How can I start to prioritise my self-care?

It is common for people who experience persistent pain to also experience psychological pain, high levels of self-criticism and negative self-talk. This can lead to vicious circle of pain and self-criticism, which can exacerbate low mood and anxiety and possibly end up effecting your quality of life.
To understand more about self-care it can be helpful to first understand self-criticism as we can be our own best friend but often find ourselves being our own worst critic:

“It is not easy to be a human being. We have sensitive and often reactive nervous systems that are easily agitated by the constant ups and downs of life. Among the joys and sorrows, and the pleasure and pain, we are often faced with discomfort and uncertainty. We can often push ourselves too hard, be overly critical, and distract ourselves with negative habits that leave us depleted instead of nourished.” (Quote taken from https://www.mindful.org/how-to-choose-self-compassion/)

What is self-criticism?

  • Self-criticism is an example of shame that focuses on our own selves; our thoughts and feelings about ourselves- this is known as ‘internal shame.
  • Self- criticism is particularly common in the Western world and can sit in the heart of people’s unhappiness and distress and can trigger our ‘threat’ system.
  • Self-criticism can take many guises; we can be critical of our appearance (I’m too short, my nose is too big), aspects of our personality (I’m so boring), our abilities (I’m no good at sport), our intelligence (I’m stupid), our mistakes (past or current) or even anticipated future mistakes (I’ll get it wrong).
  • Self-criticism often involves a comparison with others in a way that leaves us feeling inferior or worse off (I’m not as successful as…).

Everyone has a self-critical voice but sometimes this can shout louder with people who experience pain.

One way of making sense of the impact of self criticism is by imagining we have two gremlins one on each shoulder:

The ‘self-critical gremlin’ is ‘fed’ with lots of attention making it bigger and bigger

The other gremlin on the other shoulder, the ‘encouraging and supportive gremlin’, it may be very small if it is fed with only very little attention, its voice may hardly be heard. However, it will become bigger and more confident the more you attend to it (i.e. the more you develop and listen to your inner supportive voice) – and the self-critical gremlin will, in turn, become smaller and less powerful.

You can’t get rid of the self-critical gremlin, but the trick is to pay attention to the one that you want to develop, give more of your attention to the ‘supportive’ gremlin.

A Mindful response self-criticism: (Taken from www.mindful.org)

It can be helpful to practice noticing your Inner Critic . Give this voice a nickname if you’d like. Your self-critic is part of you, but it can be helpful to practice compassion for it as though it is separate to you. This can help you gain distance from it.

1. Ask yourself, if someone were actually standing next to me and saying this to me, how would I handle it? You’d probably not stay and listen to it.
2. Without getting sucked into debate, each time you notice the Inner Critic, take a pause.

3. Breathing in, recognize the voice of criticism, and whatever it’s implying about you or doing to your emotional state. Acknowledge that experience without needing to either banish it or rationalize it. This is how I feel right now: tired and insecure and angry.

4. Breathing out let go. Instead of wrestling with self-judgment, see it for what it is, and turn your attention somewhere more useful. Focus only on the sensation of breathing as best as you’re able, without striving or forcing anything.

5. Wish yourself well, like you would a close friend in distress.

Self-care is what we do to look after ourselves, physically, emotionally and mentally. It includes the essential acts of care that we all need– eating well, keeping ourselves clean and getting enough sleep. It also includes things we do that can help ‘charge our battery’ when life and pain leave us feeling depleted.

  • Self-care is what nourishes us personally: the things we do that comfort us, calm us, and make us feel good. These will vary from person to person.
  • Self-care is not easy, particularly if we are feeling low in mood or have low self-worth, we may tell ourselves we don’t need it or deserve it or that it is indulgent and selfish.
  • Self-care isn’t selfish it is essential. You can’t drive a car forever without maintenance- fuel, service, MOT, repairs- we are the same.
  • It’s good for our health – can triggers endorphins and boost mood.
  • It’s good for our hearts – can positively impact on our emotional wellness.
  • It reminds us we are worthy – by prioritising self-care – taking time out to do something just for us – we can counteract negative thoughts.
  • It empowers us – we’re not always in control but one thing we can control is prioritising our own self-care.

What has self-care got to do with pain?

When you are struggling with experiencing high levels of pain, other areas of life can feel almost unbearable.

A pain management approach cannot take away your pain but can help reduce suffering in other areas of your life. Noticing your own self-criticism and increasing your self-care can have a big impact on your ability to manage your pain. If you are able to learn ways to better look after yourself then this frees up energy for you to cope with the pain better.

You are best placed to identify and meet your own needs, it can be challenging for some people as they have never been taught self-care. Self-care is a regular practice and includes consistent check ins as to what you might need, at any given time. If you look after other people a lot it can be easy to overlook yourself but remember ‘You can not pour from an empty cup’ so self-care can help fill yours up. Taking a kinder more compassionate stance to yourself and working on becoming your own best friend can help, especially when in pain, as you will find it easier to identify even small things that will help lift your mood or your feelings, which can increase your tolerance of pain.

If you would like to learn more about self-care you can access the following information:
https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/docs/Compassion.pdf