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Health/Wellness, Mental Health, Self-Care

How Self-Compassion Can Help with the Challenges of Chronic Illness

I wish I’d known about the practice of self-compassion when my chronic illness began. I was suffering from so much loss. 

It would have also been tremendously helpful while I was midst a relapse but in denial, caring for an infant and a two year old, living with a severely depressed husband, and trying but failing to work 40 hours/week.

Instead, I found out about self-compassion a few years later while going through another difficult time. It slipped into my inbox as a free seminar on how self-compassion can help people who have experienced trauma.

Honestly, it was a godsend. It was last October when I went through a lot of suffering due to multiple losses and other random significant incidents that are so crazy you can’t make up. These all occurred within six weeks.

At the beginning of October, I ended my closest familial relationship due to this person still refusing treatment for her 10+ year addiction that was now spiraling out of control and trying to suck me into the drama. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.

Then there was a suicide of a family friend who’s boys were best friends with my boys and who’s husband is also chronically ill. (That one hit way too close to home since my husband has also suffered from varying degrees of depression). 

Each of those losses alone was weighing heavy on my heart. But apparently, that wasn’t enough. Also that month, my dad was struck as a pedestrian by a pickup truck, and a post-surgery complication caused the death of my dad’s first cousin, who could have easily won the best dad of the year on repeat.

In addition to that, we had an unexpected major house repair, and our dog had some random growth on her tail that required her to wear pants so she wouldn’t get blood on the wall. Can you imagine keeping pants on a dog? At least that gave me a little laughter (see picture below).

After all that, I was a wreck and was quickly falling into a black hole of despair. I couldn’t get myself to do any of my usual self-care routines. Honestly, I could barely bring myself to function, but thankfully I was functioning well enough to watch a docuseries about self-compassion.

Being Introduced to the Practice of Self-Compassion

The first time I practiced self-compassion, it was like I could see the teeny light at the end of the dark tunnel. It gave me relief for the first time since all the craziness began.

It took about two months of practicing, but I was able to climb out of the hole and begin to live again. I didn’t always practice daily, but I practiced regularly, and every time things became unbearable.

While this situation thankfully didn’t trigger any extreme flares, the feelings of loss reminded me when my FND started, and when I relapsed five years later. 

In all scenarios, I felt like my life was spinning out of control, and I didn’t know how to stop it.

With the practice of self-compassion, I now know how to slow the spinning and gain control of my life. My feelings are validated, and it helps me release what’s out of my control. 

With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend. – Kristin Neff, PhD

Honestly, it’s one of the best gifts you can give yourself. I love that you can be completely vulnerable with yourself, and then you give yourself exactly what you need to hear because deep down, you know what you need in that moment. 

What is Self-Compassion?

“Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?” – Kristin Neff, PhD

You can learn more about what self-compassion is with these videos or here if you prefer to read.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

1. Acknowledge to yourself that you are suffering. Say what your suffering is out loud.

2. Take a moment and think about all the people in the world who are also suffering like you are. Some may even be suffering in the same or similar way as you are. You are not alone in your suffering.

3. Think about if a loved one or best friend was going through the suffering you’re going through. What you would say to them to help them feel better and let them know you care. Or think about what you wish someone would tell you to help you during this difficult time.

4. It may help to touch your arm, put a hand on your heart, or even hug yourself. Console yourself and validate your suffering by saying something like, “This is really hard right now.” Think of how you can be kind to yourself in this moment. Share with yourself out loud what you thought about in step three. 

5. Take a deep breath.

You can also find guided self-compassion meditations on the website.

Beginner Tips

Dr. Neff offers some great tips if you’re a beginner at practicing self-compassion.

  1. Be mindful of accepting the pain you are feeling in that moment because if you try to lessen the pain by suppressing it or fighting it, it will most likely worsen.
  2. Sometimes when starting to practice self-compassion, other pains may come up when we give ourselves unconditional love. If you find this pain too overwhelming, take a step back and focus on the breath. 

Learn more about these in the “Tips for Practice” section.

When You Could Use Self-Compassion Related to Chronic Illness

There’s no boundary on what you consider to be suffering. But I thought I’d offer some specific examples of times when we could experience suffering due to living with chronic illness. 

