When I Chose to Be Compassionate Towards My Chronically Ill Self


“Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.” — Thomas Merton

“Compassion is the greatest form of love humans have to offer.” — Rachel Joy Scott

“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” — Albert Schweitzer

“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.” — Lao Tzu

“It’s not what you say out of your mouth that determines your life, it’s what you whisper to yourself that has the most power.” — Robert Kiyosaki

I have tried, my entire life, to be compassionate to others; to offer a listening ear, a hug, or whatever else seems the appropriate response for their suffering and need. I would like to think that I have achieved this… but lately, I have realized that I never offer myself that same compassion. In my head, I speak to myself in ways that I would never dream of using to another person. I am my own worst critic: cold, judgmental, harsh, unfeeling and uncaring. Since I have become disabled, it seems to have gotten worst as I blame myself for not being able to do the things I always have, even though my debilitating pain is a valid reason for the inability to do them. I just don’t cut myself any slack.

I follow Toni Bernhard, author of three books aimed specifically at those of us who are chronically ill, who have the most valid reasons for not living “normally” because of our health. She is also disabled and chronically ill. In her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” (on Psychology Today), she consistently mentions self-compassion, being kind to yourself and forgiving yourself for not being able-bodied or doing the things “that need to be done.” She planted the seeds of learning how to be loving and compassionate in my head — but more importantly, in my heart. I follow the Tibetan Zen Buddhist path, with all of the selflessness that entails. It’s very easy for me to be kind to others, to do what I can to alleviate their pains. However, it had not occurred to me to turn this way of living inwards, to my own soul.

And so I have begun to incorporate this into my daily life, as best as any imperfect being can. I don’t always succeed, but that’s part of the joy of both self-compassion and the practice of mindfulness: you acknowledge the lack, then let it go and start again. I am learning to have the patience for myself that I have never had before, to acknowledge my limitations without judging and without blame. My limitations just “are”; they exist without any connection to something I did or didn’t do.

In making this a part of my daily routine, I have discovered that I am also losing the rather judgmental way I had been perceiving the strangers on the street. Specific example: I am embarrassed, even humiliated, that I do not shower as regularly as I used to (every other day), nor do I shower as often as I need to. For someone who sits quietly most of the time, I sure can get stinky— and my hair gets greasy. Being showered and well-groomed has always been important to me, but I no longer have the ability to do it on anything approaching a regular basis. I simply lack the stamina and flexibility it takes to wash my hair or to bend and twist to wash my body. Some days, a shower is my greatest — and only —accomplishment. I think I had accepted this as just part of my life as a chronically ill person, but I was not self-compassionate about it.

Now when I see people on the street and they are less than my idea of groomed, I know from my own experience that it’s not from a lack of caring about how they look but rather from not having the ability to do so. Eureka has a fairly large homeless population… so there’s a whole segment of our society that doesn’t have consistent access to a shower. I know that this does not mean they are somehow less of a person than someone who can. I just didn’t apply that mindset to myself.

It’s not just about showers. It’s about anything for which I can condemn myself. I have always said that I have a great deal of patience for everyone else, but never for me. With the onset of chronic illness, with symptoms that prevent me from holding a job, I am being forced to learn this patience for me and my (perceived) short comings. Our society makes a lot of perceptions about its members, some of them valid but I think mostly mistaken. Perceptions are judgments–and who am I to make judgments about others when I have enough issues of my own?

I am wrestling with more than not having a paycheck job. My mother raised me to be a Southern housewife, to take care of my husband, keeping house and cooking meals. Add to that cooking the fact that before I became this ill, I was working towards having my own business as a personal chef. I feel disappointment in myself because I cannot clean the house as I want to. I am particularly unhappy at my inability to make basic meals, never mind the “gourmet” dishes that I so enjoyed creating.

