Over my years of practice, I have come to believe that one of the most important aspects of coping with a chronic or acute illness or injury is developing a practice of self-compassion. In fact, I believe that self-compassion is crucial for the healing process.
Many of my patients struggle with self-criticism. When they develop a new health condition or injury, they often judge themselves for the development of the illness/injury. They say things like,
- I should have taken better care of myself.
- I should have taken care of this sooner. I should have gone to the doctor right away.
- I shouldn’t have gone on that trip/taken that job/started that activity.
The basic message they are telling themselves is that it’s their fault that they developed this health condition and that somehow they could have prevented it. When they are struggling in their healing process and not getting results in the timeline they expected, they say things like,
- I should be better by now. What am I doing wrong?
- What if this never gets better. How can I live my life like this?
- What did I do to cause this? Maybe I need to change doctors, my job, my relationship, my family, my life, etc.
The basic message they are telling themselves is that things should be different than they currently are. Often the anxiety from this situation builds up as people seek to “solve the issue.” Many times they believe that they have to change themselves and “do more.”
I believe that there is wisdom in reflecting on our life and lifestyle choices and there may be important life lessons. It is important to be an active participant in our own medical care and healing. However, the self-criticism adds unnecessary and unproductive stress to the situation. It takes us away from experiencing the present moment- which can include feeling challenging emotions like grief and loss. When we allow for these emotions we experience growth. Furthermore, when we blame ourselves, we separate from our common humanity which acknowledges that we all will face health conditions and injuries.
In Buddhism, they call this self-criticism the “second arrow.” The story is that if you get struck by an arrow, many people will add to the pain by shooting themselves with a second arrow. Instead of feeling the essential pain of the first arrow, they increase their suffering by their own thoughts about the situation.
If you find yourself in this place of self-blame and self-criticism, you are human. After all, Buddhists were describing this thousands of years ago which means that humans have been doing this for a long time. Please don’t criticize yourself for the self-criticism since that just perpetuates the cycle.
How do we get out of this harmful self-critical practice? The answer is self-compassion.
I learned about self-compassion from the teachings of Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach and researcher Kristin Neff. I highly recommend checking out their websites/videos/books. Self-compassion asks us to be kind to ourselves and is a practice of speaking to ourselves in soothing language as if we were speaking to a loved one.
Self-compassion looks like putting our hand over our heart and saying, “This is difficult right now. It is part of being human. May I offer myself kindness and compassion.”
Self-compassion does not change the circumstances of the illness or injury, but it does decrease the stress of the situation. It interrupts the stressful stream of thoughts that include self-blame and self-criticism. Self-compassion allows us to respond with love and care for ourselves and the motivation for change and action becomes love instead of fear. This can allow for the greatest type of healing because we become partners with ourselves in this human experience.