As people with ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome), we work hard to give ourselves the best chance to have a healthier, happier life. We have big challenges to overcome and have to persistently spend a lot of our time on self-care. We have to learn to accept and adapt to very difficult circumstances. We have to grieve our losses and learn new ways of being happy. We have to learn to manage pain and keep within our energy envelope. We have to assertively state our boundaries and cope with isolation and disbelief. We have to adapt to difficult diets and the side effects of medication. We spend hours researching and experimenting with what might help because nobody can give us the answer.
At this time of year, the average person has already let go of their New Year’s resolutions; yet, we need to keep our self-help going all the time, and we need to keep facing those challenges and taking the next step. How are we supposed to do what is so hard for the average person, when we have even fewer resources available to us?
I’ve come to realise recently that what makes people good at self-help is their ability to keep their eye on the prize. In order to keep working at it, we need to believe in the potential benefits; we need to stay connected to our intention for our routine practices and we need to pay attention to our small steps and achievements.
Let’s take a look at how to stay motivated for self-care, even when the going gets tough.
3 Strategies for an Effective Self-Care Routine
1. Believe in the Benefits; Pay Attention to the Prize!
A lot of what drives our behavior happens on a subconscious level. Our subconscious programming has the purpose of moving towards pleasure and away from pain. When we want to create change, or establish a helpful habit, we need to convince our subconscious that it is the most beneficial thing to do. First of all, we need to really believe that it will get us where we want it to. Then we have to show our subconscious how much more we will benefit from the new behavior.
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Having a vision for the kind of life you’d like to be living can help with that. Can you imagine yourself living a life that works for you and is adaptive to your condition? If you were really good at illness management what could life be like? What would you be doing? What would it feel like? How much better would it feel than a life where you’re not investing in your self-care. Visualize that life regularly and you’ll find it easier to be motivated to do all the things you need to do.
2. Stay Connected to Intention.
Once we believe in what we are working towards, we need to stay connected to the intention we have for each of our endeavours. For example, if you believe that eating healthily will contribute to your well-being, be mindful of your intention while you eat a healthy meal. Appreciate how you are nourishing yourself in the moment. You might want to be specific and while you’re drinking a green smoothie or eating a colorful salad, pay attention to all the antioxidants that you are introducing to your body that can go around mopping up all those nasty free radicals. If you believe that meditation will bring you the peace that will help your body send its resources to healing, every time you sit down to meditate, remind yourself that this is your time for peace and healing. If you believe that gentle movement will help your lymphatic system detox your body, each time to get ready for your tai chi or your gentle yoga, remind yourself that you’re helping your body to do essential work.
3. Pay Attention to Small Steps and Achievements.
Positive change rarely happens fast when you have a chronic illness, but if you pay enough attention, you will be able to see your gradual improvements. Instead of seeing the distance to our goal, we need to pay attention to the fact that we are closing the gap. Knowing that we are feels good now, and paying attention to how much we are making life better for ourselves now can be a reward in itself.
But we need to think small and learn to place value on those small achievements. If you think about a strong man who pulls a truck and a marathon runner, both are amazing achievements even though the strong man is only walking about 100 yards and the marathon runner is running 26 miles. Chronic illness is like our truck, 100 yards might seem nothing when you compare it to 26 miles but add the truck and it’s another thing all together. Unlike running, pulling a truck doesn’t come naturally and is a technique you have to train for. Noticing small achievements is very similar! We need to train ourselves to notice and value the little things.
One practice that might help is keeping an achievements journal at the end of the day. Write down three things (or more) that you achieved that day, bearing in mind the challenges of chronic illness. Make sure you recognise the small steps that you are taking and observe even the tiniest of improvements.
Whatever you are already doing to take care of yourself, you are doing a great job, so congratulate yourself right now! However, if you’ve been struggling to keep things going and would like to do better, keep your eye on the prize, stay mindful of your intention and pay attention to your achievements – however small they may be.
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on March 23, 2017 and was updated on February 18, 2021.