Chronic illness takes its toll in so many ways and requires different approaches to care. It is comfortable with our busy lives not to recognize self-compassion as important, and oftentimes to resist it. This being a result of the “scarcity” consciousness that there is not enough money, time, or love.
We then feel a need to grab what we need and hold on tight, and at the same time view opportunities to refill our gas tank as a time not being as productive as it could. We even may consider it somewhat selfish. However, the truth is the opposite.
Self-Care is a Necessity
Self-care is a necessity for anyone, even not suffering from chronic illness. If I am trying to live my life in a frantic chase, then I will be very depleted of patience, resiliency, and temper. This will cause many unintended side effects and poor judgments that will cost far more time than the prioritization of self-care. It’s very similar to the trip to the gas station. The car is nearly empty, and I know if I keep on driving, I will get stuck, so I make an investment in my future and fill up the gas. Also, some people feel like self-care is somehow selfish.
In this respect, I heard a fascinating story about a yoga retreat and the master who was talking about compassion. One of the students stated that they teach special needs children, and sometimes the children will hit her, and even bite her; how can she have compassion?
The teacher answer: first, you need to have compassion for YOURSELF. From my experience, those who are chronically ill and are usually overachievers. There is a significant opportunity to have compassion for oneself and make sure that we are well. So we need to permit ourselves to plan in our schedule specific times to fit particular needs.
This should be an appointment in our calendar, just like this writer has an appointment in his calendar to play dungeons and dragons on Monday night. Plan something in the week to do something which enriches your heart and soul.
Self-Care Can Be Anything that Makes You Feel Pampered
For everyone, this will be different. For me, it’s a combination of including time for fantastic uses of creativity and imagination; hence dungeons and dragons fill that role. I also make sure that I have time for spiritual endeavors such as meditation or visualization. These are often crucial as fall back place when I start to feel challenged by internal and external stressors.
If I took the time to charge up my visualization early in the day for a decent amount of time then when I need to use them later when I get cut off driving (I live in New YorkCity), it can help calm me down and bring me back to that place I already developed earlier in the day.
Another great indicator of our need for self-care is the recovery slogan H.A.L.T. This stands for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. When I have reached any of these states and don’t take care of it, then I am very prone to making bad judgments, snapping back at a co-worker, etc. This is kind of like the lights that appear on the dashboard when the window washer fluid is emptied.
If I ignore that, I’ll have a problem. Also, any bad judgments, and collateral damage that occurs, as a result, is all self-created drama, which could have been avoided if I would not have been depleted. This is the meaning of the slogan “pain is inevitable-suffering is optional.”
‘Count’ Your Spoons!
Many things will cause us pain, but our reaction to pain, including the management of our self-care, plays a significant role if the pain becomes suffering. For the chronically ill, the need for self-care becomes even more pronounced. I once heard of a parable to this effect where someone with a chronic illness was in a restaurant explaining to their friend how it is to live with illness vis-à-vis having limited energy.
She saw a bunch of spoons on the table, and picked them up, and said these represent her energy for the day; let’s say 15 spoons. Eating her meals is three spoons down, then her two chest therapy treatments are another two spoons that only leaves ten more for the day.
The average person has a much higher supply of spoons to start with!!! So if a person suffering from chronic illness doesn’t get stick to a self-care routine, they will have even fewer spoons to work with.
In psychotherapy, there many ways to help a person not “lose their spoons” over different perceptions they are having about life. Unprocessed impressions are not intrinsically accurate. Unprocessed perceptions are almost always false or at least exaggerated.
Self-Care Means Facing Life and Moving On
The reason being is that many times when we are genuinely distressed by a situation, there are aspects of the situation that are springboarding us back to old trauma or throwing us into exaggerating thinking as in catastrophizing. (Thinking the worst-case scenario of each situation will occur). There are tools to challenge these processes and help a person be able to keep some of these triggers within their window of tolerance.
However, the same situation when the person skipped breakfast and drank three coffees as a replacement will cause a person to have a meltdown. The issue was the fact that the person was not in a “ready for life” state when they encountered one of the many challenges that come up over a day.
How willing are you to make some aspect of self-care a part of your weekly or daily schedule? Rate your willingness from 0-10, with ten being the most willing. Then take your number and ask yourself why it wasn’t 0. This is a motivational interviewing technique to help move a person into more of a willingness to change consciousness by identifying the reason that it’s NOT 0.
Yonason (Ron) Witonsky, LCSW EMDR trained, is a Trauma and Crisis therapist with a private practice in New York City. He is the founder and clinical director of NYCSUPPORT.ORG and has first-hand experience with chronic illness in close family members. Yonason is happy to answer your comments and questions and can be reached at 718-614-5449 or emailed at [email protected].