Diabetes can present as an incredible burden on those who live with it. There is a lot of social stigma felt by people with diabetes and those who care for them, which can lead to feelings of difference, isolation, and personal failure. The daily regiment of management is demanding and can be overwhelming. And the ups and downs of blood glucose levels can be exhausting and traumatic. All of these factors combined often lead people with diabetes to judge themselves harshly.
In recent years there has been some limited, but encouraging, research suggesting that practicing self-compassion helps people with diabetes feel better on both psychological and physical levels. In 2016, a paper by Friis, Johnson, Cutfield, and Cosedine found that after an eight-week mindfulness self-compassion course participants reported lower levels of diabetes distress and depression, but also lower A1C results. More recently, Ferrari, Dal Cin, and Steele (2017) also found that higher levels of self-compassion in adults were associated with improved diabetes-self management behaviours, better medical outcomes, and better psychological wellbeing.
The concept of mindful self-compassion originates from Buddhist practices and culture. With the rise of the popularity of meditation and mindfulness in the West, the concept of self-compassion has become more widely known as well. At its core, self-compassion acknowledges that the human experience is an imperfect one and that suffering is a natural part of life. It encourages us to work to remain mindful of the negative thoughts and emotions that come up with our experiences and teaches us to be kind to ourselves during those challenging, painful or distressing events.
Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas and an expert in the area of self-compassion, describes three elements of self-compassion:
- Self-kindness. A perspective in life that incorporates and cultivates treating ourselves with kindness and warmth, even during difficulty;
- Common humanity. A recognition that suffering is not something that affects only us, but is a shared human experience;
- Mindfulness. A regular practice towards living in the present, where we observe our thoughts and feelings without judgement and without trying to hide or deny them from ourselves.
Developing a sense of self-compassion can feel difficult at first, especially if you have a well developed inner critic. However, as with any new exercise routine that targets a specific muscle, keeping up a regular practice of self-compassion meditation and exercises will make this pain lessen over time. Soon after, you should find that in times of difficulty you are better able to approach yourself with kindness.
There are many self-compassion practices that you can try. Here are a few quick exercises to get you started:
- Acknowledge and track when your inner critic comes to life. When those moments occur, try to treat yourself as you would want a good friend to treat you—offering yourself more nurturing words in place of the harsh criticism. Remind yourself: you are enough, you do good work, and there are people in your life that love you.
- Recognize that the difficulty you are experiencing in the moment is shared by others around the world. Often times, especially with diabetes and other chronic health conditions, we keep our struggles to ourselves; this can make us feel isolated in our difficulties. Reminding yourself that challenges are a normal part of the human experience, and that there are others out there like you, can help you foster kindness toward yourself.
- Develop a phrase or a mantra that you can repeat to yourself during challenging times. This can be a quote, a word that you find empowering, or something encouraging that someone once said to you. In her book Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff, Ph.D. suggests the phrase, “This is a moment of suffering; suffering is a part of life; may I be kind to myself and give myself what I need.”
Looking for more information? Here are some suggested readings to get you started:
Self-Compassion.org is Dr. Kristin Neff’s website, with additional readings and practices
Centre for Mindful Self-Compassion a centre founded by Dr. Kristen Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer
“Learning Self-Compassion: A tool for your diabetes management” by Nicola J. Davies, PhD at Diabetes Self-Management
“Kindness Matters: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Mindful Self-Compassion Intervention Improves Depression, Distress, and HbA1c Among Patients with Diabetes” by Anna M. Friis, Malcolm Johnson, Richard G. Cutfield, and Nathan S. Cosedine
“Self‐compassion is associated with optimum self‐care behaviour, medical outcomes and psychological well‐being in a cross‐sectional sample of adults with diabetes” by M. Ferrari, M. Dal Cin, M. Steele
Or click the link below to access Virtue's very own self-compassion exercises.