Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Your first reaction to the title of this article might be something like, “What? Is he serious? Talk to me on a day when I have to call in sick at work yet again because I feel too bad to leave the house. Or when I have to ask for help taking care of my kids. And what about the time I had to cancel out of an important family get-together? That’s not a disability?”
So, let me start by emphasizing that it is not my intention to make light of what it’s like to live with a chronic condition. Not at all.
Here’s my concern: I often hear my clients talking about themselves in a way that implies their chronic condition somehow makes them less than other people, or that something is wrong with them in comparison to other people. This especially occurs in relation to lifestyle adjustments they have to make and/or what they have to do to maintain their medication regimen. Examples include any monitoring they may need to do, like checking their blood or being alert for specific symptoms. Or performing tasks related to their self-care routine that might make them feel different from other people.
This leads to a self-perception that is ultimately disempowering. It is based on the self-imposed belief that what you have to do to maintain your best self, doing certain things and avoiding other things, means that you are somehow incomplete, flawed, burdened. Disabled.
Here’s what it means to be disempowered: When your perception of your chronic condition and what it means for your life is all about what’s “wrong” with you. And when all the tasks associated with maintaining your optimal health collectively feel like they are turning you into a disabled person.
The ways we think and behave
Consider this. We all have fears, likes and dislikes, things that we have to do for ourselves to help us stay emotionally centered. Some people need to eat certain foods at a certain time to feel like they are at their best that day. Other people will do just about anything to avoid being stuck in a crowd. You may know someone with a morning or evening ritual that seems rigid, if not downright strange. Are these quirks? Just part of who they are? I suspect you don’t think of your friends and family members as having something wrong with them when they do something that might seem out of the ordinary to maintain their day-to-day emotional or physical health. And you certainly don’t think of them as disabled.
So what about you and what you need to do to maintain your own emotional or physical health? Do you have days, maybe lots of them, when you find yourself painting anything to do with your chronic condition with the same broad, negative brushstrokes? All of which add up to the label of “less than”? Thinking you’re flawed? Disabled?
Once again, at the risk of repeating myself, I am not suggesting that a bad day with your chronic condition is anything less than a bad day. Maybe a real bad one. Along with the occasional bona fide crisis. Absolutely. And when your chronic condition prevents you from living your life to the fullest, I understand it may indeed be a disability.
But here’s what I am suggesting: what if you made the radical decision to look for ways to begin thinking of your chronic condition and the responsibilities it imposes on your life as “features” and not “something wrong” or a “disability”?
The power of choice
You can choose to take a less judgmental view of the responsibilities and challenges of your chronic condition. To lean away from labeling them as what’s “wrong” about you, or as disabilities, and lean in toward labeling them as just part of your life. In other words, as “features” of who you are. Features among the many other features and qualities that you possess. After all, you are much more than the sum total of your chronic condition. What I am suggesting is shifting your perspective.
What do you think? Willing to give it a try? Here’s how to get your thinking started in this direction:
Dial down. When your chronic condition sets off an alarm, imagine that you have a big dial in front of you. The dial is reflecting your current emotional reaction to whatever is going on. Chances are, that dial is set at ten—the highest level. Visualize yourself gradually turning that dial down to a more appropriate level. Ask yourself, “Sure this is frustrating, but am I letting my frustration get the best of me? Sure, I don’t like this. But am I labeling an annoyance as a catastrophe?”
Get clear. On the impact that the responsibilities of your chronic condition have on your life. This is going to require some work. Take a step back and look at the big picture. What are the ways in which your chronic condition affects your life? Consider what you have to do to take care of yourself, as well as what goes wrong at times. Make a list. And then take a look at each item on your list. Does anything on the list qualify as a day-to-day feature of your life, something you attend to because it’s just a part of your life? You might want to write a number from one to 10 next to each item on your list, with the goal of increasing awareness about which aspects of your chronic condition qualify as features and which actually contribute toward the “what’s wrong” or “disability” labels.
Avoid creating mud. When you turn everything related to your health into something that’s wrong about you or your life, you also turn your life into mud. And feel like you’re sinking into all that mud. Getting clear on what your chronic condition means to your daily life will help you shift your perspective in a positive direction.
Stay focused on the whole you. Each and every day, try to maintain your focus on the many features and qualities that constitute your whole person—not just the chronic condition part of your life. This is a proactive way to help you have a more balanced perspective toward your chronic condition.
Let yourself be human like everybody else. Remind yourself that we all have “features”—aspects of who we are—that make us unique from other people. You have a lot of features that are unique to you, including the demands of your chronic condition. Embrace all of who you are. Celebrate yourself!
You, your chronic condition, and what you tell yourself about it. You have a choice. That’s what I say to a client at least once a day. You can choose how you see your chronic condition and the day-to-day impact it has on your life. What you do to maintain your health doesn’t have to be thought of as reasons to label yourself as disabled. Instead, how about thinking of your self-care as what you do to live your life to the fullest?
Which ways of thinking have helped or hindered you as you have coped with your chronic condition? Share your experience by commenting below.