You are NOT your Illness!

Yesterday, I wrote about Learning to Live With the Loss of YOU and the framework that allows us to live with that loss. I talked about the uncontrollable anger that I am currently experiencing.

Chronic pain has a way of radically changing a person’s life; even those with strong self- esteem and coping skills struggle (yep, even me!). Healthy self-esteem enables us to accept, respect, trust and believe in ourselves. Chronic pain can take that away from us: for some, the most difficult blow comes when you can no longer do things connected to your identity (loss of a job, not being able to participate in sports or hobbies, not being able to spend time with friends); for others, using a cane or walker or having to use a handicapped placard is devastating.

chronic comic 176It’s a vicious cycle. Pain increases negative emotions such as anger and depression (and I’m really NOT looking forward to reaching that stage in the framework!) Anger, supposedly, is a necessary stage of the healing process; and anger has no limits – it can extend to your friends, your doctors, your family, yourself and even to God. Underneath all that anger is pain, YOUR pain…MY pain. It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned; and anger is an anchor, giving you temporary structure to the nothingness of loss. It builds a connection (from you to them). It is something to hold onto…and a connection built from the strength of anger feels better than nothing.

However, an increase in our negative emotions and other added stressors causes an increase in our pain. We’ve all read posts from people who have lost the desire to keep fighting their pain and fear their future. They have trouble asking for help and can even convince themselves that their loved ones would be better off if they were no longer a burden. Pain distorts our overall perception of our life, our contributions and past accomplishments.

But there is good news: a plan of action to help, based on two simple principles.

Care For Yourself

Treat yourself with the same respect you would give others. Get in touch with your needs. What would help and encourage you? Often just being listened to and validated is a powerful first step. Allow time for yourself. Get creative and explore new hobbies and interests that could decrease your pain through distraction.

chronic comic 167Allow yourself to have fun and laugh. Rent a funny movie, walk in the sunshine, take a bubble bath, listen to music, relax and meditate. Find things that are practical, affordable and available to you on a regular basis.

It is normal to get frustrated and to feel like we’ve done something wrong, and we often beat ourselves up because we feel like we should be doing more. That is what Cognitive Behavioral Therapists call this ‘catastrophic thinking.’ We need to challenge our distorted thoughts and learn to be grateful for what we have.

  • Remind yourself that you are worthwhile — you are valuable not because of what you can do but because of who you are
  • Stop comparing yourself to others — don’t let them define you; you control your heart and mind
  • Find new ways to express yourself — you still possess the same qualities; you just need a new way to share them with others
  • Grieve the loss of your “former self;” accept that some things have changed and embrace the ability to create a new vision for your future
  • Make every day meaningful — set S.M.A.R.T. goals that help you move forward

SSpecific: A specific goal has a much greater chance of being accomplished than a general goal. To set a specific goal you must answer the six “W” questions:

  • Who:      Who is involved?
  • What:     What do I want to accomplish?
  • Where:    Identify a location.
  • When:     Establish a time frame.
  • Which:    Identify requirements and constraints.
  • Why:      Specific reasons, purpose or benefits of accomplishing the goal.

EXAMPLE:  A general goal would be, “Get in shape.” But a specific goal would say, “Join a health club and workout 3 days a week.”

mMeasurable – Establish concrete criteria for measuring progress toward the attainment of each goal you set.

When you measure your progress, you stay on track, reach your target dates, and experience the exhilaration of achievement that spurs you on to continued effort required to reach your goal.

To determine if your goal is measurable, ask questions such as: How much? How many? How will I know when it is accomplished?

aAttainable – When you identify goals that are most important to you, you begin to figure out ways you can make them come true. You develop the attitudes, abilities, skills, and financial capacity to reach them. You begin seeing previously overlooked opportunities to bring yourself closer to the achievement of your goals.

You can attain most any goal you set when you plan your steps wisely and establish a time frame that allows you to carry out those steps. Goals that may have seemed far away and out of reach eventually move closer and become attainable, not because your goals shrink, but because you grow and expand to match them.

A goal can be both high and attainable; you are the only one who can decide just how high your goal should be. But be sure that every goal represents substantial progress. A high goal is frequently easier to reach than a low one because a low goal exerts low motivational force. Some of the hardest jobs you ever accomplished actually seem easy simply because they were a labour of love. When you list your goals you build your self-image. You see yourself as worthy of these goals, and develop the traits and personality that allow you to possess them.

rRelevant– To be relevant, your goals must pertinent. A bank manager’s goal to Make 50 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by 2:00pm may be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, and Timely, but lacks Relevance. A goal that supports or is in alignment with other goals would be considered a relevant goal.

A relevant goal can answer yes to these questions:

  • Does this seem worthwhile?
  • Is this the right time?
  • Does this match our other efforts/needs?
  • Are you the right person?
  • Is this acceptable for correction?

tTimely – A goal should be grounded within a time frame. With no time frame tied to it there’s no sense of urgency. If you want to lose 10 lbs, when do you want to lose it by? ‘Someday’ won’t work. But if you anchor it within a timeframe, ‘by May 1st,’ then you’ve set your unconscious mind into motion to begin working on the goal.

Develop a Support Network

This isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Family, friends and faith are the most common relationships we rely on in times of need. Chronic pain touches every aspect of your life which makes it critical to surround ourselves with others who are supportive and understanding of our pain. chronic comic 174Family and friends may not want to hear about your pain and may become uncomfortable being around you and watching you suffer, but it is important to talk about it. Research has shown that family and friends play a tremendous role in helping patients deal with a chronic illness. But sometimes it is difficult for a) you to let those people in, and b) for those people to know what to do help. (You can find some tips for both them and you at Chronic Counsel)

Some healthcare professionals even have trouble listening to and validating chronic pain patients. Learning to be more assertive and planning goals for doctor visits can help. You need to take an active role in your healthcare.

Many find encouragement and resources through their faith to help them see a bigger picture than their daily pain and suffering. Some people want to make a difference in their community. Research shows that when people volunteer and help others, they seem to do better finding meaning and purpose in their own lives. We need to be connected to others — don’t try to fight your pain alone.

To improve your self-esteem and apply these strategies, you need to make yourself a priority and have people in your life who love you unconditionally. Being in a group or seeing a counsellor can help hold you accountable so you don’t give up before seeing the results of your efforts. Your pain does not define you — take control and believe in yourself. You are worth it!

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