Archive for April, 2010

The Healing Power of Self-Compassion

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Of all the strategies I teach my clients to help them live well when they have a chronic illness, the one I teach the most is compassion. I teach it and reinforce it by having them wear their watch on the non-normal wrist and put notes on their bathroom mirror as reminders, and by assigning them the task of trying to give themselves an overdose of compassion every day – even though it’s not possible to do that! The reason I focus so much on that strategy is because I have found that it is one of the most healing things people can do.

I know, both from my own experience and from the experiences of my clients, that self-compassion can heal the emotional pain that almost always comes with having a chronic illness. Not only that, but I have seen people stop both migraines and herpes outbreaks by giving themselves compassion.  And while I can’t prove it, I’m convinced that giving myself compassion is the main reason I’m able to keep my Crohn’s disease in remission without drugs*.

But I’ve learned that self-compassion can do more than heal the emotional pain we’re feeling today; it can also heal the emotional pain we suffered when bad or traumatic things happened to us years ago.

Maybe you’re wondering how a person would use compassion that way or why they would want to. I’ll answer both questions with a true story of a client I had not too long ago. I had a sense that some emotional pain from Maria’s past was affecting her life, so in our telephone session I asked her some probing questions. I found out she was given up for adoption and also that her country went through a revolution when she was a child. It was clear that both of those events were scary and traumatic. I had her visualize the seven-year-old that she was, and then I had her compassionately comfort that little girl. When she did that, we both simultaneously felt a palpable healing energy. And the next time we talked, she told me that her insomnia of eight years had disappeared.

So how do you know when it would be helpful to heal emotional pain from the past? I can’t answer that question. However, I can tell you that my clients have benefited from 1) revisiting the following: car crashes, being diagnosed with an illness or an emotional illness, the death of a family member, getting fired or laid off from a job, the ending of a relationship, and similar events; and then 2)  giving the person they were at that time as much compassion as they could.

I have done the same thing for many similar events in my own life, and I know that doing so was healing because my memories of those events don’t have the same painful feelings associated with them they used to.

For both myself and my clients, self-compassion has helped us to heal a lot of our emotional pain. It can do the same for you.

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*As I recently wrote, I had flare of my Crohn’s disease at the beginning of March, but it ended on its own a week later, without my taking any drugs.

What To Do When You Feel Shortchanged By Your Illness

Monday, April 19th, 2010

A while ago I worked with a client I’ll call John, who had ulcerative colitis. John had learned the hard way that if he didn’t follow a very strict diet, he would have intestinal and other symptoms that were very severe. But when he adhered to that diet, he felt extremely deprived. Those feelings of deprivation would lead to cravings, which he would eventually give in to, and would again experience all those awful symptoms.

I think that one of the hardest things about having a chronic illness is dealing with feeling shortchanged and deprived. We can easily feel like that because of all the things we can no longer do – things like eating whatever we want, working as many hours as we want, traveling without worrying where the nearest bathroom is, or being the active and attentive partner, spouse, or parent that we used to be.

The first thing I tell clients who feel shortchanged or deprived because of any kind of limitation that is due to their illness is to fully acknowledge those feelings. We often try to tell ourselves that those limitations aren’t a big deal, or we try to discount our feelings by telling ourselves that many other people have limitations that are much harder to live with than ours are. But those strategies don’t work, because there is a part of us that knows we aren’t being honest with ourselves.

I have found, both from coaching others and dealing with my own illness and the feelings that come with it, that what does work is for us to tell ourselves we are sorry we feel shortchanged and deprived. And it’s very important when we say that to ourselves that we really mean it. Just imagine for a moment how unsupported and uncared for you would feel if a friend told you they were sorry because of how you felt, but you sensed that he didn’t mean it. So when you tell yourself you’re sorry, make sure you truly mean it.

After my clients tell themselves how sorry they are, I then give them the following challenge: Brainstorm to find alternatives for the things they can’t do because of their limitations, that give them the same feelings of enjoyment and fulfillment that the things they no longer can do used to give them. I encourage you to take on this challenge too. For example, if it’s difficult for you to travel, you can become internet pen pals with people in your favorite foreign country. Or if you can’t participate in the outdoor activities you formerly did with your children, you can learn how to play their favorite video or computer games with them. The list of possible alternative things to do is limited only by your imagination, and I bet you can find some that you enjoy more than you thought possible.

Getting back to John, I suggested that he find some special foods he really enjoyed that didn’t exacerbate his symptoms, and I also suggested that he do things like buy himself a CD he wanted every week he adhered to his diet, so that he wouldn’t feel deprived. He found these suggestions very helpful.

If you are feeling shortchanged or deprived because of any illness related limitations you have, I encourage you to first fully acknowledge them, then let that part of you that is feeling that way know how sorry you are, and finally, do some brainstorming to come up with enjoyable and satisfying alternatives for the things you’re no longer able to do.

How to Deal With Others When You Have a Chronic Illness

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

When someone wanted coaching sessions with me, I used to send them a questionnaire to fill out before the session. In it, I asked how they felt supported by their family and friends, and then I ask how they felt unsupported by those same people. From the large collection of answers I received over many years of coaching people with chronic illnesses, I learned what they want but don’t get from others, and I learned about the relationship challenges and difficulties people with serious chronic illnesses have. In this post, I’m going to share that knowledge with you. Then I’m going to describe some strategies and methods you can use to get support from the people in your life and have the kind of relationship you want with them.

