ethics for social work is written: we conducted a word analysis of this document, and found that the word ‘should’ is used about 70 times whilst the words relating to ‘self-care’ are only used twice. Indeed, this is the code of ethics, so the word ‘should’ is needed, however 70 to 2 is a bit of an imbalance. In contrast, the ethical framework of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy includes words such as ‘client(s)’ and ‘support’ as the most frequent ones.

Caregiver Identity

The reason why we ask participants about the meaning of the word self-compassion is because our research into mental health of social work students has identified that caregiver identity and self-compassion were strong predictors of mental health symptoms.

If you find a social work student who has strong caregiver identity, or who is not compassionate to themselves, the chances are they may have poor mental health. Caregiver identity refers to how strongly you identify yourself as a caregiver. A person with a strong caregiver identity may think that it is their responsibility to help others, or it is what they are supposed to do.

Having a sense of caregiver identity in itself is great, and probably it is a reason why they have chosen to study social work. In fact, our study reports that social work students had a higher level of intrinsic motivation (i.e., they feel studying the subject is inherently interesting and rewarding) than business students, while business students scored higher in extrinsic motivation (i.e., they study in order to obtain external instruments such as a better grade, or better paid job).

Extrinsic motivation was associated with poor mental health, higher shame, and unethical judgement, while intrinsic motivation was related to the opposing constructs. However, a strong caregiver identity can be a problem, if you have too much of it, and neglect caring for yourself, as this can lead to mental distress.


Relatedly, self-compassion refers to being understanding and kind towards yourself, especially in relation to your weaknesses or challenges. Indeed, caring students (including social work students) scored high levels of self-criticism, which can be an opposing construct to self-compassion. Self-compassion is based on three components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Often self-compassion is compared with self-esteem (which was very popular in mental health research until recently): Self-esteem is based on comparison with others, that is, if you are above average (or a certain level), you allow acceptance of  yourself, hence self-esteem highlights difference.

On the other hand, self-compassion is partly about knowing that we all have similar weaknesses and challenges (as opposed to the ‘Why me?’ mentality), being mindful of the sameness with others.

From a motivation perspective, self-esteem is more in line with extrinsic motivation, while self-compassion is closer to intrinsic motivation (although both of them lead to self-acceptance). Social work students who have low self-compassion (e.g., highly critical of themselves) tend to have poor mental health.

Importance of self-awareness and self-care

Based on these findings, we propose the importance of self-awareness and self-care in the social work training curriculum.

For example, self-awareness training can help students notice what their personal and professional values are, and how they see themselves as an individual and a future Social Worker.

This may be useful to students, as it can help them to have a balanced view of their caregiver identity. Being able to ask for help is indeed an important skill as a caring professional. This may be particularly important for social work students to be aware of: receiving help does not mean that you have failed as a caregiver!

If you are mentally distressed as a caregiver, how can you expect your clients or service users to feel better? Recent studies report the contagious nature of our emotions and mental states, especially deep ones such as compassion.

For example, if a pregnant woman wants to take good care of her fetus, she needs to live healthily. Though a service user is definitely not your fetus, this analogy may still offer a useful and helpful perspective of your work. You need to take good care of yourself, in order to give others good care.

Practical exercises

There are many techniques and exercises to support self-care and self-awareness. In our seminars, we introduce two exercises that are relatively easy to practice – breathing and reframing.

The way we breathe significantly affects how we feel. In a gestalt therapy community, breathing is one of the most focused topics, and it is said that how we breathe is related to how we live.

Take a moment now to focus on your breathing. Do you breathe in your chest or in your stomach? Is it slow or fast? Breathing is important for your self-care, because it is related to our soothing mind, where caring and compassion belong. Also by breathing deeply, we can activate our lymphatic system, helping the body to rid itself of unwanted materials. Take a moment now to repeat these 2 steps a couple of times, whilst paying attention to your soothing mind:

  1. Place your hands on your stomach, and breathe deeply.
  2. Feel your stomach expand as you inhale, and feel it flatten as you exhale.

In our seminars, we practice this breathing as a group. When a group breathes in sync, there is a sense of cohesion and safety in the room.

Reframing is about using our mind flexibly to see things from different perspectives, so that you will feel differently. As an Neuro-Linguistic Programming trainer, I teach and use a wide range of techniques, but reframing was noted as one of the most useful skills in NLP. Reframing is particularly important to caring professionals because it supports emotional resilience, which is an essential psychological resource in caring professionals.

With reframing, one seemingly negative quality or situation, can be perceived positively, leading to a positive emotion. A good example, is Santa Claus in the song ‘Rudolph the red nosed reindeer’. In the beginning, Rudolph was feeling shameful about his red shiny nose, but Santa Claus reframed it as being useful, brightening things up in the dark night. With this artful reframing, Rudolph was motivated to work. The same applies to you too: what you perceive as a weakness or challenge, or some of your personal qualities that you do not appreciate, can be reframed positively.

One Social Worker said she felt she was too rigid about rules, and showed almost no leniency. She worked with her peers, and they helped her to reframe this quality as a strong sense of responsibility, which should be valued in the health and social care field. Once its positive intention was identified, she felt it was easier to relate to this personal quality, and to add some positive changes.

It is often useful to practice reframing with peers or people you trust. Write down a few qualities or situations that you don’t appreciate much, and ask them to reframe them. To start off with, it may be better to do this in a brainstorming manner; just let peers give you reframing ideas, and note what you like (otherwise your peers may stop reframing once they have heard your evaluation of it).

In addition to reframing, we introduce more compassion-focused exercises such as writing a compassionate letter to yourself, and compassionate imagery. Currently we are exploring the effects of these exercises on social work students’ self-compassion. Also, we plan to investigate the mental health and self-care of professional Social Workers soon.

Some social work students have told us that caring for others is almost intuitive to them, but caring for themselves feels ‘strange’. However, as a caregiver professional and trainee, knowing how to care for oneself is crucial. We hope this article will help you and your colleagues to be more aware of the importance of self-care, leading to actually practicing it in your workplace and daily life.

About The Author

Yasuhiro Kotera (pictured), Academic Lead in Psychotherapy and Chair of Research Ethics at University of Derby Online. Accredited Psychotherapist at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. [email protected] / @YasuKotera

Dr Pauline Green, Academic Lead in Social Work and Social Care, and Senior Fellow of Advance Higher Education. Registered Social Worker. [email protected]