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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Optimism, Pessimism, Mental Health & Chronic Illness

“Positivity is not about how to maintain a positive attitude, but how to produce positive emotions.” – Frederickson, 2009.

“Research indicates that pessimism correlates with depression, lowered achievement, and health problems.” – Martin Seligman, 1998.

If you don’t know who Seligman is, that’s totally okay and to be honest totally normal if you haven’t studied psychology. He’s the founder of positive psychology (which does not say that positivity is the cure to mental health, just to be clear) and has done a lot of research in this area. For me, the interesting part of the statement isn’t the mental health aspects, which are a bit less surprising, but the physical health part, because what does that mean for people with a chronic illness?

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Okay, so here’s a quick overview of some research of optimism vs. pessimism and chronic pain or illness. According to Forgeard and Seligman (2012) disease may progress slower for optimists than for pessimists. Optimists typically have better cardiovascular (heart) functioning and less heart disease, and they may have better immune functioning (though the research is more mixed on that the later). They also found that cancer patients had better survival rates one year after diagnosis if they were optimists, and that in general optimists are about half as likely to die from whatever disease they have than pessimists are. They do caution that some studies don’t show this effect and/or the results are negative, but it’s theorized that the stage of disease may play into this. They also theorize that unrealistic vs. realistic optimism plays a role. (I’ve often said that you can be – and that I am – a realistic optimist).

Life of a realistic optimist.

In terms of chronic pain, Ramirez-Maestre et al. (2012) found that optimism leads to better overall well-being and this might have to do with coping strategies that optimists and pessimists use. Basically, pessimists are more likely to use passive coping strategies such as avoidance and optimists are more likely to use active coping strategies such as acceptance. Active coping leads to lower pain severity, less depression, and better daily functioning.

I don’t know about you, but less pain always sounds good to me!

I can hear some of you saying, “But I’m naturally pessimistic! I can’t help it!” Positive psychology actually shows that we can have learned helplessness and learned optimism – yes, I said it, we can learn optimism. It’s not necessarily a fixed part of personality and there is research to support that. Basically, if we learn to combat negative self-talk, we can become more positive. Pessimism is caused by selecting our attention to certain things as well as a lack of internal confidence in our abilities to control or change parts of our lives (learned helplessness) so when we fail at something, we blame it on something within us we can’t change. I hope I didn’t lose anyone during this.

Seligman explains this way better than I do.

If you want to be more optimistic here’s something things you can do, according to Seligman:

  • utilize gratitude (maybe use a gratitude journal or write a gratitude letter)
  • help others in need (by volunteering for example)
  • challenge your negative thoughts and believes (what’s the evidence for and against them)
  • tackle your negative self-talk (trying changing it)

In the Science of Well-Being course taught by Yale professor Laurie Santos, she explains that only 50% of our happiness comes from genes. So, if you’re still believing that you can’t change from being a pessimistic to an optimistic because it’s how you are born, then remember that. 10% of our happiness comes from our circumstances, and the last 40% comes from our actions and thoughts. Which means, you can still improve your levels of happiness (and thereby some aspects of your health) even if you’re not naturally inclined to optimism.

If you haven’t checked out The Science of Well-Being course yet (it’s free), then I highly recommend it!

I hope this was helpful for some of you! Let me know how it goes with those four techniques to learning optimism! Keep on making the most of it!