RA and the Importance of Self-Compassion

Patient Expert
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When you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), self-compassion is a crucial skill to build. Kristin Neff, the author of Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, explains that self-compassion is a process that involves several steps:

  1. Recognize your own suffering.
  2. Let go of unrealistic expectations.
  3. Extend kindness and care to yourself.
  4. Avoid destructive patterns that trigger negative feelings.

The key word is “process”: it takes time and practice to change your behavior, regardless of what type of change you want to make. When you have a chronic illness, the ability to be compassionate with yourself is a skill worth cultivating.

My experience

As a reforming (it's a work in progress) Type A personality, it was all go, go, go for me, even though my body was protesting. I placed a lot of pressure on myself to perform (a touch of perfectionism), and when I couldn't, or didn't do as well as I intended, I would beat myself up for not meeting my goals.

As time marches on, I continue to learn and practice a number of skills and techniques that allow me to forgive myself for those times when I just don't have the energy or ability to accomplish what I intend to. I cut myself some slack, knowing that I'm doing the best I can, in light of my situation, health, energy, and resources.

Self-compassion and the impact on your disease

Rheumatoid arthritis can be like a wildfire that burns through your life, your energy, finances, health, mobility, relationships, and well-being, leaving you (it might seem) with nothing but ashes. But when you practice self-compassion, you may be capable of avoiding or lessening those behaviors and thought processes that can fan the fires of a flare-up.

If you have a tendency to self-criticize, you're awash with negative thoughts and feelings that can trigger the stress response by releasing cortisol. Under chronic stress, your body is flooded with cortisol, which alters the ability of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response. More inflammation is one of the last things you need when you have RA.

What makes self-criticism particularly insidious is that it's like a perpetrator sneaking into your house through the back door: you're unaware that someone has violated your privacy and safety, often until it is too late. When you are busy criticizing yourself, you can get lost in the heat of the moment, which can impair judgment and trigger stress. It is in your best interest to be as proactive as you can. Step back, take several breaths to gain invaluable insight, then begin work on the process of self-compassion.

You're traveling a rough road when you are self-critical. Below are several ways you may have taken a wrong turn.

'Comparatitis'

This is my term for the affliction where you spend a lot of time comparing yourself and your life to that of others. When you think that you "don't measure up," try and remember that your perception may be skewed. Comparing your situation to that of someone else can be like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing. You don't have the whole picture, so your mind strives to complete it, filling in details that may or may not be true.

Your culture

Neff explains that culture can influence the degree to which one becomes self-critical. For example, if the culture in which you live emphasizes independence and individual achievement, you may feel a great deal of pressure to perform. If you're struggling to meet your expectations, and often don't, you may feel like you've failed. With RA, there may be times when you simply can't do the things you want to do. Without self-compassion, it can be far too easy to become disappointed in yourself.

Perfectionism

In The Perfection Deception, Jane Bluestein writes about an all-or-nothing cultural tendency that makes it difficult to recognize the difference between making a mistake and being one. The drive to be perfect is like a never-ending bad road trip. The journey is rough and you never have the satisfaction of reaching your destination.

Perfectionism can also be a way to control what appears to be an uncontrollable situation. Neff points out that when you are berating yourself, you are both the criticizer and the criticized.

Strategies for developing self-compassion

1. Develop self-awareness. This is a skill that is transferable to many different situations. Catch yourself when you're self-criticizing, for example, then take steps (see below) to move away from that behavior.

2. Neff stresses the importance of recognizing when you are suffering. Learn to shift your frame of reference to gain a different perspective.

3. Monitor your self-talk. How much of your time is spent scolding yourself?

4. Pretend you are talking to a friend. Then talk to yourself that way.

5. Use hope. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown explains that hope is a way of thinking, which is a combination of goal-setting, perseverance, and a belief in your own abilities. “This is a challenge and I am willing to give it my best efforts.”

6. Accept that to be human means that you stumble and fall. You make mistakes. Forgive yourself when you do, then take steps to make corrections, or move in a different direction.

Rheumatoid arthritis is difficult enough to live with. Resolve to be kinder to yourself so that you are better-positioned to live as well as possible.

Now, repeat after me: “I'm doing the best I can for how I'm feeling today.”

See more helpful articles:

What to Do (And What NOT to Do) When People Don’t Believe You Have a Chronic Illness

10 Ways Rheumatoid Arthritis Changed My Life