One of the biggest hurdles that you’re forced to jump over in times of trouble is that of reconciling your sense of self-identity with whatever perils might’ve befallen you. Depending on the severity and suddenness of whatever ailment you may be diagnosed or afflicted with, the shock to the system can leave you stuck in a kind of limbo. The internal and accustomed image of yourself that you carry within becomes out-of-synch with your reality almost overnight; you find that other people’s expectations of you are suddenly a combination not just of their assumptions about you as a person, but also their assumptions about your illness and the limitations they expect to come along with it.
Where you may have once felt invincible you now see that life is precious and fragile. You begin to realise that in many ways, self-identity is just an idea, a concept created by yourself based on the information garnered in your interactions with other people. In the sea of mismatched ideas, what was once whole becomes fragmented. The only way to save yourself is to find the strength to put the pieces back together, hoping that what emerges will be stronger and more purposeful than the previous version, but never really being sure that you’ll make it on account of the hands dragging you back under on every step of the journey.
From my own experiences with illness, and through conversations with friends who have been through a similar process, this is a common theme in the lives of many people with mental and physical health conditions. The problem is that not everybody can find the support or inner fortitude required to make the journey; in an enweakened and enervated condition, many, through no fault of their own, are too stunned by one blow after another to rise again from their knees.
This post is for anybody who has been through the process of climbing back up and wants to relate, but it is also for those who need a helping hand to rise again. Don’t let your life be ruined by having others put you in a box; take incremental steps to create the best possible version of yourself in a manner congenial with your current situation and learn to be the strongest you possibly can be. Forget about the litany of self-perceived limitations that come with the standard package of being ‘different’ in the modern world.
Here are five lessons I learned along the way:
Be open to the idea that everything is changing, few things if any at all are absolute, and nothing lasts forever. That includes ‘you’. – One of the hardest things that a human being can do is change. There are many reasons for this, mostly being to do with the fact that change of any sort means that we have to face uncertainties about ourselves and the world. And when you consider that the biggest fear for most of us is the unknown, you can see why so many of us actively resist change unless totally necessary.
When you’re diagnosed with a long-term illness or when something else of magnitude happens to you, you have no choice but to change: Perhaps you have to learn new skills or aptitudes; perhaps you have to start doing something that you hate or stop doing something that you love. Whatever it is, you’ll most likely find yourself on a learning curve of some kind, which means that initially you’ll struggle, will be challenged by what is happening to you, and may even find yourself feeling even more defeated, because the gap between where you are now and where you want to be is even wider than ever before.
What does all of this have to do with change and self-identity? I mentioned in the post before this one that you shouldn’t worry about the things that you can’t change and should focus on the ones that you can. For some reason though, when we think of our identities as being static and unchanging, we tend to think that the solution to our problems is only changing the world around us, not changing ourselves.
The unfortunate truth is that trying to change the world around you will only take you so far, to get to where you need to be you have to change yourself also. If you’re quixotically adamant about being a certain kind of person or if you bolster your ego by placing yourself in a certain type of box, you will ultimately end up banging your head against the wall and eventually knocking yourself out.
Don’t cling to something that isn’t there anymore just because it’s easier than building something new. The saddest and most tragic characters I’ve met in my life have been the people who cling onto an outdated version of themselves for fear of facing the reality that has suddenly caught up with them: Forty-something year olds who still act as though they’re fifteen year old beauty queens, failed business men who get into debt trying to look like millionaires, others coasting off a success they had ten years ago despite having done nothing since.
I fell into this trap myself when I first got diagnosed with CKD, found myself socially and financially demoted, yet continued for a few months to swan about like everything was fine and dandy. Though facing reality is often hard, it’s something that you must do if you want to change your life. If you want to build something new, you must understand the materials that you have to work with. Don’t try to convince yourself that you’re building a shimmering castle of diamonds if all you have is the rubble of what once was.
