By Jo Moss
“Self compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others”
We often talk about the physical symptoms we have to deal with when living with a chronic illness, but we often shy away from discussing the negative, raw emotions that surface, too. Anger, resentment, frustration, grief for your past life, self pity and desperation are all emotions we face on a daily basis. But the hardest emotion I find is guilt. Guilt for having to constantly ask for help even when my husband is exhausted from working long hours, guilt for having to cancel plans at the last minute when I’m not well enough, guilt for not being strong enough to emotionally support my loved ones, guilt for not being able to cook for my husband, guilt for being emotionally needy, guilt for not having a smile on my face when I’m in pain, guilt for not being the life and soul of the party, guilt for all the things my husband is missing out on, guilt that I can’t be the woman he married. That’s a whole lot of guilt for one person to be carrying around.
I have always enjoyed looking after my husband, I know it might sound old fashioned, but I always felt pride in cooking for him and keeping a nice house. I have always been in charge of the household finances and been emotionally strong and independent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the sort of person who spends hours each day cleaning and I’ve always had a full life, but I took pride in these things.
But that all changed five years ago when I became virtually bed bound due to severe ME/CFS and fibromyalgia. My physical and mental health had been deteriorating for years, but rather than accept my limitations and rest, I did what many of us do and tried to push through. I hoped by ignoring the signs and fighting on, I could somehow beat the illness. I fought for years before I finally admitted I wasn’t coping and needed help.
So, the tables turned. Not only could I not look after my husband anymore, I couldn’t even look after myself. I couldn’t clean, I couldn’t be an emotional support for my husband, family and friends. I needed help with personal hygiene, I couldn’t even shower myself without my husband’s help. I hated having to ask for help. This was a huge shift for me and a big change like this brings a multitude of negative emotions––I often feel inadequate, selfish, a failure, pathetic and full of guilt.
Fortunately I’ve discovered lots of tools to challenge these difficult thoughts and emotions, they’re still a work in progress, but I really want to share:
11 strategies for combating these negative thoughts and emotions.
1. Self compassion
The biggest and most important strategy I’ve discovered is learning how to show myself compassion. Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. To have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. And when you feel compassion for another, it means that you realise that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. We need to find a way to show ourselves the same compassion we show offers.
2. Prioritise your health and happiness
It’s easy to get down on yourself and feel like you aren’t worthy of being the number one focus of your own life, but sometimes, you’ve just got to devote some time to your own needs, hobbies, and enjoyment. It helps you feel balanced and appreciated in the rest of your life, which can only be a good thing. I’ve spent so much time apologising and feeling bad about asking for help that I’ve often forgotten about my own needs and feelings. I also often forget that I didn’t ask for this either; it’s not my fault I’m ill.
I hide a lot from my loved ones because I don’t want to worry or burden them, but this is often counterproductive. By bottling up our emotions they grow and become much bigger problems––we give them power by shutting them away. I’ve found that communication makes a huge difference. Talk to your loved ones about how you are feeling. They may be feeling negative emotions, too. They may feel they don’t do enough, or feel frustrated that they can’t take away your pain. Talk to your support network, whether that’s friends online or in real life, about how you are feeling. We are often so self critical, a bit of perspective can achieve a lot.
4. What would a friend tell you?
One tip that has really helped me is asking myself what a friend would say. We spend so much of our lives talking negatively to ourselves. If a friend was experiencing these same problems and negative emotions, what would you say? Write a letter to yourself, but imagine you’re writing it to a friend. What would you tell them about what they’re doing? Would you say they weren’t good enough or that they’re not worthy? No, you wouldn’t. Chances are you would be supportive, encouraging and positive.
5. Positive affirmations
When I pay attention to how much strength it takes just to survive, and I focus on how far I have come and what I’ve achieved, I find it easier to let go of my negativity.
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You need to realise you are worthy, you are a good person and you have a lot to offer despite your poor health. On a day when you feel emotionally stronger, spend a few minutes writing a list of your strengths. If you don’t feel able to do this, ask a friend to do it for you.
Spend a few moments each day reading this list and thinking about what makes you unique, what you bring to your relationships, what makes you a good person and what makes you worthy of love and compassion.
6. Do things that make you happy
When you live with a chronic illness the limited energy you have is normally used up carrying our practical tasks like washing, cleaning, etc. We feel we ‘should’ prioritise what we perceive to be essential chores but this often does not leave us with the energy to do the things we enjoy. Having fun, smiling, laughing, spending time with friends and relaxing are essential for our wellbeing.
7. Rest and restore
These negative emotions often arise when we are physically exhausted––fatigue makes everything harder to deal with. Concentrate on being kind to yourself––rest and find ways to heal yourself.
8. Acknowledge your life is tough
I try my best to remain positive but sometimes life throws too much at me, and I become overwhelmed and exhausted. It’s at times like this that guilt sets in––I feel weak; I feel like a failure; I feel like a burden. My emotions take over and my mental health deteriorates. But the truth is I’m not weak and neither are you. We just have a lot to deal with.
9. Focus on your abilities, not your disabilities
To alleviate the frustration that often accompanies a chronic illness, I try to concentrate on what I can do rather than what I can’t do. Acknowledging my abilities rather than focusing on my disabilities has been very liberating and is an excellent tool for enhancing well-being and self-worth. It also helps to reduce negative emotions.
10. Acknowledge your feelings are valid
Although these negative thoughts and emotions are exhausting and often represent a warped perception of reality, we need to acknowledge they are valid. It’s completely understandable, given the challenges of poor health, that you experience these frustrations. Please don’t beat yourself up about feeling this way.
It’s perfectly natural to spend time grieving the life you have lost; it’s a vital part of the healing process. We often forget the importance of acknowledging grief, and when we don’t give ourselves this time to mourn, anger and guilt can take over.
11. Remove self-blame
This is a big one for me! It’s not our fault we are ill, and it’s not our fault we need to ask for help! The limitations our poor health places on our lives need to be acknowledged. We need to accept them and encourage those around us to accept them too. Let’s commit to stop blaming ourselves for what is out of our control.
When these negatives emotions rear their ugly heads, the best thing we can do is cut ourselves some slack. Be kind to yourself––show yourself some compassion. Rather than beat yourself up, try to rest and find ways to heal yourself. By focusing your energy on self love and compassion, you bring a calmer, more centered person into your relationships.
But please don’t forget: It’s ok to feel overwhelmed, it’s ok to feel sad or depressed, it’s ok to feel angry about your situation, it’s ok to cry, it’s ok to ask for help, it’s ok to admit you are not coping, it’s ok to have bad days––you are only human. Take care.
Jo Moss is a 43 year old ME/CFS, Fibromyalgia and Mental health awareness campaigner. She has battled with poor health all her life but has learnt a lot along the way. She uses her blog ‘A Journey through the Fog’ to try to help others who are also suffering and to raise awareness of invisible illnesses. She writes about all aspects of her health and aims to give practical advice about coping with a chronic illness, based on her own experiences. You can follow Jo on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.