Video: Are You Being a Good Friend to Yourself?

Building resiliency is extremely important when you have chronic pain or chronic illness. One of the best ways to do that is through self-compassion, and yet most people cringe when they hear that word. Self-compassion is treating yourself the way you would treat a friend. Would you treat a friend the way you’re currently treating yourself?

Keep making the most of it everyone!

How to Find Inspiration in Poetry: The Peace of the Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
-William Berry

I think this is an absolutely beautiful poem for many reasons. Two main thoughts came to mind when I first heard it as I was attending a Compassion in Therapy summit in April (yes, I know I do a lot of these types of summits, they’re terrific). The first, is that it does remind me of self-compassion practices, and second, that nature has ultimate healing powers. While I’ve blogged about these topics before, I want to write about them in the context of this poem, as a way for me (and you) to remember why they are so important, especially if you have a chronic illness.

Costa Rica, 2019

Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is comprised of 3 elements: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. In the poem, Berry describes mindfulness of his thoughts in the first part, and then just being present with full experiencing in the second part. “I come into the presence of still water” and “I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” These are very mindful phrases and experiences. Then there is the phrase, “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” I see this as relating to common humanity as it suggests that all human “tax their lives” with these thoughts and feelings – in contrast to wild things, which (as far as we know) don’t have the cognitive abilities to have these thoughts that can consume us. Thinking is part of being human. What I think represents self-kindness in this poem is that (a) Berry doesn’t judge himself for having these thoughts, and (b) he makes the decision to take care of himself in the moment and give himself what he needs – a reprieve into nature. Now, I’m personally left to wonder, what can I do today that is self-compassionate? Maybe lay a kind hand on my chest, maybe imagining breathing in compassion for myself and out compassion for others, or maybe it is literally going outside into nature. What do you need?

Nature

Ecotherapy and forest bathing are totally a thing. I actually talked to a client of mine about this recently because they mentioned that they feel good in the forest, literally touching the trees. Me too. So much research supports being in nature. I recently listened to a podcast that suggested even just eating outside is good for us (which I immediately told my parents about because we ate el fresco all summer long when I was growing up). Near my apartment, there is an inlet with beautiful hiking trails along it and tons of big, beautiful trees that are ever-so-present in British Columbia. The air is so refreshing, especially if it’s recently rained. Everything about this trail (and really a lot of trails in this province) makes me feel good. Both physically and mentally. I had the same experience in Costa Rica. My friend and I would touch the trees and vines, really connecting with the beauty and nature, and all of the healing properties of it. When’s the last time you spent time outside? Is there a park near you that you can go to? Can you eat outside on your patio or deck?

Sometimes we can find inspiration to improve the quality of our lives (with these easy and gentle practices) in the most interesting places, like The Peace of the Wild Things. I hope this inspires you to keep making the most of it!

What Can We Control When We Have a Chronic Illness?

Here’s how I see it: in my life there are things that are out of my control. No matter what I do, I cannot change them. And then there are things in my life that are totally within my control, and I do what I can to change them. Seems pretty simple, right? Well, yes and no. There is this concept in psychology called ‘locus of control’ that has been vigorously studied. It basically describes how people make sense of different influences on their life. There are two types of locus of control. The first is internal, in which we believe what happens to us is caused by our own actions. The second is external, in which we believe that what happens to us is caused by outside forces. Would you believe that having a high internal locus of control is helpful? Especially for those of us with chronic illness or pain? Well, that’s what the research says…

There have been a ton of studies showing that people with high internal locus of control tend to have better health habits overall, are more likely to be screened and tested for health conditions, and actually have better mental health after being diagnosed with an illness. Janowski et al. (2013) found this was the case across chronic health conditions in their study. According to a study by Brown et al. (2018), people with high external locus of control have a lower quality of life, in their study on cancer patients. The great thing is, this is information we can utilize to make our lives better with our chronic illnesses. But how, you might ask?

I want you to take a moment and ask these questions to yourself. What do I have most control over in my life? What do I have the least control over?
We often focus on things that are not in our control, such as the behaviour of others, actually getting an illness, and our difficult thoughts and feelings that are associated with all of this (and are an important part of being human). When we focus on these things we end up feeling helpless, hopeless, angry, anxious, guilty, sad, and so on (the struggle switch). We get stuck on these stories of “if I wasn’t sick my life would be good” or “my life will be great when I’m not in pain anymore, and will be miserable until that day comes.” This is common when you have an illness or a severe injury (like a concussion for example). The problem is, we don’t know if or when we will ever be without our illness or pain or injury, etc.

I didn’t have control over getting sick, nor can I stop my thoughts and feelings from occurring (they’re part of being human).

What we can do instead is start focusing our time and energy on what is in our control, such as our actions/behaviours/whatever you want to call it. Self-empowerment is one of those now almost silly terms that was hijacked by the self-help life coach world, but essentially, having a high internal locus of control and then taking control of what we can is the epitome of self-empowerment. The better health behaviours we have = the better quality of life we have (even with illness and pain).

What can we do to take control?

  • Unhook from our difficult thoughts and feelings – try this or this.
  • Connect with our values to determine how we want to act even with the challenges that we face – listen to this.
  • Take action, behaving like the sort of person we want to be, so that we can live the sort of life we want to live – listen to this.
I can take control over my actions and lead a values-based life.