The first thing I learned is that, more than anything else, there is one thing those of us with chronic illnesses are not getting from other people that we really want: understanding We want others to know how hard it is for us, both physically and emotionally, to live with a chronic illness. It’s not surprising to me that not getting the understanding we want is such a common problem,  because I don’t think it is possible for a person who has never had a chronic illness to truly know what living with one is like.

That said, it is almost always possible to get more understanding from others than we currently do. The best way to do that, in my experience, is to avoid complaining about not being understood and to not criticize the other person for not giving us the understanding we want. Instead, what works best is to tell him or her how important being understood is for us and how appreciative we are when they try to give us understanding. Then, to help the other person better understand our symptoms and pain, it can be very helpful to describe them by comparing them to pain the other person has experienced, such as a kidney stone, or pain they can imagine, such as having a root canal without anesthesia.

Another thing I learned from people’s answers to my questions is that many of us with chronic illnesses have family members and friends who either don’t believe we’re as sick as we say we are, think our problems are in our heads, or think we are sick by choice as a way to avoid having to do things like housework and going to social events.

There are several possible strategies and methods for dealing with that kind of situation. Which ones to use depends on who it is that doesn’t believe you, and how important he or she is to you. If the person is a distant relative or a casual friend, you may choose to just avoid interacting with them. But avoidance is not a good strategy if the person who doesn’t believe you is a good friend, a parent, or your spouse.

Before I give you a specific method to use to resolve or at least improve the problem I’ve just described, I strongly recommend that you give yourself extra compassion for the emotional pain that having someone important to you disbelieve the severity of your illness inevitably causes. If you’ve read my other posts, you know that giving yourself lots of self-compassion is something I recommend often, because I strongly believe it is very helpful for those of us with chronic illnesses.

Depending on whom it is who doesn’t believe you, the history of your relationship with that person, and other factors, there are several possible methods you can use to improve or resolve the situation. One that often works well is the following: Instead of trying to convince the other person that what you’ve told them about your illness and its symptoms is true, accept the fact that they don’t believe you and let them know that you’ve done that. Then politely ask them if they would be willing to imagine what it would feel like to have a chronic illness, tell someone important to them about it, and not be believed. If they do, and chances are good that they will, you will at least have gotten some understanding from them that you didn’t have before, and it’s likely that they will start to let in and acknowledge the reality of your illness and its symptoms.

The next thing I learned from my respondents’ answers was actually a confirmation of something I already knew from my own experience as a person with a serious chronic illness: people often ignore or tune you out when you tell them about your ongoing struggles. Some respondents said their friends did more than ignore them; they abandoned them. When people in your life do any of those things, I again recommend (at the risk of sounding like a broken record) that you give yourself lots of compassion. I frequently ask my clients to tape reminders to do that to their bathroom mirrors or suggest that they wear rubber bands around their wrists to help them remember to give themselves extra compassion.

In addition to ensuring that you’re getting extra doses of compassion, there are some other things you can do when people tune you out. One is to make it a point to temporarily set aside your illness symptoms and problems when you meet your friends, and ask them, in a way that shows them you really mean it, how they are doing, what their concerns are and what successes they’ve had. When you consistently do that, you will usually find that they will show you the same concern and give you the same support in return.

Another thing you can do when friends tune you out or when they abandon you is to find and make friends with people who have the same illness you do. You can do that face to face in support groups, by phone in telephone support groups, and via computer in online support groups. Most major cities have support groups for the more common chronic illnesses. If there isn’t one for your illness and if you’re willing to do so, there’s a good chance you can start one by first connecting with other interested people through the websites meetup.com and craigslist.org. The advantage of the telephone and online support groups is that you can participate without leaving your home, so you don’t need to be concerned about mobility issues and other challenges that might make it difficult to attend an in person meeting. The website yahoogroups is a good starting place for looking for an online support group, as there are groups for almost any illness you can think of.

I titled this post “How to Deal With Others When You Have a Chronic Illness,” but it’s also about how you can get your need for understanding and support from others met. I hope the suggestions I’ve shared with you help you do that.

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I help people with chronic illnesses (I have Crohn’s disease myself) meet their many challenges and then find and follow a path to happiness and fulfillment.

Get my free report, Has Living with a Chronic Illness Worn You Down? Learn How to Outsmart Your Illness and Have a Much Better Life.

A Woman Who Inspires Me and Who I’m Sure Will Inspire You

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Today I want to write about an amazing woman I met recently… Well, I didn’t actually meet her in person.  I met her by phone.

Beverly had sent me an email because she wanted to have a coaching session. She had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when she was halfway through her graduate program 18 years ago. Through her own effort and determination, and also because of what she calls many miracles, she was able to complete her Ph.D. in psychology, and after she did she worked serving others for several years. But then she underwent deep brain stimulation surgery to treat her Parkinson’s, and it left her unable to work.

Four years later, she experienced seizures, 107 degree fever, and respiratory and renal failure, and nearly lost her life. Over the next 14 months she underwent 11 surgeries. She survived them all, although she is no longer able to drive and she lost much of her voice.

I have worked with and helped people with dozens of different chronic illness, including people who were dealing with very difficult and painful experiences and losses, so I was confident that I could help Beverly.

I was wrong – but not because Beverly’s situation was too difficult or overwhelming.  Beverly didn’t need my help. When I spoke with her, I discovered she was a genuinely optimistic and happy person. As you know if you’ve read my other posts, I teach people to give themselves lots of compassion. In her own words, she said she had mastered that lesson a long time ago, and it was clear to me that she had.

>Beverly wanted to share her joy and her story of how she had found it with the world. What she needed was someone who could show her how to do that. I gave her some ideas, for which she was very grateful. And I plan to stay in touch and watch her reach and touch many, many people.