Though other people and their ideas contribute to how you perceive yourself, ultimately the choice is yours. – One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is that everybody and their dog will have ideas about your limitations but be ignorant of their own mental blocks. Most of the time, the limitations people attribute to you are projections that say a lot more about that person than they do you.
For whatever reasons, the majority of people seem to be focused on the negatives of a situation; for example, they’ll talk about what can’t be done instead of what can, what shouldn’t instead of what should, and what isn’t possible instead of what is. It’s easier to knock things down or to stop them from even starting than it is to build something new. When you have an illness, this type of thing is amplified tenfold, and will likely throw you off time and time again unless you’re aware that it is happening.
So serious is this problem that it’s institutionalised within the health system itself: dieticians will only tell you that you can’t eat this and you can’t eat that, the surgeons will only tell you not to lift this and not to lift that, and when it comes to exercise most will agree that it’s beneficial but you shouldn’t overdo it, which most people interpret as meaning ‘don’t do anything at all’.
When you hear this kind of thing parroted time and time again it can infiltrate the way that you see yourself and keep you stuck in the limbo that we mentioned in the intro to this post. A breakthrough realisation for me was that people will only try to do something if they believe that they’re capable of doing it; this is totally rational, if you thought you were doomed to failure you wouldn’t even try in the first place as it would be a waste of time and effort.
The point to take away here is that just because you’ve been conditioned to believe something about yourself doesn’t mean it is necessarily the truth about who you are; the only way you can find out if something is actually possible is to make an attempt at doing it. Action leads to confidence and so the more you do over time, the better you’ll begin to feel about yourself. Don’t take the opinions of naysayers to be gospel truth; most of the time the real reason they don’t believe in you is because they don’t believe in themselves.
Don’t let your illness or your problems define you and become the only thing you have going for you. – I realise the irony of this statement, considering that this is a blog about coping with long-term illness, but let me explain what I mean. I alluded briefly in the post about realistic expectations to the fact that many patients fall into the trap of seeking sympathy on tap, beginning to actively look for problems on top of problems, so that they can share them and get another shot or two of cursory sympathy from those around them.
In my opinion, this is likely to get you stuck in a cycle that will stop you from developing because you’re consciously defining yourself as somebody who has a problem instead of somebody who is dealing with one. Aim for acceptance by all means, this is a necessary step for slaying the dragon. Don’t become complacent. That’s how you waste your life.
I’ve said it before and will most likely say it again, but everybody has problems, even people that don’t look like they do. Failing to realise this can contribute to you blowing your own problems completely out of proportion or having unrealistic expectations about the way that other people should treat you on account of them. When you realise that everybody has problems it’s easier to be compassionate towards other people; when you think that your problems out-do everybody else’s you’ll likely end up disappointed that other people don’t see things the same way.
Don’t wear your illness or your bad experiences like a badge of honour; be proud that you have survived whatever you’ve been through, but don’t let this one side of yourself overshadow all the other interesting things about you. Focus on being self-generative, focus on learning what you can, but don’t focus on how hard-done-by you are and expect everybody to wrap you in cotton wool all the time. You’ll only hurt yourself in the long-run.
There is nothing noble or virtuous about having a problem. Nobility and virtue come from how you deal with your problem(s).Don’t fall into the trap of defining yourself as a person with one big problem as though that’s enough to get you into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We may tend to think that just because we have one big problem that we shouldn’t have any others. The brutal truth is that if you have a big problem the smaller ones that constitute this thing we call ‘life’ probably aren’t going to magically disappear.
Define yourself as a person who happens to have a bit more baggage but who refuses to let it interfere with all the other crap that everybody has to deal with anyway. Remember, your illness or your problem is just one aspect of who you are overall. Don’t feel defective just because one problem is currently most salient, and don’t focus on making that problem stand out more just because doing so may bring certain short-term benefits.
Remember that comparisons are odious. Stop worrying about other people’s lives and focus on your own.- When life gives you a blow one of the hardest things to cope with is the thought of all the other people around you seemingly moving forwards whilst you’ve taken a couple of hundred steps back. You may also start to feel as though the whole of the world is judging you in some way, that you’ve failed on a personal level (even if you haven’t) and so don’t deserve to win on the social level by extension.
Life seems unfair, and perhaps it is, although personally I think we’re all doomed in the long-term, but wasting time worrying what others are thinking of you, or focusing on the few steps ahead of you that you perceive others to be, will only serve to make you feel smaller than you actually are and eventually lose all perspective.
This is especially relevant in an era that allows people to actively censor the information that they present about themselves via social media. Most of the time we’re only given access to the final edit of the movie; we don’t see the badly lighted scenes that have been discarded on the cutting room floor. We see what people want us to see, the best presentations of themselves clipped and edited for social acceptance.
The reason that ‘comparisons are odious’ is that it’s impossible for you to make an accurate one. When you’re already feeling down and bad about yourself, other people’s strengths are magnified whilst your own dwindle to almost nothingness. The act of comparing neglects the fact that we’re all a product of different situations and experiences, that we all have different skills and abilities, that we’re all heading in the same direction, and that there are an infinite number of ways to get there.
Yes, somebody may presently be a better business person than you, or a better guitarist, or a better writer, or whatever. They may even be morally superior because you haven’t learned certain things about life yet. But that doesn’t mean that they’re better people. How can one multi-faceted and fallible creature compare itself with any accuracy against another? It’s impossible.
No matter what you do in life it will be impossible to please everybody. This doesn’t mean that you should stop trying to be a likeable and productive member of society, but it does mean that whether you’re at the top or the bottom (or languishing in the middle) somebody somewhere will disapprove of what you’re doing.
Don’t play a game that can’t be won. Figure out who you are and what you want and go get it without worrying about what others are doing. Just make sure you’re being honest with yourself, focus on the weaknesses that are actually there and take steps to make them disappear.
Don’t just react, create. Don’t see yourself as being influenced by the system, see yourself as an influential part of it. – Nearly everything that surrounds us is a product of choice. Though the fundamental physical laws of the universe are inevitable and will always have an influence on us, most other aspects of our lives are the product of the choices that we make.
This doesn’t mean making meaningful change will be easy. If all you’re doing is thinking about how things could be different then you’re dangerously close to wishful thinking. But you can change things if you are prepared to take action and really want to.
Nothing under the control of human beings has to be the way it is; no matter how powerless we may feel, we have the choice to change and influence the things about ourselves and our lives that we don’t like. The problem is that if you don’t make a choice or a plan for your life, somebody else will.
When life gives you a blow that you weren’t ready for the natural tendency is to feel powerless. The whole of the universe is against you after all, but if I’ve learned anything over the past six years it’s that these feelings of powerlessness stem from reacting to the situation instead of pausing to think once in a while and ask what can be done about it.
If there’s one message that seems to be repeated throughout the posts on this blog so far it’s that thinking about what has happened to you is good if you are honest with yourself, but to make any real progress you have to ask yourself another question: How am I going to deal with this? Any real solution to your problem involves ACTION; it’s the only way to push back.
If the situation and the system that you find yourself in are unsatisfactory then don’t just complain about it. Look for ways that you can work with others in a similar situation to influence it together. If the system defines you in a way that you don’t like, then create ways for the system to operate that do define you in the way that you like.
Changes being pushed for in the medical system at present are a perfect example of this; sick of being treated like objects moving along a conveyor belt system, patients are pushing for systemic change that allows them to be treated like subjective human beings. This is a choice that people have made. And when enough people get on the same page to make the same choices, just about anything is possible.
The five ideas presented in this post aren’t the be-all and end-all of personal success and happiness, but they are key to regaining a sense of self-esteem and self-acceptance in times of trouble. Most people have more power than they realise. They are forces of nature. They’ve just forgotten about it because they become disillusioned or distracted by the things that have happened to them. Self-identity is a fluid concept. When life gives you a kick in the teeth you still have options – just remember that they’re still there and that the choice is yours to be whoever you want to be.