Self care is hard. Knowing when to stop and take care of yourself is hard. Not feeling incompetent or lazy because you’re having a hard time doing what you “should” be doing is hard. Writing about this is hard, because it’s all so much easier said than done, and will be easier for some people than others. It will be especially hard for those who most often care for others. It may even be impossible for some, but I’m going to try and encourage you to give self care and self compassion a try too.
As chronically ill people, so many of us spend so much time beating ourselves up for having a hard time doing many things that seem so easy for others. Many of us beat ourselves up for needing medication, and for needing to rest when there’s something else we feel we “should” be doing. Some struggle with using mobility aids in public, and wind up going without (to our own detriment) or just staying home. All of this can be especially hard for those of us with invisible illnesses. I have agonized over all of this quite a bit myself; feeling like my inability to keep up was merely a failure of will, not a real and regular part of my chronic health conditions.
Negative self talk is something I have worked on a lot, and continue to work on, and will likely have to work on continuously for the rest of my life. In the past year I’ve made a concentrated effort to take better care of myself both psychologically and physically. For me this has meant lots of therapy, making careful choices about what I can and cannot do, pacing myself, and making conscious choices to trade self hatred for radical self compassion. It hasn’t been easy, but it has gotten easier; like most challenging and worthwhile things in life, it’s taken practice.
I have struggled with it so much I created a decision making algorithm for managing those choices on my bad days. It has helped me to mitigate my guilt when I’m having a hard time doing The Thing, whatever that thing happens to be on any given day. It seems silly, but it’s made a huge difference for me to have my options laid out before me, knowing I did what I could. So much of that guilt and negative self talk comes from internalizing inaccurate external messages that I was lazy, when in reality, I was sick. Now that I know that, when those messages pop up in my brain, I’m much more adept at ignoring or replacing them with something more compassionate and true.
Identifying where those messages came from was really helpful for me. It helped me to identify a lot of internalized ableism that has come from outside of myself. Negative messages about disabilities are insidious and pervasive, and they shaped large portions of my self image without me even realizing. This is true for a lot of us, whether we struggle with just getting out of bed, cleaning the house, using mobility aids in public, allowing ourselves the rest our bodies demand, taking medication, or asking for the help we need. This knowledge can empower you to choose something else.
You can continue to beat up on yourself and hold yourself back, or you can tell that negative self talk to shove off, and lean into self care. This isn’t always an option, especially for those with children (I don’t know how you do it, and you are heroes—all of you). Sometimes you really need to do The Thing, and there’s people counting on you. But even when you have no choice but to do The Thing, you do have a choice in how you talk to yourself about how hard a time you’re having. When I'm getting down on myself, I try to ask if I would say to a friend what I'm saying to myself. That answer is invariably "no," and so I try to follow the rule that if I wouldn't say it to someone I love, I will not say it to myself. That doesn’t mean the negative self talk will stop, but if you can identify those thoughts for what they are, you can try to replace them with some nicer stuff. The trick is not getting caught in the feedback loop of beating yourself up for beating yourself up too much—that’s my new specialty.
If you have a hard time with it, that’s okay. You are, after all, a human. Self care starts with self compassion. I’d like to encourage you to try it out, even if it’s just a little bit at a time, because you deserve it. Be excellent to yourself.