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Selfish Tears

I have a different pump, but this photo is in the public domain. Close enough.

One night a few weeks ago, I didn’t click through enough of the buttons on my insulin pump, and, unbeknownst to me for several hours, I had not gotten my dinnertime insulin. By the time I realized this at 11:00 p.m. my blood glucose was 339. Now, 80 is normal, and 100 is what I shoot for, but I was still a long way from diabetic ketoacidosis, coma, and death. Since I have all the tools at my fingertips and could zap myself with insulin right away, there was no immediate danger, just an emotional reaction.

I’ve had Type 1 diabetes for going on 40 years. Over the past couple of years, my blood glucose levels haven’t been all that great. I’ve been working very hard the past months to keep them stable–testing a lot, eating lower glycemic index foods, exercising, avoiding the more avoidable stresses of my workplace, and using my pump’s “bolus wizard.” This last is a term I despise–why not call it your Bolus Fairy Godmother? Or your Bolus Knight in Shining Armor? I hate the infantilizing of my condition with terms like that.

Anyway, name aside, it’s a handy little tool that calculates for you how much insulin you need for any given meal, and it records both doses and blood sugars so the doctor wants me to use it to help him monitor my highs and lows. The trouble is that you have to punch the buttons a million times to get through all the screens. Sometimes I think that, even as math impaired as I am, doing my own numbers in my head is less trouble.

So, looking at that 339 and realizing what had happened, I felt a surge of anger–at myself for screwing up, at the fact that I probably wouldn’t feel well enough in the morning for my spin class, at the stupid design of the stupid pump (which, of course, I generally appreciate and wouldn’t want to live without), at my husband for talking to me during dinner and distracting me from the buttons (which conversation, of course, I’d been looking forward to all afternoon), at the universe that saddled me with this disease.

When I got to the latter, I was flooded with tears of frustration and self-pity. My husband put his arm around me and said, “It doesn’t ruin everything. It’ll be back to normal by tomorrow.”

“I know,” I said, “but I’d just like one f*ing day off.” We acknowledged as how that’s not going to happen, no matter how much I hope for it. There is no one with a magic wand anywhere in sight, not even the Bolus Wizard.

These were embarrassing, selfish little tears, and I regretted them as soon as they had passed. But still, I want to say that it’s probably okay to cry for yourself a little every now and then. Especially if it helps you let go of the anger and blame.

In fact, one recent concept to emerge out of positive psychology that might actually be useful and helpful is that of “self-compassion,” the practice of accepting and examining negative feelings (such as failure, inadequacy, and other kinds of suffering) rather than denying or disapproving of them. Even Martin Seligman has questioned the emphasis on self-esteem in raising children, noting that it tends to make them unrealistic and narcissistic. In more recent years, researchers such as University of Texas professor Kristin Neff and Harvard professor Christopher K. Germer, have focused instead on self-compassion.

There are a couple of aspects of this approach that are important: one is that self-compassion also involves an awareness of others—you’re encouraged to understand that failure is a normal part of the human condition and that others feel afraid or inadequate too. Another important difference from much of the run of positive psychology is a lack of denial of negative aspects of life. New studies are showing that it may alleviate depression more to review negative events at the end of each day instead of trying to think positive thoughts, as long as one takes a forgiving attitude toward oneself in doing so.

Many of those researching self-compassion, including Germer and Neff, are influenced by Buddhism. Buddhism perhaps shares with positive psychology a belief that one’s surroundings are not the key to happiness, but what it seems to bring to the positive psychology endeavor that’s different is a focus on compassion rather than achievement and an understanding that some superficial pursuits of happiness may have negative consequences, that one’s relationship with the world really does matter for long-term happiness.

Self-compassion, of course, also helps one be more compassionate toward others, something I find missing in most positive psychology, and in much (though of course not all) of today’s prosperity-oriented Christianity. I know that for me, blame certainly snowballs. As soon as I was able to forgive myself for messing up my insulin dosage, my anger at Bruce and the insulin pump designers dissipated as well. Diabetes is one part of the normal imperfect human condition. I keep trying to let go of the usual blame.

4 responses »

  1. you know, I love how this ties so many important themes together- dealing with the sometimes unpretty realities of the aging body, and the need for compassion for oneself AND others, based in the realities of the difficulties life brings. Which is not to say there is not breathtaking beauty in the world, just that there is also stomach-wrenching pain. this post is a keeper!

    • Hi, Dana! I’m glad this spoke to you. Maybe that tendency to be hard on ourselves was something we had in common back when we first met. I think there are so many voices in my head that tell me if I’m compassionate to myself I’m being self-indulgent. What does that imply for the times when I’m compassionate to someone else? So it seems possible to me that a lack of self-compassion may very well be an underpinning to right-wing hatred of Others, especially the poor. It’s hard in short blog posts to weave multiple themes together, but your comment makes me feel as though it’s possible. Thanks.

  2. Lisa,

    Earlier today I received the autographed copy of your book that my mom mailed to you and you, in turn, mailed back. It was such a moving and touching gift. We then discovered your blog and my mom has been reading it this evening. Reading is very hard for me, so she passed on a post that might speak to me.

    This one certainly did. I always say: If only I show as much compassion for myself as I do for others! 😛 Why IS that so difficult to do? Thank you for this post and for sharing the importance of self-compassion. Now, to achieve it. 🙂

    Immediately, when reading this post, I felt compassion for you and never once thought: what a self-indulgent thing to cry over! I thought: I’d cry over that too!

    I appreciate your point of view in your blog and the messages you are debunking. I will be popping by regularly to see what you have to say!

    Thank you!


    • Thanks, Emily, for your generous reply, and for keeping me on the path of self-compassion, too. I hadn’t been so kind lately! Always good to have a reminder.

      I’ll get around to adding your blog to my links, and I’ll check in from time to time too. Take care.


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