Why Aren’t You Kinder To Yourself?

I’m going to be right upfront and say it, we do not treat ourselves as kindly as we treat other people. I’ll also admit that as much as I’ve worked on self-compassion over 4 years of going to therapy, and a 2.5 year master’s program to become a therapist, I still have moments where I don’t talk to myself kindly. But it has dramatically improved for me. People with chronic illness and/or chronic pain tend to be even less kind to themselves than other people, and those other people struggle a lot too. Think about your latest self-judgment or self-criticism. Just take a moment to get it. Now imagine you have this friend, Friend A, and he/she/they started to call you that judgment or criticism or label and said you’ll never change that’s just who you are. Now imagine Friend B, and this friend says to you, hey, I noticed you’re having a really hard time right now and going through all this difficult/painful stuff, and I just want to be here for you. Which friend would you rather have? I’m guessing you said Friend B, so think about whether or not you’re friend B to yourself.

If that brought up some emotion I’m not surprised. So let’s talk about self-compassion (or just kindness or friendliness if you don’t like the term self-compassion). According to Kristin Neff, the world’s leading researcher on it, self-compassion is made up of three parts.

  1. Mindfulness, which includes being present with our thoughts and feelings.
  2. Kindness, or acting with care and understanding opposed to judgment.
  3. Common Humanity, or acknowledging that all human suffer.

Kristin Neff also talks about some common blocks to self-compassion. And that’s what I want to talk about here. Because asking you, why aren’t you kinder to yourself, probably brought up something from this list, or a general, “I don’t know.” So let’s just address these now, in the context of chronic pain/illness.

Block 1: “It’s a sign of being weak.”
I can see how you got there, especially if you’re a male (because let’s faced it boys are socialized to believe emotions and compassion make them weak or girly). The research actually shows that people who are kind to themselves have more internal strength, better coping, and are more resilience. This includes if you have chronic illness or pain. This is so important for being able to live a good life when you have chronic illness/pain.

My internal resources also make it easier for me to do the things I love.

Block 2: “I’m being selfish.”
I’ve actually had a client say this to me before as a reason not to engage in self-kindness. This is another thought that isn’t compatible with the research, because what the research shows is that people who are self-compassionate are more compassionate to other, are more supportive of others, engage in more forgiveness, and are better at taking the perspectives of others. This is especially important if you have a chronic illness/pain and are also a partner or parent or caregiver. I have to say that as a therapist, practicing self-compassion has made me so good at building rapport with my clients because they feel more compassion coming from me.

More compassion for others.

Block 3: “I’m being self-indulgent.”
This implies that you’re using it as an excuse not to do hard things. And yet, what does the research show? People who are self-compassionate actually engage in more healthy behaviours. For chronic illness/pain this means they exercise more, have better nutrition, and regularly attend doctor’s appointments and follow doctor’s advice (podcast on that here). All of this has been shown time and time again to improve people’s lives when they have an illness.

Healthy behaviours like exercise.

Block 4: “I won’t be as motivated.”
I think this goes hand-in-hand with the last one, where you think you’ll just sit back and chill if you’re kind to yourself. Notice I said kind and not easy, because there’s a difference. Regardless, what does the research show this time? It increases our motivation. Why? Because we have less fear of failure AND get less upset when we do fail, and we take more responsibility when it comes to repairing our mistakes. Which means if you’ve struggled with certain parts of your illness before, you will be more motivated to fix them/do better in the future.

Increased motivation

Where do we start with self-compassion? I’m going to leave these three meditations: lovingkindness, kind hand, and compassion with equanimity here. But if you don’t like meditation, that’s okay it’s not necessary. My favourite way to easily engage it in is to just take one of my hand, imagine it’s filled with kindness, the same that I’d give a loved one, and place it on the part of my body (usually my chest) that needs it the most. And I just hold myself kindly (sometimes with a half smile). That’s it.

I hope you’re kinder to yourself and keep making the most of it.

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Why is Emotion Regulation Important For My Physical Health?

I’m going to be the first to admit that when I was younger I often struggled with my emotion regulation. This often came to the forefront in the context of relationships, because I had a “short temper.” I would get angry and yell, pretty quickly. I could always calm down, but I came to realize the older I got that I had to remove myself from the situation in order to get myself to be more calm. I had a really bad breakup geez, almost 5 years ago now, that I also had a difficult time controlling my emotions, especially sadness and rumination. That last time, that was the lesson for me. But we’ll get to that in moment…

A transition from a poor emotion regulation period to a better one.

First, let’s talk about what emotion regulation is, because I know that some of you may never have really heard the term before. Emotion regulation is our attempts to control the experience, expression, time and scale of our emotions. It has been long known to be important for our mental health, and only more recently explored for physical health. These are also skills that many of us learn as children, but often do require practice throughout our lifetimes. I worked in retail for a long time and as I reflect back I can see how customers yelling at me, for let’s be honest, very small things (I had a lady yell at me once because a competitor had an item for a dollar less but she didn’t tell me before she paid – I happily would have matched it… and by yelled I mean screamed bloody murder) and I realize they were exhibiting very poor emotion regulation, which is more harmful for themselves than the stress it caused me.

If you’re yelling at retail workers (or servers, etc) you might want to check on your emotion regulation skills.

Here’s what we know about emotion regulation and physical health:

  1. better emotion regulation impacts our overall physical health positively
  2. difficulties with emotion regulation, especially with prolonged negative emotion, can make you more at risk at developing heart disease
  3. emotional suppression and rumination (part of poor emotion regulation) cause lower energy, greater physical pain, greater disability, and overall lower quality of health
  4. difficulties with emotion regulation make it difficult to engage in self-care and health-related behaviours necessary for managing chronic illness
  5. better emotion regulation makes it easier to manage stressors in our lives, meaning less flares and relapses of illness
  6. better emotion regulation increases medication adherence and sticking with diet and exercise regimes

Back to my story. So, I had this breakup and this very poor emotion regulation following it, and then I had a flare so terrible I ended up in the hospital for pain. I was released the same day, and the pain came down a bit, but it really went back to normal levels when I was able to come out of the depressive funk I was in. I can safely say I have not had a problem regulating my emotions since… and I mean really who wants a flare like that again? So, we’ve answered the question why, and there are lots of “how tos” in regulating emotions, but I’m going to leave you with one to try out.

A much more emotionally regulated period

Learning to self-soothe. Again, many of us learn this skill as children, but not everyone does, and often we do less of it as we get older. Some ideas for practicing self-soothing are to do meditations such as loving kindness (click here) or a relaxation practice like progressive muscle relaxation (click here). Expressive writing about the experience (click here), breathing exercises (click here), and self-care strategies like taking a bubble bath, are more ways to lear to self-soothe. There are many other strategies online so I suggest a Google search if you’re looking for more!

Take care, and keep making the most of it!