When I was in high school, I took advanced classes, volunteered, and did homework all the time. At one point in college, I was taking a full load and working three jobs. I barely had a minute to think and, for me, that’s what I needed at the time. Up until the last few years where my Systemic Juvenile Arthritis took control, I never stopped for anything. I got mad at myself if I fell asleep because that was time I could’ve used to be a productive member of society.
The terms ‘self-love’ and ‘self-care’ aren’t always easy to define as they can change multiple times a day for each individual, especially those of us with arthritis. I may need different forms of self-love and self-care at 8:00 on a Saturday morning than I do at 3:00 in the afternoon during a weekday than at midnight any day of the week.
I personally define self-love as the internal portion of self-care. Self-love has to do with our feelings towards ourselves and our running inner monologue. Are we self-critical? Self-loathing? Self-care involves actions you take for yourself to show yourself love. A great visual is to take care of yourself when you have the flu. Do you push through it and try to go to work? Or do you realize you have to stay home, watch Netflix, and sleep?
If you search either term on the internet, you’ll find an endless stream of feel-good articles on treating yourself better. These are by no means bad to read, but they usually don’t fit our lives – especially for those living with illness. For example, during your search, you’ll probably find well-meaning quotes about having to love yourself before others can love you. I personally don’t think that is true, especially in my case. Being loved by my husband changed my life as he helped me see that I had worth. He started me on my journey to self-love and, thus, self-care.
Many of us with chronic illnesses have similar stories in that regard. Maybe you aren’t there just yet.
And that’s okay.
It can be really difficult at first to start the self-love and self-care process, especially if your support system isn’t the strongest, so here are some basic steps you can try:
Treat yourself like you would treat a sibling or your best friend.
This is part of how I got into the self-care and self-love movement. My sister and I grew up in an abusive household. I wasn’t always the best big sister, but I always try now to do what I can to help Kelsey shine as brightly as she can.
I don’t talk down to her or tell her how awful of a mistake she made. I don’t bring up every negative or wrong thing she’s ever done in her life… so why was I doing that to myself?
Learn to feel your emotions.
As I restarted therapy earlier this year for my mental health, I realized a lot. Perhaps the biggest realization was how I deal – or, rather, don’t – with my emotions. I joke about things and change the subject in real life when things are hard. It’s always been a coping and survival mechanism and, indeed, worked well under the conditions in which I grew up.
But I’m a grown up now. I have to start going through and letting myself feel every emotion, not just the ones that are pleasant.
It’s really difficult, but it’s worth it, even if you just start from right now.
This isn’t about thanking yourself in the same way someone you help might thank you. This is about respecting how hard it can be to be you and everything that goes into your existence.
Some people use loving-kindness meditations to do this. These often have you thank others as you meditate, focusing finally on yourself. Others simply use affirmations or say ‘thank you’ to different parts of their bodies.
Personally, I love loving-kindness meditations. They’re very helpful for me. Sometimes, though, it’s just as easy to say to my body, “Thank you for being my body and my home. Thank you for working hard today to accomplish so much and to simply just be.”
You might cry. It’s totally fine to do so.
Please know that your body and your mind are amazing.
It’s okay to say no, and to not feel guilty about it.
You have the right to say no to anything, whether it’s a sexual advance or an invitation or a favor for a friend.
You have the right to do what is best for yourself. That doesn’t make you selfish or narcissistic.
It makes you smart.
In saying no to things, you set boundaries… which is something I’m honestly still learning. Setting boundaries is good for each of us, and those boundaries can range from soft and malleable like those you may set for yourself in a flare to hard and unchanging like those with an estranged family member.
Do what is best for you, body and mind, always.
I admittedly overindulge a bit in this one.
You can reward yourself in many ways for many things, and the rewards don’t have to cost money.
Perhaps you’re flaring but you really want to do the dishes. You tell yourself that when those are done, you can enjoy a soda pop or binge watch your favorite guilty pleasure show on television.
Others may binge watch television while being very active during the commercials to make up for being more sedentary the rest of the time.
Treating yourself during the holidays usually takes on a more food-oriented role, but just be careful.
Part of self-love and self-care is knowing when to ease up a little bit on the good stuff and get down to business too.
What will you be doing to practice self-love or self-care?