When you live with chronic pain, you can’t stop the weather — but you can learn to adjust your sails.
One of the most demoralizing experiences of living with a chronic condition is pouring all your effort and energy into doing the “right” things to manage your symptoms and still ending up in a debilitating flare.
I’ve been dealing with chronic illness for most of my 20s, and after a decade of working with pain psychologists and health coaches, reading countless books, and developing a strong mindfulness practice, I still find myself in the trap of feeling like I’ve done something “wrong” when pain ramps up.
These thought patterns can be relentless and wreak havoc on my psyche. It can feel like an unwinnable game of chess. Once the pain kicks up, I overanalyze every small move I’ve made.
My overactive brain seems to want to convince me that if I had just made better choices and thought strategically enough about my actions, I could have “won” the game and not wound up in pain.
Identifying and learning to let go of this kind of thinking and unwarranted self-blame has been pivotal in my healing.
The frustration, guilt, overthinking, and shame of feeling “at fault” for the already very challenging pain I am experiencing is like pouring gasoline on a raging fire. It’s sneaky mental ammo that’s disguised as a well-intentioned form of help.
In reality, it usually only serves to make my stomach sink with shame and cause my existing pain to escalate.
Criticizing myself for what I may or may not have done to contribute to a particular flare, when I’ve already expended so much effort into trying to minimize symptoms out of my control, merely burns up my remaining, limited stamina — and makes me feel worse about myself.
When I realize I’ve slipped into the “no-win, self-blame game,” self-compassion is almost always the antidote.
If you’re anything like the person I was when I first began my journey with chronic illness, that previous sentence probably made you roll your eyes.
I used to feel like the suggestion of using self-compassion as a tool to combat severe pain was a way of belittling the enormity of the pain I was experiencing and not a viable coping tool or worthwhile use of my energy. It seemed too “woo-woo” or “fluffy,” and I resisted any insinuation that my pain could be helped by simply being nicer to myself.
Over time, however, I’ve found that although self-compassion might not fix my pain or solve my problems, it can smooth their jagged edges. It can, and has on many occasions, served as a salve and helped me to flow through incredibly excruciating, challenging, and difficult moments with a little bit more ease.
Sometimes, I like to use the analogy of a storm blowing through a beach to a flare moving through my body.
On a beach vacation, if a day is full of thunder and rain, my response is not to spend the whole day inside coming up with ways to blame myself for causing the weather.
I might experience emotions of disappointment, frustration, or sadness, but you would never catch me out in the middle of the storm yelling at the sky, berating it with criticism, demanding it stop the storm and give me the sunshine I deserve.
Self-compassion during chronic pain has taught me to release that type of hyper-critical resistance and the need to find someone or something to blame for whatever circumstances I am experiencing.
Just like standing in the middle of a storm and shouting at the sky will not alter its course, being in a chronic condition flare and reprimanding myself like a drill sergeant to figure out what I “did wrong” won’t calm or soothe the pain that’s present in that moment.
I’m not sure if I will ever be able to fully shake the habit of slipping into the thinking pattern that leads me to wonder where I went wrong and holds me responsible when big pain kicks up. But after years of working on deepening my relationship to self-compassion, acceptance, and mindfulness, I have realized that it’s OK.
I’ve learned that it is, in fact, very natural for those thoughts to come up — and that my power lies in how I respond to them.
I don’t have to eliminate them completely in order to flow through life with chronic illness with more ease.
What matters more is my intention to return, time and time again, to a baseline state of self-compassion.
What matters is my ability to feel a storm blow through my being, notice the emotional winds trying to stir my mind into chaos alongside the physical symptoms of booming thunder and lightning, and to try to mindfully soften.
I know that in every single moment I have a new chance to recognize that through every weather system or challenge of my life, my inhales and exhales are working steadily to pull me through to calmer conditions.
My job, while the storm blows through, is merely to remember to tap into that ever-present anchor, as often as I can remember to do so. It’s to remind myself that every time I inhale, I can welcome compassion, and every time I exhale, I can choose to release even the tiniest amount of resistance.
I can’t stop the storms from coming, but I can learn to adjust my sails.
Natalie Sayre is a wellness blogger sharing the ups and downs of mindfully navigating life with chronic illness. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and digital publications, including Mantra Magazine, Healthgrades, The Mighty, and others. You can follow her journey and find actionable lifestyle tips for living well with chronic conditions on Instagram and her website.