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7 Ways to Tackle Low Self-Esteem With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia

Self-esteem is generally described as the degree of regard or respect individuals have for themselves and is a subjective measure of worth that we place on our abilities and judgments; it is an understanding we create of our worth based on emotions and beliefs about how we fit into life.

For many of us, we define our worth by our productivity, our education, our professions, and by beliefs and experiences we have encoded over many years.

Imagine you are educated and well-established in your career, or perhaps you are just beginning to blossom in your chosen profession. In an alternative scenario, you might be a teenager who has yet to achieve the forenamed goals but aspire to reach them. Perhaps you are very athletic and enjoy an active life. Then slowly, or quite rapidly, your health begins to decline; sometimes foreseen and sometimes not. How would that change how you perceive your own worth in the world? How would it change how others in your life perceive you?

For patients living with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and fibromyalgia, there is typically a loss of ability to engage in and perform physical and cognitive tasks of large and sometimes small proportions. Seemingly overnight, or slowly over time, physical and mental capabilities decline resulting in job loss, daily living functionality and even self-care capacity. When patients are moderate to severe, and even in mild cases, self-esteem takes enormous hits due to the many losses which can and do occur.

In my 24 years of living with these conditions, I have been all over the map in terms of severity β€” sometimes severe and in hospital and sometimes mild and partially functioning. My feelings of self-worth were extremely affected in the early days, when doctors had no answers for me; when I was told to take a multivitamin and rest. I spent years going from my bed to the couch and back to bed in a state of debilitating exhaustion and flu-like symptoms. There was simply nothing to do but think and when thinking begins to spiral, we can enter a dark night of the soul. We question why this is happening to us. We wonder what our purposes are in spending weeks, months and even years incapacitated. How are we supposed to contribute to society or look after our families in such a state? We can feel very guilty for even getting sick and at times frustrated and annoyed at not being able to fix it. We often spend thousands of dollars on umpteen medical tests and hit-and-miss treatments through the alternative realm. Our ability to perform daily activities of living can often decline to zero and when this happens, our self-worth can understandably spiral out of control.

Compounding these issues, we sometimes deal with family members and friends who do not understand our demise; who think we should just push through but we know there is nothing left in our batteries. We want to be able to push but often cannot and when we can, there is a price to pay β€” or, in medical terms, post-exertional malaise, aka a β€œcrash.” So, what can patients do while they are working on recovery by using mindfulness, meditation, brain retraining, supplements, dietary changes, medication and more? How can we help our self-esteem to rise up again after taking many hits?

1. In my experience, it helps to know that setbacks are a part of recovery and some people do recover either fully or partially over time. In other words, it can be useful to tell ourselves that what we cannot do right now is temporary and in my experience, this is often true. I never thought I would become a mother, and yet I did even after being severely ill to the point of hospitalization.

2. By embracing the willingness to work with our belief systems and choosing to believe that recovery is possible, we can help our self-esteem to recover. Reading recovery stories helps. By embracing hope, we feel better about ourselves.

3. By asking ourselves to consider whether or not we can do a bit of the desired activity rather than the full activity, we make some things possible. Can we modify an activity we love and still do it, perhaps for less time? For example, if I love walking but cannot, I can choose to do gentle yoga on the floor which will help me to progress toward my goal of walking. If this is too much, I can do range of motion movement in bed again, with the intention to one day walk by holding the vision in my mind with gratitude.

4. Be willing to try new things. I have taken up photography in the last couple of years which is something I did not know I loved. It is now a wonderful hobby which I enjoy. Feeling good creates happy hormones and reduces stress, so this is a useful healing modality.

5. By celebrating all wins, big and small, we help ourselves to feel better.. If you were able to shower today and could not before, that is a win to be celebrated. Congratulate yourself on this! It helps to create feel-good hormones in the body. Recognize all of your achievements. Perhaps you remained calm through a crash or chose to use meditation to help downregulate the sympathetic nervous system; again, huge wins! Tell yourself, β€œwell done.”

6. Practice gratitude on a daily basis. Look for things in your immediate environment to be grateful for rather than ruminating on symptoms which will negatively affect self-esteem. Keep a gratitude journal beside your bed and begin the day by naming three things for which you feel grateful. If you cannot think of anything, you woke up and are breathing. Perhaps the sun is shining or you got a call from a friend. You may have a warm blanket or a bed to sleep on. This helps to rewire your brain toward happier emotions.

7. Allow people to support you in person or online. There are many online support groups which are positive and will help to encourage you when things get rough. They are filled with caring people who understand. Always remember, it is not your fault you are ill and don’t give up!

For women in need of support during recovery from ME/CFS and fibromyalgia, feel free to visit my online Facebook support group called: β€œInner Sanctum for Women Heal Chronic Illness,” and/or β€œElite Wellness Warriors” and the β€œCommunity of Hope for Recovery.” Another great resource is the National ME/FM Action Network.

You are not alone. Don’t give up! You’re doing the best you can and that is good enough.

Colleen Downey, B.A., M.Sc. Ed, OCT.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash