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How to Be Sick

Not Engaging in Self-Blame

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THE CHALLENGE

Not Engaging in Self-Blame

I know from experience that nothing positive comes from directing blame at yourself. Anybody can get sick, physically or mentally, and anybody can develop chronic pain. It can happen when you’re young. It can happen when you’re older.

Sadly, self-blame is often the habitual response when you’re faced with one of the challenges that are the subjects of this book. A treatment didn’t work? Somehow, it’s your fault. You received dismissive care from a doctor? Somehow, you did something wrong at the appointment.

Blaming yourself for something that isn’t your fault wastes your precious energy. Instead, spend your time doing what you can to ease your symptoms and to build the best life you can for yourself.

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The suggestions and practices that follow will help put an end to the blame game.

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Recognize that a lack of control over much that happens to you is an inescapable reality of the human condition.

If you had control over what happened to you, you’d order up a lifetime of perfect health. I certainly would. But life doesn’t work that way. At some point, all of us must grapple with health challenges that are beyond our ability to control.

You are not alone in this. This is simply how and when it happened to you.

No blame!

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Use Three-Breath Practice to shift your attention from self-blame to what’s happening in your immediate experience.

This mindfulness practice is easy but powerful. All you need do is pause — and bring your full attention to the physical sensation of three consecutive in-breaths and out-breaths.

Because the sensations of the breath always occur in the present moment, this practice puts you in the present moment. This prevents you from remaining lost in self-judgmental thoughts.

Three-Breath Practice can be done any time, any place, and in any posture. Your eyes can be opened or closed.

The more you practice it, the earlier you’ll begin noticing that a judgmental thought has arisen. Catching it early like this can keep it from escalating into full-blown self-blame.

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Be sure that embarrassment isn’t contributing to your self-blame.

Embarrassment is the painful, self-conscious feeling that you’re violating a social norm because you can’t regain your health. It arises as a result of childhood and cultural conditioning that cause you to hold yourself to unrealistically high standards; when you can’t meet them, you feel embarrassed, even ashamed.

The unrealistic standard at work here is that perfect health is within your power if you’d just eat right, exercise, etc. This distorted view is fueled by the media and often by the people right around you.

To overcome embarrassment, first, recognize that its source is unrealistic expectations, and then remind yourself that pain and illness come with the human experience. You don’t control when they’ll show up or how long they’ll stick around. There’s nothing to feel embarrassed about.

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Think of words that address the pain of self-blame, and recite them to yourself in a kind and soothing manner.

Consider this from Pema Chödrön, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism: “The most difficult times for many of us are those we give ourselves.”

If you are your own harshest critic, you can find relief from that emotional suffering by coming up with words that capture how painful it is to engage in self-blame. Then gently repeat them to yourself. Your words might be similar to these: “Blaming myself for something that isn’t under my control hurts as if it’s a self-inflicted wound” or “It’s upsetting to realize that I treat myself more harshly than I’d ever treat others; that’s not fair to me.”

Expressing understanding and compassion for yourself in this way disarms self-blame. You are, in effect, taking away its power over you. As a result, it might just make a hasty exit!

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“Count each separate day as a separate life” (as advised by the Roman philosopher Seneca).

Try counting each moment as a separate life, too. You may have blamed yourself for being chronically ill in the last moment, but this is a new moment — a new life.

In this new life, instead of criticizing yourself for something that’s not your fault, treat yourself with understanding and compassion.

And if you fall back into your old habit of self-blame, it’s okay because, in the next moment, you can start anew!

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