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- Self-compassion can lower the risk of developing depression and anxiety and increase the amount of time between cases of diabetes burnout over the course of a lifetime.
- Analyzing thoughts based on whether they’re true, kind, and helpful can help someone move toward a more compassionate relationship with diabetes.
- In a condition that requires people to analyze their behavior all day long, boosting self-compassion can ease the day-to-day tasks common for people with diabetes.
We use the term “diabetes management” instead of “diabetes mastery” for good reason. Because of all the variables that affect blood sugar—from dehydration to medication side effects to slight changes in hormones—there’s no such thing as “perfect” when it comes to diabetes. That means diabetes management is a practice, and the effort is ongoing.
Diabetes is a health condition in which someone can feel like they are doing everything “right,” but their numbers can still be out of range. Why is that?
In addition to the condition being numbers-focused, and at times, complex and demanding, it requires people to evaluate their own behavior nearly all day long.
“There are many opportunities to judge yourself on any given day,” says Dr. Harpreet Nagra, PhD, VP of behavior science and head of program experience at One Drop. “As adults, most of us don’t have another person monitoring our every single move, and with it, saying positive things to us. Alone, we tend to focus on the negative because that feels bigger. That’s why we have to create and nurture a positive internal environment for ourselves.”
Nagra says that self-compassion and the way we view our choices and outcomes are key to handling the mental toll that diabetes can take.
“When we increase self-compassion, it can help lower some of our diabetes-related distress on a day-to-day basis and increase the gaps between cases of burnout over the course of our lifetime,” explains Dr. Nagra. “Because people with diabetes are already biologically at risk for depression and anxiety, increasing self-compassion can help lower the risk for depression and anxiety over time.”
Steps to Boost Self-Compassion
To boost your self-compassion step-by-step, consider:
Step 1: Become aware of your relationship with diabetes.
Is it good? Is it bad? Is it somewhere in between? Putting words to what that relationship is and what you want it to be is a good first step in raising self-awareness for how you might interact with diabetes.
Step 2: Identify self-talk around your relationship with diabetes.
When a decision point shows up during your day (e.g. deciding how much insulin to inject), what are you saying to yourself in those moments? Try journaling or logging those thoughts in order to begin to see themes around your self-talk. Once you can see patterns, you can start to identify how you might change your self-talk.
Step 3: Identify what you want to change about the themes you see.
It could help to go back to your journal or log and ask yourself if your thoughts are:
Typically, if someone says that a thought is not true, they also see that it’s not a kind or helpful thought. Evaluating thoughts based on accuracy and kindness can go a long way in noticing when you need to reevaluate and reframe thoughts.
Step 4: Brainstorm different ways of thinking and reacting.
Turning thoughts into actions can be one way to stop unhelpful thoughts from circulating and preventing personal growth. Make a plan for what you can do, where you can go, or how you can find support when negative thoughts become consuming.
Oftentimes, we think about and react to the people we love in kinder ways than we do ourselves. Consider asking yourself what you’d say to a friend with the same thought. Then, extend yourself the same compassion.
Putting Self-Compassion Into Practice: A Case Study
John has had type 1 diabetes since he was eight years old. Now 30, single (and looking for a long-term relationship), and running his own successful plumbing business, John is consistent with checking his blood sugar, but his A1C is still high. In fact, after he gets his A1C checked every three months, John feels down about his results for a full week and has a “what’s the point?” attitude when it comes to both eating and dating. His mood that week is particularly low.
Step 1: John defines his relationship with diabetes.
John says his relationship with diabetes is “complicated,” and feels like it’s not fair he’s had to deal with it for nearly his entire life. He feels that since having the condition isn’t something that he can control, being able to manage it should be easier, especially when he’s usually careful with his eating. He finds diabetes to be consuming and hates that he puts so much of his attention and energy toward it.
Step 2: John identifies self-talk.
He writes the following in the notepad on his phone in the week after he had his A1C checked:
I ate the entire cookie at lunch instead of half like I intended. I’m a bad diabetic.
I’m so busy dealing with my diabetes that I feel like I don’t have time to date. Maybe I’m not worthy of being in a relationship.
If I can’t even manage my blood sugar, how can I be “there” for a partner who needs me?
Step 3: John identifies what he wants to change about the themes he sees.
John looked at his notepad and determined that all of his statements were not accurate, kind, or helpful.
He noticed that after receiving his A1C results every few months, he tends not only to be harsh toward himself as someone with diabetes, but also toward himself as someone looking for a partnership. He wants to stop letting his diabetes-related thoughts impact his overall thoughts about a potential romantic relationship.
Step 4: John brainstorms different ways of thinking and reacting.
John decides that he will put the following measures in place:
- Grocery shop and meal prep for the week before the A1C test. That way he’ll be well-stocked with foods that support his health goals.
- Schedule walks with friends in a nearby park, so that he can bounce any recurring negative thoughts off of others.
- Keep a designated journal to write down what he’d say to a friend when unhelpful thoughts about his suitability as a partner enter his mind.
- Keep a sticky note on the bathroom mirror that says, “Diabetes is what I have. It is not who I am.” He puts another one in his car that says, “I deserve love and I’m worthy of being in a healthy relationship.”
- Explore an online support group for people living with diabetes who are also looking for love.
Building self-compassion is an ongoing practice, but one well worth doing during the ups and downs of diabetes, and quite frankly, well beyond. Remember, there’s no such thing as “perfect” when it comes to diabetes management.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Dr. Harpreet Nagra at One Drop.