You lay crouched in a ball on the sofa. Your body is so weak you can barely lift your legs, your pain so intense you can barely think. And your mind is so tired, it just wants to turn off.
This is a bad day. And your inner voice isn’t helping. “You should get up and actually do something,” it says. “Stop being such a wimp.”
You do one of two things in response. Either you listen to it, get up, tidy up, put the washing on, and then you end up with worse symptoms than you started with. You get grumpy and bite the head off anyone who crosses your path. And then you collapse, and your inner voice starts up again.
“You’re a failure,” it says. “You should be able to do that. You’re a burden.”
Or, you ignore it and, while you haven’t made your physical symptoms worse, the inner voice has a field day. It calls you lazy and weak and accuses you of being a faker.
This was my life when my chronic pain began. Every day my inner voice hurled abuse at me. Every day I sunk deeper into a pit of despair. I spent months existing rather than living, unable to dig my way out of the depression. Every day was a bad day. I cried on a daily basis.
It was months before I was going to start seeing my ME clinic, so I asked my General Practitioner if there was anything I could do to help me manage in the meantime. I was sent to a local cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) group for people with chronic pain. It didn’t claim to help your pain, but it did claim to help you live with it.
There were a lot of things I was told in that group that I tried and left. But one thing really helped me, and it was just four words: “Be kind to yourself.”
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It sounds too simple, but those words helped me accept my illness. The main thing I had to do was retrain my inner voice. I had to make myself conscious of it, listen to it, and every time it hurled abuse at me, I’d stop and say to myself: “What would you tell a friend in your position?” And then I’d say that to myself.
Looking in on your life as a friend, you realize how hard you are being on yourself. In those first days of trying it, I would sometimes cry in thanks for the kind words being said to me. It was a relief. I was strong. I was fighting every single day. I needed to give myself a break.
To start with, my negative inner voice kept hurling abuse, but the friend would always step in and console me. After doing this daily for several weeks, I started to notice something; that cruel inner voice was speaking less and the friend was speaking unprompted.
My mental health improved significantly. I stopped pushing myself to do things that didn’t really matter and started putting my energy into things that gave me pleasure or a sense of achievement. I would do very small bursts of writing, or I would sit down with a cup of tea and watch my favorite TV show. And best of all, I had enough energy in the evenings to have an actual conversation with my partner. I found myself letting go of the anger and the grief. As a result, life became much more enjoyable for both me and my partner.
I still used to break down and cry occasionally for a long time. But it’s been about two years now and I cry perhaps once every six months (not including when I’m watching sad films). My illness no longer rules me. It is still part of me that I live with every day, but I have accepted its presence.
That little mantra: “Be kind to yourself,” has changed my life and I am forever grateful to the team who gave me those words and helped me find and nurture my inner friend, who gave me my meaning back.
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on April 26, 2017 and was updated on May 8, 2021.
Laura Chamberlain is a former journalist who gave up her career shortly after her ME/CFS took hold. She has since also been diagnosed with Lyme disease, Fibromyalgia and Endometriosis. Laura writes about her experiences and raises awareness about living with chronic conditions at www.laurachamberlain.co.uk.