A photo of Eileen Davidson, a rheumatoid arthritis patient, making a heart with her hands to symbolize the importance of self-love and self-care with chronic illness
Credit: Eileen Davidson

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There is a definite connection between self-care and self-love, but they’re not the same thing. I’ve been thinking more lately about how they’re different but essential, especially when you live with chronic illness like I do.

Here’s what I realized: Self-care, which is a critical part of any chronic illness treatment plan, is impossible when you lack self-love.

Self-Love vs. Self-Care

Many of us think of self-care in a practical sense: daily acts to care for your physical and mental health. Self-care with a chronic illness might include taking medication as well as vitamins and supplements, getting therapy for mental health, having therapeutic appointments like massage (not just for relaxation but for pain relief), meditating (not just for a clear mind but to distract from pain), or saying no to plans with friends because symptoms are creeping in.

Self-love, on the other hand, is more emotional and spiritual. It’s a general feeling of self-appreciation, of valuing yourself and your place in the world.

Having self-love gives me motivation for self-care. Practicing self-care reaffirms my self-love.

‘Self-Anything’ Isn’t Easy with Chronic Illness

When you spend much of your day struggling with pain and fatigue, self-love and self-care are often aspirational.

It’s hard to value yourself when your self-esteem is low, you feel like you can’t full participate in your usual activities, and many of the ways you used to define success (like working in a certain career) are no longer options for you.

Self-care is hard when you struggle with depression, brain fog, and fatigue. As much as I know things like exercise and meditation will help me feel better, it’s sometimes easier said than done to include them in my routine.

Another way to look at it is what self-care and self-love are not: They are not an Instagram-worthy bubble bath with candles. They’re not a yoga class you squeeze into your day every now and then. They’re not pretty or cute little habits you attempt when you’ve overly stressed.

When you have chronic illness, they’re not optional.

At the same time, though, they’re not easy. Finding the time and having the ability (mentally and physically) to practice self-care and learn self-love can be hard and quite messy, in fact.

Self-Love Was Something I Had to Learn the Hard Way

Practicing self-love helped me grow and accept my body, with its chronic illness and all its flaws, especially after childbirth and then a couple years later when I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

I am not perfect — no one is. And that is okay. Realizing that was the first step in self-love. When I finally figured out how to practice self-love — and gave it time — changes in my behavior followed.

First, I felt a lot happier. This spurred me to do things that made me feel healthier: exercise regularly, drink less alcohol, cook healthy meals. A positive attitude or outlook can make a huge difference in how we feel about ourselves and cope with our pain. It’s not a cure for illness but it makes living with illness (and ourselves) a bit easier.

Over time I have learned a few techniques to boost my self-love when I am feeling down. This is what self-love to me looks like while living with a chronic illness.

Self-Love Is: Not Listening to That Nagging Negative Voice Inside

Negative self-talk turned dangerous for me. Before I got the mental health care I needed, I rarely went a day without telling myself I was worthless, I should just kill myself, what is the point?

My depression often causes me to think negative thoughts about myself. This can look like telling myself I am not worth it or what is the point when I want to take healthier steps in life. This was probably my biggest struggle when it came to living with depression and trying to get into a regular self-care routine that would truly benefit my health.

When I have negative inner dialogue, I try to turn those thoughts into something more realistic and supportive. I say I can’t beat myself up over something because chronic illness showed its ugly face. I recognize that my negative thoughts might mean I need to focus on treating my mental health.

Self-Love Is: Not Spiraling in Guilt

Having a chronic illness means going through guilt, disappointment, and anger with ourselves when we just can’t do something we really needed, wanted, or said we would do. We feel trapped inside a mind that wants to do a lot and a body that wants to do nothing.

As a chronically ill single mother, guilt over what I can’t do or comparing myself to other moms was one of the hardest things to let go when diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

As my son gets older, he reminds me that my illness doesn’t make me a bad mother and all that matters in the end is that I try my best. (He’s very mature for his almost 9-year-old self.) This helps realize that the negative voice telling me I am a bad mom because I can’t always control my health struggles is lying. Self-love is telling guilt you won’t listen today.

Being honest with others about what I am experiencing has also helped eliminate some of that guilt. Not everyone will understand, but when they do, it sure helps.

If they don’t, brush it off and don’t take it personally. Remind yourself that one day they may get it because they or someone else they love may get a chronic illness.

Self-Love Is: Owning My Mistakes

Self-love is realizing you are only human. I get foggy, forgetful, and sometimes sloppy due to fatigue or pain. I make mistakes — minor to very questionable ones. I can sit there and wallow in self-pity for my mistakes, or I can move on and learn from them.

Self-love is being kind, compassionate, and patient with yourself.

Self-Love Is: Setting Boundaries

This might look like not drinking alcohol, not watching too much TV, not eating too much junk food, or just saying no to anything I know that will lead to me feeling worse down the road, make me feel uncomfortable, or get me in trouble.

Self-love is reminding myself that these things are a temporary coping mechanism and do not lead to feeling better in the long run.

Self-love is also letting go of toxic people and situations, like removing someone who is emotionally draining from your life, or saying no to plans because you know they will leave you too exhausted.

Self-Love Is: Recognizing I Still Have Value

When I was placed on long-term disability and stopped working as an aesthetician after my RA diagnosis I struggled (and still struggle sometimes) with feeling like I don’t have much to offer in this world. I felt like a burden.

But when I reflect on what I can still do, I can change that negative inner dialogue around.  I am a good mother who works hard to raise my son as best I can. I am an advocate and my words help others cope. I volunteer. I create art. I take care of animals. I am a friend who people often come to for advice.

This is so much healthier than focusing on my losses.

Self-Love Is: Giving My Body What It Needs to Thrive

Nourishing myself with healthy foods and exercise is part of my process for practicing self-love. I have a tendency to stress eat or eat my emotions (think: sugar, processed foods, and a carb overload that in the end does me no good).

These foods seem to trigger inflammation and leave me sluggish, fatigued, in pain, and depressed.

I remind myself that while such foods may be satisfying in the moment, it does not make me feel better or help my performance. That does not mean completely eliminating my trigger foods, as enjoying them in moderation is key. I have learned how to listen to the subtle and sometimes not so subtle signs my body says about what it needs.

Self-Love Is: Embracing Alone Time

My life got pretty lonely once I became chronically ill. Some friends have moved on with their lives or I just don’t have much in common with people I used to spend time with before my diagnosis.

I have had to learn to accept being alone, especially when I don’t want to be alone, and embrace it despite how uncomfortable of an emotion loneliness can be. I’ve found that embracing self-care rituals makes times being alone a bit more enjoyable.

Self-Love Is: Art

There’s no one definition or way to practice self-love. The important thing is to incorporate it into how you talk to yourself and treat yourself each day. Doing so is a necessary part of living with rheumatoid arthritis. Without self-love, I wouldn’t be able to practice self-care.

Keep in mind that self-love and self-care are a journey. It’s normal to struggle and I still often do. It’s okay to not be okay, and it’s definitely okay to reach out for help. Research shows that those living with depression and anxiety tend to have poorer outcomes with arthritis or other chronic illness, so treating your mental health is as important as treating your physical health.

But just because practicing self-love is hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

Without self-care and self-love, I wouldn’t be me.

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