Finding Self-Compassion When Living with Chronic Illness

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to show compassion towards others than it is to give that to yourself? Do you find that you are quick to be frustrated with yourself when experiencing physical symptoms of an illness, rather than be compassionate towards yourself? Are you asking yourself right now, "what does self-compassion towards oneself when living with chronic illness even look like?"

Self-compassion simply means treating yourself with the same kind and non-judgmental manner that you would treat someone whom you love. It means allowing for the difficult feelings that are experienced, staying present with them, and providing various forms of care for coping with them. 


Awareness of Suffering

Part of cultivating self-compassion when living with a chronic illness is maintaining the connection between suffering and need for care. Getting lost in the frustration of how physical symptoms are interfering with life on multiple levels can be too easy. A person may feel a host of feelings from anger, to loss, or even denial; however, these are all emotions experienced in connection with physical suffering and at times even emotional suffering. It can be very difficult to approach oneself from a position of self-compassion and ultimately with care if there is no awareness of one's suffering. This awareness is really just owning and acknowledging that yes, "right now, in this moment I am suffering." The next step is asking oneself, "How can I help myself?"


From Awareness to


How does one move from a place of awareness to a position of care. Let us think about some reactions people who are experiencing certain physical symptoms may have. Some may have self-critical thoughts, others may isolate themselves, and others may dwell on the physical symptoms and their subsequent consequences. In these cases, self-compassion would include doing the opposite. For example, rather than stating critical comments about yourself, think about what you would say to a friend and then say it to yourself. Additionally, think about how you are not alone in your suffering and make an effort to connect yourself with others who are living with the same condition that you are. Join a support group for example. Also, try not to attach yourself to a particular physical symptom or emotion. Now it is time to expand what you are connecting to. You can acknowledge that these feelings are there without judgment ,and you can be mindful of them while also trying to observe anything else that you might be experiencing.


Directing My Own


There is research on various topics, including research on pain and illness, demonstrating that how we cognitively assess something impacts our experience of it. This is not to say that we can always control our bodies and our health; however, we can do things to help manage our experiences better. For example, thinking something such as, "I am incapable of working to my capacity and will disappoint my colleagues" will associate your physical condition with something emotionally painful and does not leave you with anything helpful. On the other hand, being self-compassionate may help you think something like, "I wish happiness to others and to myself. May I find a way to continue working in a manner that feels fulfilling to me but also addresses my needs." Obviously the specific statements will have to be tailored to your own situation.


An Exercise in


There are many different exercises that a person can practice in order to foster self-compassion while feeling frustrated with living with illness. The following is just one meditation that you may want to try.

Find a comfortable sitting position or lay down flat on your back. Turn off your phone and make sure you will be uninterrupted for at least 15 minutes.

Close your eyes and bring your focus to your present suffering. Notice where in your body you feel any physical or emotional suffering. Let the self-criticism and frustrations go. 

Speak to yourself and tell yourself that you are experiencing a part of what it means to be a human being. Think about how everybody experiences something that causes them suffering, even if each person's struggle takes different forms. Feel that you are not alone. Acknowledge that your suffering does not mean that you are weak or less than, but rather it means that you are a human being.

Tell yourself that you do not need to become overwhelmed by this reality. Acknowledge it and take a couple of deep breaths, focusing on the exhale. With every breath take in warm and kind thoughts towards yourself, and with every exhale let go of any self critical ideas and feelings.

Ask yourself what you need to hear right in this moment and give that to yourself. This is the time to repeat over and over the phrases that were discussed in the section on directing your own experience. What you need to hear will vary from moment to moment and person to person, but there is no wrong or right as long as it is something kind.

Repeat as often as necessary.

If you find yourself overwhelmed by your suffering related to living with chronic illness, and or struggling to let your self-criticism or frustrations go, it is best to reach out to a mental health professional for consultation. You do not have to be alone with this.