Why is it important to consider self-improvement if you have a chronic illness?
There’s no real easy answer because everyone’s situation is different. For some, every day is a chore to get out of bed and just manage the disease. The thought of making positive changes in life is a luxury. Wrapping one’s head around life-changes can be overwhelming because life-changes implies big goals and grand changes.
But, what if I said it didn’t need to be? That perhaps we are all too focused on the implied definition of self-improvement rather than its actual definition? A definition that simply means making personal changes.
That’s what this year is about: acknowledging that taking the time to make minor changes in a positive direction is just as meaningful in the desire to self-improve as making the bigger ones.
Today, let’s reshape our definition of what is self-improvement into something more manageable. More meaningful and more personal.
Altering Our Impressions
In the Western world, self-improvement or self-help is heavily marketed to consumers. If you had a TV as a child, you’ve grown up knowing that around this time of year commercials promoting diets and weight-loss supplements increase. Read magazines? Ads and articles abound about the various ways to improve your life.
Daily, there are subtle and not-so-subtle ways for the industry to pull you in and want to make changes so you can “live your best life.”
Many of these offers come with the caveat: “you can only make these improvements if you buy x,y, z book.” Which leads to a near $10 billion industry.
Does that make self-help/self-improvement a scam? Not necessarily, but you have to be mindful of who you turn to for help. There are scammers that peddle modern-day snake oil and scientifically unsound therapies, but there are plenty of legitimate options to guide a user through the process.
That said, self-help is an industry. Therefore it’s in the industry’s best interest to keep consumers coming back month-after-month; year-after-year. If it feels like self-improvement goals always seem so big, i.e. “I want to lose 50 pounds in six months!” or “I am going to do something new and exciting every day this year!” that’s because there’s this nebulous goal-making process that does very little to encourage participants into smaller and more manageable goals.
There are some programs that encourage breaking goals down into more manageable chunks, but unfortunately, they aren’t as loud as a reality star on TV telling you to buy their product for massive weight-loss. Or the social media influencer who shows off how perfectly they are meeting their self-improvement goals.
If you have a chronic illness, seeing these examples can be extremely discouraging. If getting any form of exercise is a struggle due to mobility issues, watching someone on social media demonstrate “8 easy exercises to tighten that butt” is not appealing nor realistic. Sure, I might want a nice butt, but none of those exercises are doable.
Where might there be motivation to make any changes if your body is already working against you?
This is why looking for the more realistic programs is important. But, the realistic programs get lost in the social media cacophony which leads to the impression that only big changes can be made when we want to commit to self-improvement.
Goals do not need to be huge, they can be as small as taking one step-a-day, or eating 50 calories less, or even saying one positive affirmation to ourselves when we wake up. Goal creation is about starting the process towards self-improvement and allowing it to build on itself. Forward momentum will move you towards greater personal success as time goes by.
Self-Improvement does not Have to Equal Happiness
There is science behind self-improvement: those who make positive changes in their lives find happiness.
And from what research I’ve done on the topic, that seems to be the end goal of a lot of self-improvement desires: finding happiness. But seeking to do something strictly for personal happiness can lead us into a negative trap: “I did not reach my goal by this time, so I am discouraged with myself.” That discouragement can build into wanting to give up because happiness was not achieved.
It’s understandable that not achieving happiness is discouraging. Happiness is completely subjective and easy to redefine in our minds. What might be my happiness may not be yours. And what your happiness at this moment, may not be happiness a week from today. Using “happiness” as a primary target for personal success increases your chances for failure. Additionally, it may not be possible: “if I can find a cure for my chronic illness, I can be happy.”
Rather, happiness in self-improvement should be a secondary goal.
Instead of losing weight to find happiness, make the primary goal about “feeling better.” Instead of resolving negative emotions to find happiness, make the primary goal “because I am tired of feeling this way.” It seems like a small mental shift, but it’s one that can make a big difference.
When you achieve the goal, no matter how long it takes, happiness and self-satisfaction should follow as a secondary benefit to goal success. By moving our mental desires away from happiness and towards a more measurable metric, like “sending one email a day to stop avoiding tasks,” we focus on the more tangible and increase self-satisfaction.
I believe it alleviates some of the personal pressure put on ourselves if we divorce meeting goals with happiness. Our happiness is no longer at stake and therefore goal-making becomes more achievable.
The Importance of Self-Improvement with a Chronic Illness
If you are like me, having a chronic illness gets in the way of self-improvement. When I first got my diagnosis almost 6 years ago, I was in no space to make any personal improvements. I had to work through my emotions towards a life-changing diagnosis and new-found personal “limitations.”
It wasn’t until I was ready that I was able to make meaningful changes, which is why 2019 is so important to me. There was a temptation to wallow in self-pity because life gave me a bad hand.
I believe there are some valid therapeutic benefits to engaging in self-pity. But it must be done responsibly, in a healthful way, and isn’t an excuse for not making changes in perspective.
For myself, taking the time to self-reflect and come to a place of “I need to make some changes as a means to manage my illness,” was a big deal. I recognize that my disease is not as severe as others and therefore I come from a place of privilege when I say all of this, but any change in a positive direction is a good change.
Committing to a few changes, no matter how small, can make a huge difference in care management. Gearing your goals towards stress reduction is a great way to manage your illness, so even if it’s checking three items off your daily to-do list, it can go a long way in beginning your self-improvement journey.
I am not suggesting is doing this instead of medical care but in addition to medical care. Self-improvement with a chronic illness can complement and augment the work your medical care team does.
If you are at a loss for what types of goals might help with your disease management or treatment, try moving away from the illness altogether and focus on something fun to start. Learn a new hobby, try a new language, go to a new restaurant: all of these unrelated goals can help reduce your overall stress.
Looking for more information? Coming up in my posts and newsletter (sign up here) will be ways to develop and incorporate self-improvement while managing a chronic illness.
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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton