Coping With the Guilt of Illness
Guilt surfaces in my writing frequently and, when I publish anything that mentions it, I’m deluged with comments and emails from readers who are also plagued by guilt because about everything they’re unable to do due to illness. I also get comments from healthy readers who tell me I have no reason to feel guilty because I’ve done nothing wrong. But the guilt of illness is not rational.
On a Good Day is the most recent post to prompt a lot of readers to say they feel guilty. Reading those comments broke my heart in a way that had never happened before. It was so clear to me that these readers had done nothing wrong, but were punishing themselves for being sick. I was saddened both by their distress and how much it echoed how I used to feel.
That’s right, I said how I USED to feel. As I read other people’s responses to On a Good Day, I wanted to offer a balm or a strategy to move away from feeling guilty about letting people down because of illness. Only then did I see how much guilt I’ve let go of in the last year. It took days of reflection to figure out what had made the difference in my life. Self-compassion was the answer.
As an extraordinarily harsh self-critic, developing self-compassion seemed like the last thing I’d ever be able to do. And yet, I’m doing it. I’ve made enough progress to release the massive guilt that used to overwhelm me. I still have a LONG way to go, but this little bit has turned my life upside down — in a wonderful way.
I’m sure working with my therapist has made a huge difference in my self-compassion, but I’ve also learned a lot from books, podcasts and audiobooks. I’ve recently discovered the amazing resources from researcher Kristin Neff. Her audiobook Self-Compassion Step by Step is essentially a self-compassion workshop on CD. I’m listening it now and wish I’d found it years ago. Her website, self-compassion.org, also has great free resources, including videos, blog posts, self-compassion exercises, Q&A and even a self-compassion quiz.
I took that self-compassion quiz yesterday. I scored 2.19 out of 5. Anything below a 2.5 is considered low self-compassion and 2.5 to 3.5 is considered moderate. I was thrilled to be that close to moderate. I have no doubt that if I’d taken the quiz a year ago, my score would have been well below 1.
Even a small shift in self-compassion can make a huge difference in how we treat ourselves. If you’re weighed down by guilt, please take a look at Dr. Neff’s website and maybe look at some books about it. It isn’t a quick fix, but the psychological weight that has been lifted from my life has been so worth the work.
Writing this got me curious about what I’ve written about guilt over the years. Here are a few samples, including my first written attempt at self-compassion:
- Guilt Comorbid With Headaches (September 21, 2007)
- Guilty as Charged (October 5, 2006)
- The Guilt of Letting Myself Down Over and Over (March 3, 2008)
- A Letter to Myself: Replacing Guilt, Shame & Self-Hatred With Love, Compassion (June 13, 2012)
And a very similar post, published on Migraine.com last week: Letting Go of Guilt.