Practicing Self-Compassion with Chronic Illness

person holding heart shaped cut out; represents showing self-compassion with chronic illness
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

For some people, living with a chronic illness can lead to poor mental well-being. The stress of managing a chronic illness day after day can cause worry, anxiety, loneliness, or depression. Practicing self-compassion with chronic illness can be an important tool to help your mental well-being.

When living with a chronic illness, you may feel many negative emotions or thoughts. For instance, regret about decisions you have made in the past. You may feel fear or anxiety of what the future holds. Impatient and frustrated at your current circumstances. Or, maybe you feel embarrassed about the help that you need.

How do you deal with negative thoughts and emotions?

One strategy I talked about in a recent blog, is to work on the thoughts in your mind. If you have a negative thought, you can tweak it or adjust it so that the thought is more neutral or even positive.

In a similar way, you can battle negative thoughts with self-compassion. You can think self-compassionate thoughts on purpose.

First, let’s start with the definition of self-compassion.

Self-compassion is the skill or ability to acknowledge our flaws and mistakes. But we do not define ourselves by those mistakes or failures.

Courtney Ackerman, an author with a Master of Science in Positive Organizational Psychology, says this:

Self-compassion, “means that you act the same way toward yourself when you are going through a tough time that you would act towards a dear friend: noticing the suffering, empathizing or “suffering with” yourself, and offering kindness and understanding.”

She goes on to explain that research shows self-compassion is made up of 3 parts. These include:

  • kindness toward oneself
  • common humanity
  • mindfulness

In her words,

“Self-kindness involves refraining from criticizing and castigating yourself for a mistake or a flaw and being understanding and supportive to ourselves. Common humanity refers to the recognition that everyone makes mistakes and fails once in a while and the acknowledgment that this is a simple fact of life as a human. Mindfulness is what allows us to become aware of our negative self-talk and identify our difficult feelings and thoughts in order to confront or address them with love and compassion for ourselves.”

Courtney Ackerman, Master of Science in Positive Organizational Psychology

Without self-compassion, we can become lost in the negative thoughts and feelings.

If we let negative thoughts and feelings fester, we may experience low moods or even depression. Therefore, practicing self-compassion with chronic illness is an important skill for good mental health.

Compassionate Thinking

So, what exactly are self-compassionate thoughts?

Self-compassionate thoughts focus on forgiving yourself. Understanding that you make mistakes and mistakes do not define you as a person. Or, a self-compassionate thought might include how you can move on from a mistake and do better next time.

For example, maybe you recently started chemotherapy for stage 3 cancer. You feel nauseous after the chemotherapy and worried this treatment may not work. You lose your temper with your wife when she asks you to try to eat something. Almost immediately you feel bad you yelled at her when she was trying to help. You can tell yourself that you are a terrible person. Then, start thinking of all the mistakes you have made as a husband.

Or, you can treat yourself with compassion. New thoughts to tell yourself might be, “I’m not a bad husband. I lost my temper because I didn’t feel good and I am not the only person who loses their temper when they don’t feel good. I will tell my wife I am sorry and explain why I didn’t want to eat.”

In this example, we see three components of self-compassionate thoughts:

  • You acknowledge your mistake of losing your temper. But you don’t let it define you as a husband.
  • You show kindness to yourself by realizing that it is human nature to be irritable when we we don’t feel well.
  • Looking forward, you state how you are going to be better next time.

In another example, you are a mother who struggles to control your diabetes. When your blood sugar levels drop too low, you feel lightheaded and shaky, and you can’t drive. Today your blood sugars have dropped, less than an hour before your daughter’s drama performance at school. You won’t be able to make it. You know you will disappoint her and feel like a bad parent. And, you are frustrated that diabetes keeps affecting your life this way.

You can beat yourself up about being a bad parent. Or, you could mange the negative thoughts in your head with thoughts of self-compassion. “I am not a bad mother. I am just struggling with this disease. When my daughter gets home, I will apologize for missing her production. And I will ask her to tell me all about it. I will continue to do what I can to help get this disease under control.”

So, thinking kind and forgiving thoughts on purpose can help us create self-compassion. But practicing self-compassion with chronic illness can be accomplished in many ways.

Toni Bernhard, author and survivor of a chronic illness, talks frequently of self-compassion in her book, How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness. For instance, she suggests that self-compassion can include:

  • asking others for help
  • saying no when it’s the right thing for you to do
  • recognizing that complaining can be a source of suffering and
  • being patient with yourself.

Benefits of Self-Compassion

At The Chronic Wellness Coach, I talk often about relieving suffering and building the skills of well-being when living with a chronic illness. Self-compassion is a strategy that can relieve mental suffering from negative thoughts. Self-compassion can also build the skills of well-being.

Chris Germer, PhD and clinical psychologist, believes practicing self-compassion can be beneficial in many ways. For example, learning the skills of self-compassion can lead to:

  • Better emotional health
  • Improved coping skills
  • Decreased severity of anxiety and depression and
  • Improved relationships and social health.

Kristin Neff, PhD, puts it more simply. She says learning self-compassion “enables people to suffer less while also helping them thrive”.

And the good news is, even in difficult circumstances, you can practice self-compassion.

So, how can you think self-compassionate thoughts on purpose today?

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Disclaimer: This blog is a resource through which you may obtain information regarding your health and wellness.  Information is intended for the general reader and is not a substitute for medical advice.  The content in this blog is intended to be informational only and not interpreted as specific advice for you.  There may be delays, omissions, or inaccuracies in information contained in this blog. You should always consult with a licensed healthcare professional who is familiar with your health and past medical history before making any changes you may read about in this blog.

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