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Cultivating Self-Compassion When You Live With Chronic Illness

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Living with chronic illness can feel like a rollercoaster ride you’ve been shoved on that never ends. Riding its ebbs and flows is an art, and learning to cultivate self-compassion along the way is too. It’s not uncommon to have feelings of resentment, anger, fear, “not enough-ness” or shame towards your body. Especially when we are bombarded with messages from a world constantly having judgments and opinions about our bodies and experiences. It’s oftentimes difficult to stay grounded in such a climate. With a breath of self-compassion, you can skillfully learn to break up these moments rather than be overwhelmed by them.

Self-Compassion for the Mind

Our minds are the most ruthless and merciless to ourselves and bodies — they make the worst friend. If you overheard a conversation between people talking the way you talk to yourself, you would likely be appalled. Yet we do it all the time. Cultivating compassion for others is so much easier than cultivating it for ourselves. Having an illness is difficult enough; putting yourself and body out of your own heart confounds this struggle. Pay attention to your thoughts as they come up throughout the day. Call your mind out when it’s being unkind. Being warm and understanding towards ourselves when we struggle, “fail” or feel inadequate – versus bullying ourselves with self-criticism – is one way to practice self-compassion.

Self-Compassion for the Body

Your body should feel like a safe place to be, like a home and not a target or enemy. Many times I am challenged by this, because illness often feels like a trespasser with my body under siege. My body becomes the betrayer, and I the betrayed. During these times cultivating self-compassion for my body is by far the hardest, but it is also when I need it most. Talking to your body is a really good exercise for these moments. Acknowledge to your body how hard you know it’s working, how it too wants to feel well. Place your hands on different parts of your body and send them unconditional love. Touch with mercy and loving kindness that which has been rejected by anger and fear. Forgive your body for causing you suffering; it hasn’t meant to hurt you.

painting of a woman lying down with her hands on her body
By Christina Baltais

This doesn’t mean you’re happy about living with chronic illness, it means recognizing you’re on the same team. Also recognize that if you feel your body is “broken” – if you’re breathing and alive – something in there has got to be working. Cultivate appreciation for what’s working well, and send it gratitude. Making peace with your body and meeting it with compassion fosters a healing environment.

Self-Compassion for Your Journey

In chronic illness, we are constantly learning to arrange the pieces that come our way as best we can. You have also likely mastered how to have a bad day well. Take a few moments each day to honor how hard you are trying, and everything you have learned along the way. Validate your journey — there is no right way or wrong way, there is only the way that is right for you.

Compassion is an act of reaching out to ourselves. It’s lifelong work, whether or not you have a chronic illness. Chronic illness just makes it that much more challenging and necessary. By practicing self-compassion, I discovered how loving I could be towards myself by seeing how unloving I had been towards myself. I hope you too benefit from holding a space of loving kindness for your body, mind and journey living with chronic illness.

“You yourself, just as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserves your love and affection.” – Buddha

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Originally published: November 15, 2017
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