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4 Reminders for When Mental Illness Makes Self-Compassion Hard

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When I was actively in therapy for my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety, one of the things my therapist and I worked on was treating myself with self-compassion. When I would express the negative thoughts I had about myself, she would always ask, “Is that what you would say to a friend if you knew they were struggling?” I have always considered compassion and empathy toward others to be a strength of mine, so of course the answer to that question was “no.” If that was the case, why was it so hard for me to give myself the same compassion I would give to others?

Living life with a mental illness can be brutal. It’s a fact I readily acknowledge on my good days. However, on the days I’m struggling, I tend to forget to have grace and show some kindness to myself. Recently, there was a stretch where I was having more bad days than good. During this time period, most of my self-talk was just making the situation worse.

For example, instead of focusing on the fact that this was the first bad stretch I’d had in a long time, I was constantly thinking about how I should have been better at handling the anxiety I was feeling. I should have been able to better apply the coping skills I’d learned in the past. I should have been able to to resist compulsions. I should have been able to snap out of the anxiety after just one bad day. I was letting myself down, all because I was experiencing symptoms of a lifelong mental illness.

If it was a different illness, would I be doing the same thing? Or, if it was someone else I cared about that was struggling, would I be passing judgment on them?

The hardest part for me about living with a mental illness is that sometimes, on your darkest days, you just don’t feel worthy of the compassion you would readily give to anyone else in your situation. You fall headfirst into a spiral of distorted thinking, and it can be difficult to pull yourself out. Even after going through a fair amount of therapy and considering myself to be pretty solidly “in recovery,” I still have days that seem exponentially harder than the others. It’s on these days that I need the following reminders most:

1. The problems and emotions that arise due to a mental illness are 100% real and valid.

One of the biggest traps I tend to fall into is that I will start comparing myself to others. Eventually, I start to feel guilty because other people in the world are actually struggling with “real” issues. The truth is, just because a struggle isn’t visible, doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. Feelings are real. End of story.

2. One moment will not last forever.

On one hand, this means when I’m struggling, I can take comfort in the fact there will eventually be days that are better. The steps that it takes to get there may vary, but there is always hope.

On the other hand, this means that no matter how well I’m doing, my mental illness is a chronic condition. There is always a chance I will have a bad anxiety day (or several). Accepting that fact is important to having self-compassion, and it’s one of the things I most frequently forget. Struggle does not equal failure. Sometimes there are things that happen that are just out of our control, and that can lead to some really tough mental health days. Accepting that can make self-compassion on the harder days a little more achievable.

3. It’s important to celebrate the small stuff.

If I am trying to be compassionate toward myself, it’s definitely important to acknowledge and celebrate the little wins. I find that actively doing this helps me keep things in perspective and have a greater grasp on the big picture. This past week, when I was struggling, I still did some pretty hard things! I went to work, even when it felt impossible. I asked for help, even when I didn’t want to admit I needed it. It’s easy to lose sight of the small victories when everything feels like it’s spinning out of control, but celebrating those tiny wins can make a huge difference.

4. We are all human — perfectly imperfect and deserving of grace and compassion.

Everyone has days that don’t go exactly the way they want them to. If we were all perfect, life would probably be a lot more boring! Part of being human is having good days and bad, physically, mentally, and emotionally. No matter what your struggle is, you are deserving of compassion. I hope that this is a reminder to you as much as it is to myself – you are worthy of self-love.

Getty image by Aleksandr Zubkov

Originally published: July 10, 2022
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