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The importance of Self-compassion in Chronic Disease
Jan 22, 2021

As part of the struggle with the fundamental and profound changes as a result of living with a chronic health condition, we encounter the sometimes-overwhelming feelings of failure, shame, self-blame and weakness. Instead of acknowledging the courage, perseverance and strength it takes to carry the fate of a chronic health condition and all its symptoms and demands, we can get trapped in the dark illusion that a ‘sick’ person is ‘less than’ or not whole.

These inner battles cannot possibly be underestimated. They are furthermore unknown to the people around us, since we hide them in our quiet, solitary hours.

Yet, would you negatively judge anyone else whose days are scarred by a chronic illness? Would you find them to be weak or a failure?

Can you be as understanding and compassionate toward yourself as you would be to others?

The approach of self-compassion is derived from Buddhist philosophy and re-conceptualised in a secular manner to refer to the compassion expressed towards the self when experiencing suffering, whether it be due to circumstances beyond your control or within your control.

We could summarize self-compassion ‘as taking a kind, accepting, and non-judgmental stance towards yourself in times of pain and difficulty.’

There are three recognised components of self-compassion that work togther to promote a kind rather than a critical response to your limitations, fatigue, emotional/psychological instability as a result of your chronic health condition. From this you will understand that self-compassion is not a matter of simply ‘having it or not having it’; it is a skill that you can develop.

1. Self-kindness (versus self-judgment)

means that you take a kind, caring and nonevaluative position towards your perceived inabilities, special needs and unpredictable symptoms. This is of particular value when encountering negative self-evaluations that can accompany you for not being able to meet your expectations (or those of others) due to the restrictions of living with your disease, pain or disability.

2. Common humanity (versus isolation)

refers to your sense of connection to others that arises from acknowledging the common human experience of imperfection and making mistakes, and being more aware that others may face similar challenging circumstances. Framing hardship from this perspective can help you let go of self-blame, guilt, shame and self-criticism which can compromise adjustment, and instead foster a greater connection with others who live with similar conditions.

3. Mindfulness (versus over-identification)

is the third component of self-compassion, and refers to you taking a balanced and non-judgmental view of your emotional experiences, grounding them in the present moment and neither ignoring nor becoming overly embroiled in the negative feelings that accompany painful experiences. Mindfulness helps counteract possible overidentification with your suffering that can reduce objectivity and taking a larger perspective on your situation. This mindful stance may be particularly beneficial for dealing with your ongoing pain and suffering of living with a chronic condition, and encourage healthier ways of viewing the limitations associated with your challenges.

Self-compassion encourages and motivates you to use coping styles that are adaptive and problem-focused (such as pacing and planning, emotional-support-seeking, and positive reframing), and prevent you from using so-called maladaptive coping styles (such as escape / avoidance strategies, negative self-talk, freezing, hiding, giving up, etc). This leads to direct beneficial results in mental and emotional well-being and thus elevates the quality of your life.

Events and situations present themselves many times in each day that ask you to make a choice. In this, you have a wide range of options available.

Developing the skill of self-compassion begins by evaluating those options, and asking yourself for each option: will that course of action or that decision honour me and benefit my well-being?

Just that one question will be a defining step, because you will always know the answer.

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