In this short exercise, we work on developing our “noticing self” in order to help create some perspective. The “noticing self” can be extremely helpful to develop when you have a chronic illness and/or chronic pain. Rather than get overwhelmed by our sensations or try to get rid of them, it can help us live more effectively with our current, present-moment experience. If you have questions or comments about this, feel free to comment on the video and I’ll try my best to answer. I did do a podcast episode on this concept back in the day, here’s the Youtube link.
I’m a musician. Not professionally of course, but it is definitely part of my identity. I began playing the piano at age 5. I took lessons until I graduated from high school. I took practical and theory exams with Conservatory Canada (formerly the Western Board of Music) to the point that I have Grade 8 practical and Grade 4 theory. In junior high and high school I played the alto sax in band and jazz band. In high school I sang in the choir, played they keyboard for one of our vocal jazz groups, sang in another vocal jazz group, and always had a role in the school musicals. To this day, I still play my piano daily and sing along with songs as they come on the radio. I can play about 3 chords on the guitar, and I swear I’m going to take lessons one day! As a mental health professional I have also learned a lot about music and resilience.
Resilience can be defined as the ability to adjust to change or difficulties in life. Resilience utilizes our emotional strengths and our awareness of and ability to use our coping mechanisms to overcome adversity (Merriam-Webster, 2021). Resilience is also key to dealing effectively with chronic illness and chronic pain. Why? Because things are constantly changing and adapting. We have strong emotions and thoughts about our situations and these can often lead to depression and anxiety as well. We need to and want to be able to cope with what is happening. Yet many of us struggle with resilience for several different reasons, from childhood experiences to the pain itself and a lot in between. The good thing is we can learn to develop more resilience.
There is a ton of research on the benefits of music, such as increasing self-awareness, being more socially connected to others, and it helps to regulate mood (Schafer et al, 2013). It also enhances self-regulation, initiative and helps to strengthen relationships with others, not just connect us with them. Resilience skills in general do the same with our self-regulation, awareness, mood, initiative and relationships. There is a lot of overlap, so it makes sense that music would be helpful for this. In terms of how music builds resilience specifically, there is the idea of ‘musicking’ or our musical life in terms of an I-Thou relationship (this is an interesting existential idea that allows us to engage in perspective-taking, which in itself increases resilience as I’ve seen first-hand with my clients). The relationships of sounds, bodies, and psyches as presented in musical compositions/song builds this perspective-taking ability (Malloch & Trevarthen, 2018). Beyond this, musician can communicate musicality in order to enliven both themselves and listeners. (Malloch & Trevarthen, 2018). Therefore, listening to music, not just playing it, can build reslience.
In a clinical setting, music can be used in two different way. Music Therapists use specific music interventions to help individuals with their specific goals, mood regulation, resilience, etc. in an individual or group therapy setting. There is specific training to be able to do this. The other is “music for wellness” which is having musical experiences – listening, playing, etc. – for the purpose of wellbeing and general functioning. As I’m not a music therapist, I encourage my clients to engage in the latter, which is also how I engage with music.
Music for chronic pain has also been studied. For example, in a palliative care setting, music was found to actually decrease chronic pain in patients, which I found super interesting. This really ties into the resiliency. Typically when we are more resilient our pain either actually decreases or just doesn’t bother us as much. Honestly, I’m fine with either scenario. The last few days my knee has been hurting a lot. I’m not sure if it’s related to my UCTD or my hyper-mobile knee joints (my physio thinks they’re related to each other). I do notice that when I play the piano, or even just listen to music while I’m on a walk, my pain is less noticeable. Perhaps because of distraction or perhaps because the music is building my ability to be resilient, not just in those moments but throughout life. Take a listen to this podcast episode with musician and music teacher Melissa, who has multiple chronic illnesses.
Pick a song to listen to, play, or sing along with today and see if that helps you to keep making the most of it!
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.
Mindfulness, which includes being present with our thoughts and feelings.
Kindness, or acting with care and understanding opposed to judgment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.