Self-Compassion for Being Sick


In an often goal driven world, there seems to be no external reward for taking care of yourself when you get sick with the exception of those who have caretakers who commend them on their good self-care.  In fact, people seem to get more rewards for not taking care of themselves when they are sick.  Look at Kathy.  She is amazing. She is even working on her sick day.  You could all learn a lot from Kathy.  This makes it difficult to take care of yourself when you are sick, which has an effect on your body.  In some cases, not taking care of yourself at the first sign of sickness can lead to full blown sickness.  In some cases not addressing current health needs can even lead to severe long term issues, such as torn ligaments or broken bones that do not heal correctly, or heart burn issues that lead to more serious gastrointestinal issues like ulcers.

Honoring the Body’s Needs

I once worked with a very seasoned, worldly gentleman.  He was a former professional fighter, who impressed both men and women with how well he could sing like Elvis.  He loved and lost and then found love again. He successfully battled mental illness for most of his life even after losing a child in utero, and later his parents and his brother.  He looked a lot like a cowboy, worn blue jeans, a weathered Stetson hat, an aged leather belt, and boots lightened and creased by many days out in the sun.  He was sensitive and stoic.  His stories made you feel like you were on a wooden porch somewhere in a rocking chair with just the sound of the wind in the leaves in the backdrop of his slow, steady drawl.  He spoke with a deep raspy voice, and always kept his left hand tucked in his pocket. One day he came in pretty distressed because he got back an x-ray that made it clear he needed surgery on his left arm.  Bone spurs that he never treated led to a frozen shoulder.  I learned that his left hand always rested in his left pocket because he could not move it. 

To give himself some time before addressing his fear of hospitals, he mentioned how proud he was to have never missed a workout or a day of work due to illness or pain.  When I asked if he had much experience with illness and pain, he reported that he had.  He simply took pride in tolerating them.  My heart hurt for this guy.  I was certainly guilty of the same things.  I have long gone to work ill and injured and worked out because I thought that I was persevering.  This man never recovered the use of his arm, but surgery did wonders for his pain.

In nearly 65 years, he had only met with one therapist briefly, but met with me weekly because he felt I understood him and was sincere.  I owed him my honesty.  I admitted that I was also guilty of working and training through sickness, illness, and injury, and perhaps we could work on a self-compassion practice for our bodies so that we might honor our bodies when they needed time to heal.  Honor was the word that got him, and we set off on our way.  A few months later he had made much progress, and I asked him what he attributed that to.  He said there were 3 things.  We were a team, and he never got to be on a team before.  He always aspired to be an honorable man, and honoring his body felt right after all it had done for him.  He also acknowledged that I called him when he was too sick or in too much pain to come in, and that I made it a point to give he and his wife credit for honoring his body’s needs.

Hopefully, this story is a good example that even the best people with even better intentions are vulnerable to unwittingly contributing to their own suffering.  It was not his fault that he did not take better care of himself when he was sick.  He was following the strongest virtues set by the world he knew.  I often bemoan that athletic commercials always tell us to push and train harder, but never inspire us to take care of our bodies so that we can train longer.  Ask almost any athlete about their story involving injury and remedial care, and I am sure that you will hear many stories about persisting injuries or several rehabs with limited success.  Most hardworking folks also prescribe to the same mentality.  Sometimes, they are simply not paid if they don’t go to work sick and cannot afford to miss their wages.

The practice of self-compassion asks us to credit our bodies with the work that they do, so that we have reason to take care of them, and benefit from their health for as long as we can.  It is important in this practice to know that we are not discrediting prior or even current virtues with respect to hard work or even views on health.  We are merely working on a new way to take care of our bodies because since we suffer we are deserving of kindness.

So when you find yourself feeling unwell or you are experiencing an injury, see what you might do to rest or take care of that injury.  If you cannot afford to take some time off, see if you can take breaks during the day, do less, and make more time to rest until you recover.  Find exercises or herbal remedies or traditional medicines (depending on your beliefs), and find others who will support and encourage your self-care.  There is no award given for the sickest, most injured body.  We will love you no matter the state of your body or mind, but because we wish you well being, try to find some room for yourself and others to take care of you when you are injured or ill.  You never know.  The example you set may greatly benefit someone else’s life too!

Cowboys aren’t meant to sit.  They are meant to ride.  Please take good care of your body, so that you can ride for a long time.  Wishing you lots of well-being and kindness.

365 Days of Kindness.  Self-Compassion. Day 35.  In the Books.