The Healing Power of Self-Compassion

On Monday morning, I experienced the simple bliss of waking up without a headache. Over a year ago, my neurologist told me that waking up every morning with a headache is a sign that I am over-using medication (triptans and Ibuprofen in my case) causing rebound headaches. Though I rarely treat my headaches and migraines with any medication that can cause rebound, my head is still wracked with pain most mornings before I even open my eyes.

Monday morning was different, though. I woke up pain-free and ecstatic to spend the day with my boyfriend who is visiting me after a long summer apart. We enjoyed coffee and breakfast together, and the pleasure of spending a pain free morning with the person I love the most made me giddy with gratitude and relief.

These moments of respite from pain are bittersweet and always too short-lived. Shortly after breakfast, I was hit with extreme fatigue. Nausea, light sensitivity, and eventually throbbing pain soon followed until I was fully immersed in a migraine. I went from a happy young woman ready for a beautiful day to an exhausted, brain-dead dark-dweller. In my pain and disappointment, I cried and raged and internally bashed my body for being useless for little more than misery or pain. Even after two years of chronic migraines, every single migraine feels like a betrayal.

My body deserves my compassion, not my rage.

I know this but have to remind myself of it daily. I expect a level of compassion from my family, friends, partner, and doctors that I have trouble giving myself. When a migraine sets in my emotional strength is drained, and my mind wanders easily to negative, self-critical thinking patterns. There is nothing unhealthy about complaining externally or internally when you’re in pain, but when you’re in pain for so much of your life those thinking patterns can take over and lead to isolation and a further diminished quality of life.

Those of us with chronic pain have to take care to not slip in to an endless spiral of grief or anger. When I am suffering, I tend to be impatient with myself rather than understanding. I tend to view my pain and illness as a failure. I feel alone in my suffering, and I even resent my friends and family for their seemingly pain-free lives. Rather than giving my raw emotional self the tenderness I need, too often I harden against myself and others cutting myself off from my support system. This brings on feelings of guilt, and round and round I go in a feedback loop of isolation and pain.

Acknowledging unproductive thinking patterns is the first step in overcoming them. It takes time and work to view our bodies as trusted friends, but it is essential for finding peace and healing. Pain and suffering can strengthen us and bring us closer to humanity but only if we let it. There are several powerful practices that can be used daily to foster self-compassion, and I urge every person suffering from chronic illness to adopt at least one. A few of my favorites include:

  • Taking a self compassion break. Dr. Kristen Neff, the woman behind selfcompassion.org, advocates a simple three step exercise to help you get through moments of stress. Let yourself feel the stress and emotional discomfort that comes with chronic illness and say to yourself:
    1.  This is a moment of suffering.
    2. We all suffer in our lives.
    3. May I be kind to myself. (or May I accept myself as I am or May I give myself the compassion that I need.)
  • Repeating affirmations. I use a guided meditation CD created specifically for migraines that I absolutely love. The CD features several guided imagery and meditation tracks, but my personal favorites are the affirmations. At first it seemed silly to repeat positive sentiments to myself, but the results are powerful. Every time I complete affirmations I feel more at peace and ready to treat my body with the compassion it deserves. Examples of affirmations include: “More and more I can consider the possibility that my body is teaching me something useful, that I can take these headaches as signals to be softer and kinder to myself. I know that the more that I can accept my body as it is, without criticism or blame, the more I assist its natural tendency to feel well and be well. More and more I can appreciate my body for what it truly is – my oldest friend and my steadiest companion.”
  • Changing your critical self-talk. Dr. Kristen Neff goes into more detail on her website about how to quash self-criticism, but the simple version is a three step process.
    1. Acknowledge when you are being self-critical.
    2. Make an active effort to soften the self-critical voice.
    3. Reframe the observations made by your critic in a kind, positive way. Speak to yourself with the same care that you would expect from a very compassionate friend.
  • Exercising. As the wise Elle Woods said in Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins made you happy.” Nothing makes me feel stronger or more tuned into the magic of my body like a short walk or run. Of course, exercise isn’t always possible, but when I’m feeling up to it the cocktail of endorphins, fresh air, sweat, and sunshine works wonders on healing my body and mind.  
  • Treating yo’self. Take a bubble bath with soothing music, eat your favorite meal, curl up with a good book (or audiobook), spend an afternoon with a hobby, take a nap, or spend a few minutes with “Love After Love,” one of my favorite poems about accepting yourself just as you are.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

-Derek Walcott

 

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