Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
Upon entering the store, I did the usual scan with my eyes: How many sets of stairs are there? How many chairs? Where’s the door if I need to step out?
In the time it took me to calculate, my friends had disappeared into the colorful basement, their hands trailing on the racks of odd dresses and jackets as they went.
I took a deep breath, swallowed my misplaced anger, and took a seat near the door. It wasn’t their fault, I reminded myself. Our culture is not set up for understanding bodies that function differently. How could they know what it’s like to be shaking as I walked?
How could they, young, able-bodied, and strong 20-somethings, know what it was like to need to rest before taking a flight of stairs?
How unfair, I thought, to be trapped beneath this swollen skin. My body, once electric and slim and healthy, now held all the signs of multiple years of illness.
Since my chronic Lyme disease diagnosis several years earlier, I’d not only been relearning how to physically care for myself — I’d also been relearning how to cope with a different reality. One where each action required a calculation: If I go downstairs with my friends, will I be able to walk back to the car without taking several breaks? Will they notice if I needed to pause and wait, and will I feel ashamed if so?
Here are some of the practices I’ve found that help me cultivate self-compassion, even on the hardest and most painful days.
1. Check the facts
When feeling symptoms, especially ones like pain, fatigue, or weakness, it’s easy to catastrophize what you’re experiencing and assume that the pain will never end, or that you’ll never feel any better.
This is especially difficult with chronic illness because the truth is, for many of us, we won’t feel completely better or have the same level of energy or lack of pain that our able-bodied friends do. Still, there’s a balance between assuming the worst and accepting reality.
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy there’s a practice called “checking the facts.” This basically means seeing whether your view of a current situation lines up with reality. For me, this works best when I’m feeling immense anxiety or sadness around my current condition. I like to ask myself a simple question, “Is that true?”
This technique helps when my brain begins to spiral around self-pity and fear, believing I will always be alone, sitting in a chair while my friends explore.
“Is that true?” I ask myself. Usually, the answer is no.
Today might be a hard day, but not all days are this hard.
2. Practice gratitude for your body — even just by breathing
One of the most helpful things I’ve learned to do is keep a gratitude journal for when things go right.
Within it, I note the good: my cat’s warm body against mine as I sleep, finding a gluten-free brownie at the bakery, the way the light stretches across the carpet in the early morning.
It’s as simple as writing down the little things that make me feel good.
It’s harder to notice the good within my own body, but that helps restore balance, too.
I try to notice what my body is doing well — even if all I can come up with is that I’m breathing and continuing to move through the world.
Whenever I catch myself criticizing my body, I try and reframe that criticism with gratitude that my body’s working hard to fight illness.
3. Keep self-care simple, but intentional
Often self-care is advertised as an extravagant affair, like a day at the spa, a massage, or a shopping spree. Those things are fun and rewarding, of course, but I’ve often found more enjoyment from simple and intentional self-care.
For me, this is taking a bath or shower and then using a favorite lotion afterwards; pouring myself a glass of water and drinking it while being aware of the good I’m giving my body; planning a nap in the afternoon and reveling in the quiet calm that comes when I wake, relaxed and pain-free.
I find that planning ways to care for yourself, even if that’s just washing your hair or brushing your teeth, helps to restore the balance in your relationship with a body that’s aching from a chronic illness.
4. Advocate for yourself
Upon returning home from shopping with my friends, I crawled into bed and began to cry.
We were on a weekend trip together, staying in a shared house, and I was afraid to admit how hard the day had been for me. I felt exhausted, defeated, and ashamed of my failing body.
I fell asleep, exhausted and achy, and came out of my room several hours later to find my friends awake and waiting in the kitchen. Dinner had been made, the table set, and several cards waited at my seat.
“Sorry disability makes things so hard,” one card said.
“We love who you are, always, regardless,” said another.
Within me, something softened. Oh, I thought, my illness isn’t something to be ashamed of. What a gift, to have such good friends. What a safe space, I thought, to practice advocating for what I need.
So, within a circle of kind people, I explained how if we’re out for long periods of time, I’d need to take breaks. How stairs were hard sometimes. How I needed to be sure a place had chairs or spaces to sit if I was feeling fatigued.
They listened, and I softened further. Advocating is hard work, because there’s always the fear of rejection, and more than that, the fear of not deserving to speak up for what you need.
Speak up. It’s worth it. People will listen. And if they don’t, find the people who will.
5. Turn to body positive role models
One of my favorite ways to encourage myself on bad days is to look at body positive role models. This is especially relevant for me when I feel shame around weight gain or the way my body physically looks.
The Instagram account @bodyposipanda is a good example, as well as the site The Body Is Not an Apology. Search for people and role models that make you feel proud of whatever shape you are and whatever way your body needs to be right now.
Remember, any shape or form or weight or number still deserves love, attention, and care. There’s no version of you or your body that deems you undeserving of such things. None.
6. Remember that your feelings are valid
Finally, let yourself feel. As cliché as this sounds, it’s crucial.
The day I returned from shopping and let myself cry, I felt real grief. Deep, full, overwhelming grief that I lived in a world where people could become sick and not get better. That doesn’t go away. No amount of gratitude, intentional self-care, or anything else will make that different.
Part of loving your body on bad days, I think, is just wrapping yourself in the knowledge that there will always be bad days. Those bad days suck and aren’t fair. Sometimes they come with sadness and grief so big you worry it’ll swallow you.
Let that be true. Let yourself be sad or angry or grief-stricken.
Then, when the wave passes, move on.
Good days exist too, and both you and your body will be there when they arrive.
Caroline Catlin is an artist, activist, and mental health worker. She enjoys cats, sour candy, and empathy. You can find her on her website.