  1. During your journey of getting a diagnosis or not getting one.
  2. When you’re having an unexpected flare or relapse.
  3. Grieving for your old self.
  4. When you have to cancel plans.
  5. Someone doesn’t believe your symptoms.
  6. You’re told, “It’s stress.” “It’s all in your head.” Or worse that you’re making it up/malingering.
  7. You realize someone’s been gaslighting you.
  8. You lose your job, house, friends, etc. 
  9. You’re no longer able to do the thing you love most.
  10. You’re not able to do even half of what you used to do.
  11. You feel like a burden.
  12. You have chronic illness mom guilt/shame.
  13. You have chronic illness colleague guilt/shame.
  14. Any other guilt/shame that’s related to chronic illness.
  15. Having anxiety, depression, or both about your current state of health.

How Self-Compassion Changed my Life

In addition to the fact that it got me out of the deep hole, the most significant benefits that I received from self-compassion have been:

  1. Realizing that I’m not alone in my suffering. Knowing that someone else is suffering with me about the same or similar situation helped me feel less alone.
  2. Telling myself the comforting words that I really needed to hear to get myself through that difficult time was priceless.
  3. Reminding myself to speak kindly to me. 
  4. Being able to validate my feelings myself and no longer need them validated by others to feel real. If I feel them, then they are real to me.

Can You Only Use Self-Compassion When You’re Going Through a Tough Time?

No! You can practice self-compassion daily with Dr. Neff’s 5 Minute Self-Compassion Break

I have used this the 5 minute self-compassion break when I start to get down on myself because I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be because of brain fog. Or I felt guilty that I wasn’t the best mom today because I was couchbound. 

They are little things, but I’m on a journey to speak kinder to myself. How about you?

Self-Compassion for Caregivers

If your caregiver is a relative or significant others, share with them these guided meditations and exercises specifically for caregivers in the “Practices” section. The first guided meditation is specific for caregivers, and Exercise #8 is also specific to caregivers.

I’m so grateful for my husband, who is also my caregiver at times, and I know it is sometimes a struggle for him taking on both roles.

My Dog in Pants

And last but not least, here’s Lola in her pants. We eventually had to put her in one of my tanktops and use my kid’s mitten clips to hook the pants and shirt together so she couldn’t wiggle out of them. Unfortunately, I can’t find a picture of that! Lol.

Brindle pit mix with giant ears wearing red and black boys pajama bottoms.

Recap

I hope you find practicing self-compassion as beneficial as I have. Here are the links mentioned throughout this post.

Sara at Managing Chronic

Sara at Managing Chronic

Sara has worked in corporate America for almost 15 years, and she's worked the last eight years with FND. Her FND comes with paroxysmal dystonia, chronic fatigue, brain fog, sensory overload, muscle pain, and more. She is currently a part-time career woman, a mom and a wife.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Lisa says:

    Hi Sara, it’s great to find your blog through Maxanne’s. I don’t feel so alone. It brought tears to my eyes reading your story. FND is so hard and I often cripple myself with guilt that I can’t work at the moment, fear the future and feel I am not a good enough mum. BUT your articles are so helpful and I am making a real effort to apply self-compassion. Beating myself up that life hasn’t gone to plan and comparing myself to others, is so draining and unproductive. I just can’t keep going on with that negative mindset. Also, I want to set motivating goals which my body can achieve – ones that as you say aren’t based on ‘WHEN I’m much better or recovered, I’ll do this or that’, because I could be waiting a long time and unhappy in that limbo. Thank you for sharing. It means a lot. And I think Lola’s rocking the doggy pants look, even though she might not be so convinced!

    1. Sara at Managing Chronic

      Hi Lisa, thank you so much for your comment. I’m sending you lots of virtual hugs! I felt everything that you said, and I’m proud of you for taking these next steps towards self-compassion and living in the now. Be on the lookout for a new freebie coming out in the upcoming months for practicing a daily mindset. PS. Sorry, it’s taken me so long to respond. I’m coming out of a flare that started in August. I hope all is well with you.

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