Fibromyalgia, self-criticism/self-compassion

“Self-compassion is a more effective motivator for change than self- criticism”, Kristin Neff

Those of us with a chronic health condition are generally very critical of ourselves. Our self talk is filled with anger for not “pulling ourselves up by the boot straps”and living life in a more positive way, instead of succumbing to anxiety and depression. We often feel like failures, particularly when we hear of others who might have the same degree of suffering that we have but who appear to be doing so much better than we are. We are much more kind to others than we are to ourselves.

How often have we wondered why it is we cannot control our anxiety, deal more effectively with ever occurring pain and fatigue, stop the endless angst over our life situation and live a life that is more joyful than sorrowful?  How is it that others who seem even worse off than we are appear to be so much more optimistic?

I recently visited the family doctor and the young resident (who was a very assertive and quite wonderful physician) accompanying him told me to “cut myself some slack” as she pointed out I have fibromyalgia, have had a heart attack and other health issues. I was meditating daily, exercising in spite of the physical pain, taking my meds- all that she focussed on , so I was to stop beating up on myself. In other words practice self compassion, although she did not use that language.

In my approach to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue I take the position that we have too much empathy and compassion for others, intuitively feeling and experiencing the real or perceived  pain of others while ignoring our own emotional response to this over-empathizing. I thought I knew the kinds of personality traits those of us with these conditions were prone to have but I had not yet discovered still more of the puzzle. The concept of self compassion has provided me with additional insights about the highly sensitive person, the majority of whom are women, doing for others what she will not do for herself- practicing self-kindness. It is that component which Neff describes as being “gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgemental” (p.41). 

I am becoming increasingly intrigued with a search for my true self, if , in fact, that is ever possible. I understand that a difficult childhood with many fears and anxieties- the result of a highly stressful home life,  and a guilt ridden, severe Catholic upbringing, produced  an extremely sensitive person. I am constantly aware of uncomfortable bodily sensations  that I experience every day- pain and fatigue are combined with the myriad of other symptoms that goes along with this fibromyalgia demon. Anxiety and near panic are my closest companions. My earliest memories trigger adrenalin which the amygdala and the hippocampus have imprinted on my brain (see several other blogs where I discuss these issues) and soon afterward recalling these memories I can experience these bodily sensations that are so vivid and painful. How mysteriously the mind works (if indeed we have one-I  still prefer the concept of the brain which can be seen and touched).

In my view fibromyalgia begins in early childhood. The memories that are stored in the cerebellum and the basal ganglia- the automatic memory and the memory of facts and events which are the function of the cortex and the hippocampus , along with the various proteins and peptides, play a part in producing memories that affect us as we reproduce them . While these painful memories have an important function in my fibromyalgia body, it is possible to acknowledge the past while living in the moment. I can train the brain to let go but it takes much practice. These symptoms from life memories are the ways in which I do not have compassion/empathy for my own self. In acknowledging my true self, I not only have physical pain but a broken heart.

Neff has written that :”Self-compassion gives us the calm courage needed to face our unwanted emotions head-on” (p.124). Along with practicing empathy for myself the technique I have been listening to almost daily this entire year is a cd of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Body Scan. I smile to myself when I hear him say that as long as I am breathing there is more right with my body than there is wrong. On this snowy, cold, depressing end of the year day (my heart attack, my mother’s death, my fibromyalgia flare-ups did not  make for a joyful 2013), I am taking what Neff calls a “self-compassion break“. I am looking for that “silver lining”.

So, in conclusion I have a suggestion to make, a practice I am about to indulge in.  Neff discusses oxytocin which has been labelled by researchers “the hormone of love and bonding” (p. 47). Touching “releases oxytocin , provides a sense of security, soothes distressing emotions, and calms cardiovascular stress” (p. 49). She suggests  that under stress giving oneself a hug or touching oneself by gently stroking the face or arms can release oxytocin. This is not  an airy-fairy practice but one shown to be effective through research. In particular, I believe it would be a good strategy for those of us in physical pain,  or experiencing stress and  fear of the unknown regarding our health.

                                 HAPPY NEW YEAR and GIVE YOURSELF A BIG HUG!


NY 2013 003


6 thoughts on “Fibromyalgia, self-criticism/self-compassion

  1. Valda Garner

    Hi Barbara, This is an excellent and deeply complex blog, as usual. I enjoy reading your thoughts about what you are feeling and intellectualizing. We are highly complex beings for sure and our early experiences have a profound effect on our lives. The majority of people struggles with their own demons, but few talk about those demons. I believe that the sensitivity and highly intuitiveness of many fibromyalgia sufferers were established before our birth. The harshness of the world takes its toll on sensitive people — we have been told over and over again to “just get a thicker skin”. Your blog is so timely as I just spoke with my mother, which left me feeling alone, isolated and rejected. That is my family’s modus operandi. To deal with these feelings I must look to my intellectual side and self soothe. I expect to work to manage these feelings the rest of my life. People that seem to breeze through chronic illness have bad days too. I have been inspired by people that meet life’s difficult challenges with courage and a positive spirit. Those people aren’t really any different than the rest of us. We also have the courage and a strong spirit to get up every day and live with fibromyalgia. I want you to know that I can feel your pain and wish there was something I could do to ease that pain. But all I can do is offer some emotional support by letting you know I understand. Isn’t that what we are all looking for? Just understanding. Take good care and be safe. Valda

  2. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Thanks Valda:
    If we don’t have compassion for our own lot in life it is an on-going cycle of self criticism. I enjoy your comments so much, and of course wish you every best wish for the new year. Hope for a less challenging year is a good way for us to begin!

  3. Lois Roelofs

    I know exactly what you’re talking about. As a mom and nurse, I’ve given to others my whole life and held myself to high standards. And who knows what I’ve dragged along with me from childhood that I’m not even aware of. Now, as a retiree living with FM, I’m trying hard to have my life be much more about me. I like the idea of giving myself a hug. We should all remember and do this. I hope you are feeling better soon. Thanks for writing so honestly. I like that search for your true self, too. Just shed that false self we’re socialized into projecting publicly and be simply you!

  4. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Dear Lois:
    So many nurses have written about their types of life long caregiving. It makes me more convinced than ever that fibromyalgia is the result of an overly empathic, sensitive, anxious personality that developed in early childhood.
    I really appreciate your comments. Thank you so much.

  5. Stuart Clark

    Dear Barbara
    I also believe that early childhood memories have a part to play. I was hit by a car at the age of 4 years old, and still believe it was the trigger. I was trapped underneath the automobile for a period of time (until the firemen lifted the car and got me out). Although I suffered several broken bones, it was the trapping under the car that caused panic I still recall to this day.
    During the four major Fibro hits as a teenager and adult, I always have the same night terror of being trapped and crushed underneath a large heavy object (never suffering with night terrors at other times in life).
    Thank you so much for your knowledge,

  6. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Have you tried writing a journal about your childhood and perhaps that of your parents? I have just finished one about my father and grandparents and it has been very helpful trying to come to terms with my ambiguity and feelings about my father. It has been very liberating!
    I welcome your comments, as usual, Stuart.

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