These feelings, while valid (because all feelings are), are neither useful nor self-compassionate. I acknowledge the concepts of using our minds to (help) heal ourselves, but what I have cannot be “thought” away. I have structural damage in my spine which cannot be easily remedied. Any sort of treatment that would work, could work only for a while; there’s a reason it’s called “degenerative” arthritis. I do believe that with mindfulness — but especially with compassion for my own being, I can reduce or relieve a great deal of my pain and various lesser ailments.

For example, I must acknowledge the limitations my body has now, not what it used to be able to do. If I refuse to accept the true state of my body, I may be able to “push through” and do the thing(s) I want to — but I will pay for it in greater pain and even less ability for a period of time exponentially larger than the amount of time those actions took. Simple facts are simple facts, and the truth is very simple: I am very limited as to what I can do now versus what I did *then*.

Another aspect for self-compassion that I need is to stop the self-deprecation. I forget something — a word that means just what I am trying to convey or a task that needs doing. Then I chastise myself for being “stupid”… when it just a state of being. I understand that being in pain means less attention to focus on anything other than that pain — but I am still working on allowing myself the compassion to not fret about it and certainly not to punish myself. I am attempting to retrain my mind such that I accept my state of being, at whatever point I may be, on any given day, just as a state of being, with no particular emotions tied to it — and certainly not negative emotions.

The only time we can be sure of is this moment… and this moment… and this moment, for all of the moments of our lives. Trying to live at any other time, past or future, means that we aren’t living now. Now is all we truly can have, can experience in “real” time. To live in the now is very difficult sometimes, maybe more so for some people. All of us have connections to the past and hopes for the future, but if we let those connections and hopes replace the moment, we are not living our lives to the fullest, nor being the person that has this moment. “Be here, right here, right now. Everything else is just a dream.”

What is so important about self-compassion? As with real and abiding love, we cannot be truly compassionate (or love) anyone else until we know that feeling for ourselves, within our minds and hearts. It needs to be a natural and inevitable part of each moment, something that we don’t need to think about, or have to do any specific ritual to bring about this behavior. We “fake it until (we) make it” — and it only takes 21 days to establish a new habit. At first, it may seem contrived and even foolish to speak to ourselves with compassion. But if you will persevere and continue the practice of being kind to yourself, I believe you will find yourself both feeling happier as well as being a better person for that practice.

I believe our minds create our reality — what we think the world is, it is to us. So if part of our world view includes negative ideas about who we are or what we are, I think we will continue to behave in ways that will support, even validate that view. I believe we create a mindset that establishes a certain point of view and we can become locked into the view, no matter if it is actually true or not. A quote from Doug Adams says it all: “He was amazed at how different the world looked from a point three feet to the left.” That world view includes our own being; sometimes we need to step “three feet to the left” to get a new angle, a fresh perspective on what we thought we knew — even about ourselves.

If we are seeking to make our lives more fulfilled, if we want to create peace in our lives and to maintain the practice of loving-kindness and truly living in this moment, we must start from the point within ourselves that is the core of our being, the “who” of who we are. It is one thing to require real changes to ourselves because we are making poor choices in how we live–and quite another to berate ourselves for things beyond our control. Would you blame a person for being blind? Would you belittle someone for being elderly? Of course not. Then why would you — or do you — blame and belittle yourself for circumstances beyond your control?

And life is always about choices — and the magic of choices is that you can always choose a new way to go or do something. You are not bound to the past unless you choose to be; you are not endlessly longing for the future unless you choose to be such. Self-compassion is for those times when you are in pain (mental, physical, spiritually) and you want to lessen or alleviate that pain by understanding that all beings suffer and so the choice is the manner in which you deal with the problem.

Through compassion for our own state of being, we acknowledge our connection to the rest of the world, to everyone else around us. And we then understand that we are no more and no less than any other being — and compassion is the natural response for the human condition, even unto ourselves. The act of self-compassion opens us to a deeper relationship with those we meet. It encourages diversity and tolerance, mutual respect and a sincere honoring of the sacred being within each of us. And it begins with acknowledging our own sacred being, warts and all.

I close with this blog about self-compassion from Toni Bernhard, in which she shares some thoughtful and inspiring quotes about self-compassion.

Namaste!

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