Anxiety, Depression, Mental Illness

3 steps for treating yourself with compassion

By Caitlin B. 

One of my favorite quotes is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This quote reminds me to be patient with others. It also reminds me that I never know what sort of internal struggles another person might be facing. If I feel impatient or inclined to respond with anger, this quote reminds me to be humble and compassionate. It’s powerful quote that helps me treat others with kindness.

But this quote also has particular relevance for those of us who struggle with mental illness. We must remember to not only be kind to others but also kind to ourselves.

Many of us face a hard struggle each day and this struggle can sometimes be invisible to others. When you suffer from mental illness, getting up in the morning and taking a shower can require superhuman strength. Unfortunately, we often undervalue the hard work we are doing. We become exasperated with ourselves and grow impatient with our own daily struggles. This impatience can lead to overpowering feelings of shame and guilt, which are toxic to our mental health.

I often find myself grappling with the feeling that I’m not doing “enough” or not doing things right. But over the years, I’ve learned three helpful steps for being patient with myself and treating myself with compassion.

Step 1 – Give yourself credit for what you ARE doing

A few years ago, I went through a very difficult time with my anxiety disorder. I found myself struggling to complete even the most basic tasks. My anxiety was crippling and I was so sick that I was unable to work.

I arranged to take a medical leave of absence, but I was ashamed of my inability to keep up with my job. Worse, I felt too miserable to attempt to do anything else. As the days passed, I became obsessed with all the things I wasn’t doing. All I could think about were the areas in my life where I felt like I was falling short.

After I shared these feelings with my therapist, she advised me to start keeping a daily journal. She instructed me to write down everything I accomplished each day. The trick? I had to write down everything I did, from making myself a bowl of oatmeal in the morning to brushing my teeth at night.

The first few days of journaling were a revelation. Before, I had thought of my days as empty and useless. I wasn’t working, so I felt like I was accomplishing nothing.

But once I sat down and thought about it, I realized that I was doing a lot of difficult and important work every single day. I was doing my best to take care of myself and keep up with the tasks associated with daily life. It might not have looked like much from the outside, but for someone with intense anxiety, it was no small feat! Even going grocery shopping or calling for a refill of a prescription took an enormous amount of effort.

Once I started acknowledging that effort and giving myself credit for it, the sense of shame I felt started to lift.

Step 2 – Forgive yourself for what you AREN’T doing

Unfortunately, mental illness can be a major roadblock. Even when you’re doing your best and getting the necessary treatment, mental illness can sometimes limit how much you are able to do. It’s easy to beat yourself up over a failure to accomplish something. It’s equally easy to view this failure as a sign that you’re “broken” in some way. But if you view your own accomplishments in black and white terms (complete success vs. abject failure) you do yourself a disservice.

One of my favorite metaphors for chronic illness or disability is Christine Miserandino’s “spoon theory“. Miserandino describes her chronic illness in terms of having a limited number of “spoons” for each day. She explores how even the simplest tasks cost one or two “spoons” to complete. As a result, people with chronic health issues may find themselves running out of “spoons” much sooner than healthy people. Then, they need time to rest and recover so they can replenish their supply of “spoons”.

While Miserandino originally developed this metaphor based on her physical disability, I know I’m not the only reader who felt that this “spoon theory” is also a perfect description of what it can be like to have mental health issues. I too run out of “spoons” more quickly than most people. There have certainly been times in my life where just taking a shower, getting dressed, and eating breakfast was enough to deplete my supply of “spoons” for the day. For a long time, I viewed this spoon-deficiency as a sign that there was something wrong with me. That viewpoint left me feeling more miserable than ever.

Today, I try to remind myself that I’m doing the best I can with my predetermined supply of “spoons.” If I don’t have quite as many spoons as someone else, that doesn’t make me a failure and it doesn’t mean that I’ve done anything wrong. We each have a different number of “spoons” and our supply of spoons can fluctuate. It’s important to be kind to ourselves on the days when we don’t have as many spoons as we’d like.

 Step 3 – Don’t confuse the symptoms of mental illness with character flaws

Pop quiz: how many of you read Step 2 and thought, “But the spoon theory doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have real health problems like lupus or chronic pain!”?

I get it. It can be so tempting to view health problems in two categories: physical health problems (“real” health problems) and mental health problems (things you should just make yourself “get over”).

Our society is not always compassionate when it comes to mental health issues. There is a prevailing notion that mental illness isn’t a “real” health problem and that it doesn’t deserve the same respect or consideration as a physical illness. This viewpoint is deeply ingrained for most of us. Sometimes, I still find myself thinking that I should just “get over” my anxiety or depression. Consciously, I know better. But subconsciously, part of my brain still thinks of my mental health issues as character flaws.

It’s so important that we continually remind ourselves and each other that the symptoms of our mental health issues are just that: symptoms of an illness or disorder. They are not personal failings or shortcomings. For example, I sometimes struggle with basic tasks like making phone calls. If I have a particularly stressful phone call to make, I often find myself putting it off for weeks on end!

It’s easy to beat myself up for being “lazy” or undisciplined. But I know these delays aren’t due to irresponsibility or carelessness on my part. The delays happen because phone calls make me intensely anxious. I don’t always have the “spoons” available for an anxiety-provoking phone call.

Most of us have at least a few issues that fall into this category. They’re tasks we struggle with, but they’re also tasks which most of society views as simple or trivial. It’s easy to view our struggles as a sign that we have some sort of moral shortcoming.

Sometimes, the people around us make it clear that they view our struggles through that lens. That can make it especially hard for us to treat ourselves with compassion and patience. But even if our friends and family members aren’t extending that sort of kindness towards us, we must extend it to ourselves and each other.

Maintaining perspective

It can be tough to remember to be gentle with ourselves. Our mental illness can distort our thinking. This distortion sometimes makes it hard for us to view our circumstances accurately and fairly. That’s why it’s so important to check in with ourselves regularly and to reach out to others for support. If we’re struggling to treat ourselves kindly, it can be helpful to receive a reminder from friends, family members, or therapists.

If you don’t have any loved ones who are able to offer you these reminders, try leaving reminders for yourself! Sometimes I write out one or more of the steps above and place the note on my bathroom mirror. That way, I’m reminded to check in with myself several times a day. This written reminder helps me stop negative or self-critical thoughts. It reminds me to forgive myself for the mistakes I’ve made that day and give myself a pat on the back for everything I’ve done right.

Do you struggle with harsh self-criticism? How do you remember to treat yourself with kindness? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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