If you currently have a high external locus of control and a low internal one, this switch might be difficult to do. You may need the extra support of a psychotherapist/counsellor, and you will definitely want to give yourself patience, time, and kindness. We all have the opportunity to live a great life, regardless of our health status, so let’s see if this helps us make the most of it!

What Does Aesop’s Fable of the Wind and the Sun Say About Chronic Pain & Illness?

Aesop’s Fable: The Wind and the Sun
The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said, “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak around him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.

“Kindness effects more than severity.” This is the moral of the fable. How does this apply to chronic illness, chronic pain, health and mental health more generally? So many of us have harsh, relentless inner critics. The voice in our heads that tells us we didn’t do a good enough job, or we aren’t good enough or smart enough, etc. In terms of pain and illness it may tell us we are being punished or we can’t have a good life, that our life is over and ruined. Our mind thinks it’s helping us and protecting us when it does this, but like the Wind in Aesop’s fable, all this does is demotivate us. It makes us struggle more and more against the difficulties in our lives. Vast amounts of research show that struggling makes it worse – yes, even symptoms of pain and illness are worse with struggle (struggle can include avoidance and distraction).

Notice what it’s like to respond to yourself with kindness, like the Sun.

The alternative is kindness. You may recall my fairly recent post called “Why Aren’t We Kinder To Ourselves?” where I explain why this all happens. When we are kind to ourselves we are actually more motivated to make our life better. We struggle less and are more accepting and open to our experiences. This isn’t necessarily an easy change to make. After so long of the Wind of our minds doing its thing, we need to learn to respond like the Sun. Maybe it’s offering kind words. Maybe it’s doing a self-compassion journal at the end of every day. Maybe it’s doing compassionate meditations, like the one below. There are many ways to cultivate the kindness of the Sun toward ourselves and it will also make our symptoms – both physical and mental health – a lot better. And by the way, I use this all on myself as well.

The same goes if we are motivating others. Have you ever tried to tell your partner or children to do something in a harsh and demanding way, like the Wind? What was the result? Probably not great, and even if you got what you wanted, you may have inadvertently hurt the relationship. What if you responded with kindness, like the Sun? It’s like the result was what you wanted and you may have even improved the relationship. Just some things to consider.

So this week, see if you can be more like the Sun to yourself when you’re struggling with the difficult sensations, emotions, and thoughts that come up. This is all in service of making the most it.

My Ultimate Pain Coping Skills Part 3: Compassionate Self-Talk

If you’re just tuning in this week, we’re halfway through a 4-part series on some of my favourite pain coping skills. Why are they my favourites? Well, for one, they all have worked for me so direct experience is useful. Two, they are all evidence-based – there has been scientific research on them (and yes, I’m nerdy enough to spend the time reading the articles published in scientific journals). Third, I see them work with my clients in my counselling practice. And as such, I thought it was about time I shared them all with you. This week we’re talking about self-talk and changing that from the harsh inner critic to something a lot more compassionate.

Compassionate self-touch is also helpful.

Recently I wrote a post about being kinder to ourselves, which seems to be quite popular, so we can think of this as an extension of that. Most people have a harsh inner critic, or voice in their heads, telling them that they aren’t good enough, or shouldn’t have done this or that, etc. The voice is there for evolutionary purposes (see the video below on the caveman mind) but it unfortunately isn’t too helpful in our modern world. When we have chronic pain, the voice often shows up as “you’ll never be able to do anything again,” “this is what your life is now,” “no one will ever love you if you’re like this,” etc. Sound familiar? If it does, know that you’re not alone. This is extremely common. But what if we could combat this voice somehow?

Dr. Russ Harris is my hero.

The great thing is, we can learn to respond to it with a compassionate voice. No, that inner critic voice probably won’t just go away (remember, we evolved to have it). But we can learn to respond to it differently. We don’t have to just listen to it, give into it, get hooked by it. This takes some practice though.

We can definitely learn something about compassion from our animals.

I recently went through the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. In it there is an exercise on developing your compassionate voice. You are supported to think about a behaviour you’re struggling with. Then notice what your inner critic is saying. So example, with chronic pain this might be getting up to go for a walk or clean the house, etc. Your inner critic might be saying “you’re never going to be able to do these things again.” Then you are to try out a few self-compassionate phrases. Such as “I am here for you, and will take care of you.” or “I know you are suffering. I love you.” And so on. It should be something you really need to hear. Then when that critical voice appears, we can use our new phrases to respond to it.

You can purchase this on Amazon.

What does this do for us? Well for one, it greatly improves our mood. The relationship between low mood and chronic pain has well been documented (low mood creates more pain, more pain creates lower mood). So by improving our mood, we may actually have less pain (I find this is very true for me). It is also more motivating to respond this way. Yes, it may be hard to engage in the behaviour, but by being here for yourself, supporting yourself, you may be able to take some steps (however small) toward doing that behaviour.

I hope this helps with your chronic pain coping. As always, keep making the most of it!

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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Daily Mindfulness: Self-Compassion

One thing most of us don’t seem to do enough of is self-compassion. As children we are taught to be compassionate to each other, but rarely are we told to turn that compassion inwards. In this practice, we use our hands to help draw some kindness, compassion and love into ourselves. We truly can never be compassionate to others if we aren’t compassionate to ourselves first.

Be compassionate to yourself this week and keep making the most of it!

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