Self talk for caregivers

Joy Cutrone, Wellness & Certified AIP Coach, FMCHC-Candidate

Things are easier when they’re not so hard

Does that sound like nonsense? I mean, of course things are easier when they’re not so hard! Yet what I mean by that is, sure, we can do better at complying with our self-care routine when we’re feeling well. Somehow, we have the energy for it then. And somehow, we don’t, quite so easily, when things aren’t going so well, even though that’s when we need it most. For example, somehow, I can eat better when I’m fit – I’m not tempted to deviate from my diet or overeat – when, ironically, it’s when I’m less fit that I need to be more compliant.

There have been times during my son’s protracted illness when I’ve woken up too early in the morning, demoralized, under-rested, churning on a particular dilemma or grief, and the day ahead has seemed to be just too hard. It’s these times that we have to be particularly gentle on ourselves. These are the times when we also have to down-shift the demands we put on ourselves, and remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can.

How you talk to yourself matters

If you’re having a day when you feel fragile, or the process is feeling overwhelming, take a moment to pause and check in with your self-talk. Are you beating yourself up for some perceived shortcoming? Is it possible that you’re putting an unreasonable demand on yourself? Is it possible you’re taking on too much responsibility, or bearing the burden of things that are not actually within your control? Is there an unattended grief process in motion that needs some attention? Can you cut yourself some slack in this moment, the way you would if it were someone other than yourself?

Some days in deep illness are hard. Sometimes we don’t know where we are. Or we don’t have a clear picture of where we’re going. Or, worse, how to get there. I particularly struggle with those times when the “experts” contradict each other and I have to choose — and it’s a really important choice — and I don’t feel qualified to make it. Been there, done that, too many times. Luckily, I have a strong intuition and a fierce commitment to my children’s health, but it can be hard to advocate among “experts” when you’re feeling fragile and are tempted to give into the self-doubt.

My techniques for coping

Get qualified help

First, I want to be clear that I haven’t waded through this journey alone. And I’m not talking about medical doctors here, although we do have a team. I’m referring to the psychological and spiritual side of things. I have a counselor who’s experienced with the challenges of chronic illness as well as with grief. These two components are important filters when looking for an appropriate resource: autoimmunity is not an event that you’re going to experience, and then grieve, once, and then put behind you. It’s here for life. What that means, and learning to live with some inevitable ebb and flow without feeling like there’s a constant specter of doom on the horizon, is an important process to move through to attain an understanding of wellbeing and resiliency. Note that friends and family – and this community – can be a huge help – and that, sometimes, the people closest to us, even when well-meaning, are not, so much. If you’re battling depression, or need to talk things out with someone who’s not emotionally invested in outcomes, then get some talk therapy into the mix. Along with other important steps, like looking at your own diet and self-care routine, counseling can be an important self-care component.


Never underestimate the value of release. Whoosh. Let it out; there’s a clear space behind it that is renewing.

Breathe deeply

This is that calming technique for the parasympathetic system that used to seem like silly, even condescending, advice, but which we now understand is a real thing. Breathe in, as far as you can; hold it a few seconds; breather out, as far as you can (this is the important part), and back in again, same process, three times. Anxiety just came down a notch.

Get quiet

Allow some time, even if you’re just carving out a few private moments, without any other stimulation. This is vital for clear thinking. And clear thinking is vital if you’re in a decision-making position (and even if you’re not). Remember: this is the basis of meditation. So, see! You’re doing it already. Points to you.

Coach yourself through the hardest thing you have to do today

Sometimes, on hard days when, say, exercise, or showing up for work, or even taking a shower or making a homemade meal feel too hard, a technique I use to cope is to identify what’s the hardest thing I have to do that day. Ideally, that thing is something I can dispatch with in the morning. Oftentimes, when my son was very ill, exercise was very hard for me: it meant opening up my body to movement, encouraging circulation and vitality when my natural state was to hunker down in a self-protective clench. So, I went to Pilates in the morning. It was hard, often, to coach myself through it, but the women in my group are kind and form a community that I value and then, once I did that thing, I could know that I did it. I could put a check in that box: I did a self-care thing for me today. That was hard, and every motion after that one hard thing is less so.

Be gentle on yourself

It’s ok to release your Atlas impersonation today and just have a gentle, nurturing day. You’ve done the one hardest thing to do. Is there anything else on the list that’s optional?

Do the next right thing

 You don’t have to have it all figured out today. In fact, don’t try to figure it all out today, because you can’t know all the variables in tomorrow, and there may well be a different next-right-thing-to-do then. So, stay in today. Just do the next right thing. One truth we know about life and being human is that it’s dynamic. Things will change. Today, you only have to do today.

Keep an eye out for unexpected joy 

You may hear a new bird this morning in your early hours. You may see a child smile or, even better, laugh. There may be a shift in the illness. You may be able to feel the knowledge that you’re moving forward through a healing-based approach and that, while that takes time, the process is at work. Right now.

Do keep the counsel of licensed professionals

What I’m describing here is my experience with navigating a flare before we’d found functional medicine, and then again for some time after we had, cleaning up the damage of what had gone before. Don’t go into the woods without a compass. Your functional medicine team is your compass. Keep in touch; observe symptoms; keep the dialogue going; get more help when you need it, whether through a coach, a counselor, a friend, or a specialist when need be. There is light ahead. I promise.

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