celebrate-life

Celebrate Life

Today I wanted to focus on celebrating the big things since we discussed celebrating the small stuff on Monday. So, why not go for the most significant thing worthy of our celebration, and that’s life itself? Why not celebrate life?

Living with a chronic illness makes celebrating life hard, but it can be done. We might wish things were different, hope that we were healthy. But let’s be honest: if we were healthy, there would be something else to make celebrating life difficult. It’s in our nature to skew towards the negative.

We all wish for what we don’t have, no matter how rich or healthy we might be. We are always desirous of something, and with that, we sometimes forget the most important thing out there: that we have our lives.

Using Mallory Smith as an example, let us celebrate each day despite the setbacks we encounter.

Appreciating Victories (Big and Small)

Each day we wake up is a small victory. If you wake up with no pain, a victory. If you wake up with no exacerbation, a victory. If everything is going well, then that’s a victory! That is a moment worthy of celebration.

Maybe you don’t take each (relatively) good moment for granted, but there might be moments where you forget. I often forget to appreciate the exacerbation-free days. I am reminded to recognize them when I am in the middle of a particularly frustrating exacerbation episode. At that point, it’s too late. I am in the past, appreciating what I had; or in the future when the event is over.

Neither of these options is ideal because I am struggling to maintain my mindfulness practice, which can help me manage my discomfort and stress.

It’s difficult to appreciate life with a chronic illness. The absolute uncertainty of when we’ll experience a flare-up is frustrating. Deep in the moments of an exacerbation brings us to the breaking point. Yet, we have to press on. The moments our illness minimally impacts us are worth appreciating.

Allow yourself to celebrate the mundane. Try not to feel weird about it because it’s something everyone, healthy or chronically ill, should do. Celebrate over social media if you need to, let others know what’s going on in your life but do not worry about getting validation. You probably won’t get it, or you’ll get a negative person trying to bring you down. Ignore them because it’s your celebration. Not theirs. If it’s important to you and you are the only one who matters.

Putting it into Perspective

A few months after my diagnosis, I was in the position of being “at least I’m not them,” for some stranger. It was not a good feeling to be the subject of someone else’s perspective-check. Yet, it’s a mindfulness exercise, recognizing that while your life might not be where you want it, there is always someone worse off than you.

To put it into context: I was in group therapy at the time, and it was my final session. As I was doing the “graduating out” exercises, the person taking my spot overlapped and was in their first session, seated beside me. I described my life with MS, how I was coming to terms with it, and I noticed this new person writing furiously in their journal.

I later learned that it was poor form for the facilitator to allow the journal into this safe space.

Curiosity overcame me, and since they were sitting next to me, I peeked over to see what was on the paper. I saw the words “…she has MS, at least that’s not me. I am lucky not to be her.” I was humiliated to see those words. No one else in the group had MS, so it was clearly about me. I could feel my anger towards this person rise and towards myself for being put into a position of pity.

Was that a breach of privacy to peek at what they wrote? Perhaps, but they didn’t exactly try to hide what they were writing. The journal was wide open and tilted towards me. Not knowing this person or their situation, it’s possible they wanted me to see what they wrote.

I recognize the importance this practice plays in our lives. It allows us to acknowledge that while our situation is not ideal, we could have it worse. Often it is said to us by others either as a means to comfort us or get us to be quiet about our situation.

So it’s a mixed bag as to whether this type of perspective check is healthy or not. I am not going to endorse it one way or the other beyond recognizing the importance of maintaining perspective.

For this person, perhaps I was able to provide small comfort in their life. It was incredibly humiliating and yet positively humbling. It would take a few more years before I had a better perspective, but I learned at that moment that I am not as perfect as I thought I was. It humanized me to myself. I know that sounds weird, but for years, I had an inflated sense of self as a coping mechanism. I was out of touch with reality, and this private journal entry broke through that.

It gave me perspective in a different way that it gave the writer perspective. I suspect, given what I remember of what little they shared about themselves, I probably gained more from the whole experience than them.

Mindful of the Moment

Practicing mindfulness is a chance for us to appreciate life.

When we celebrate the moment, at the moment, everything melts away. I am fortunate enough to spend a week or two on the shores of Lake Michigan every year. Looking out at the endless watery horizon, I can put everything aside and focus on that moment, staring off into the distance. It grants me an opportunity to put my life into perspective, but also recognize how fortunate I am.

We may not be able to spend a few moments in a place conducive to personal reflection, but we can spend time being mindful of our life. We can appreciate being able to breathe on our own; our ability to walk or if we can’t, the tools available to us so we can remain mobile; and we can appreciate the support network available to us, regardless of its size.

Take time to connect with the ground beneath your feet, the chair you sit in, or your bed. If you connect with the earth, reflect on all the other people who stood in that spot throughout time. Feel a connection to the faceless masses over several millennia. The animals, the plants, and all of life that experienced the same place you are in right now. Feeling that connection to others, allows you to feel a connection to life itself.

Celebrate that life.

It’s typically in these moments I feel small, but not in a negative way. I recognize my space and place in the universe. My existence is not even a blip in time or space. My problems, concerns, and worries will not matter in the end.

What is important is what I do with my blip in time.

Celebrate Life

Take some time to celebrate your life, as it is, no matter where you are in life. Put it into proper perspective, experience the benefits of mindfulness, and take time to decide how you want to spend your time. Do you want to engage in negativity beyond healthy expressions, or do you want to enjoy the time you do have, as imperfect as it may seem?

Choosing to celebrate life will help you feel better, lower stress, and find the personal satisfaction you might be searching for, despite your chronic illness.


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Featured photo credit: Canva

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Learning to Manage Expectations

Learn to manage your expectations.

It’s one of the first things your healthcare specialist says to you after receiving your diagnosis. While my neurologist never explicitly said it to me, it’s implied. Granted, they have high expectations for my wellness, often higher than I had for myself. But when I was in the hospital, pre-diagnosis, that was one of the first things the hospital neurologist said to me in response to my health concerns.

Whether it’s been said or not, it’s something we learn quickly with a chronic illness. We must manage our expectations because we have no choice.

For many of us, we have the following expectations in life: we’ll be healthy, achieve personally, and go far professionally. Often these expectations get scrapped in favor of coping with a chronic illness diagnosis. We might have pain to manage that prevents certain exercises. Our fatigue gets to be too much that we cannot do the same personal tasks we once did. Or our workplace can only accommodate our illness so much before we see colleagues surpassing us.

The expectations we once had slip away and we feel nothing but discouragement. But do we have to let those expectations go?

John Gary Bishop says in Unf*ck Yourself that we should “expect nothing, but accept everything.” It’s perhaps the healthier way to approach the “manage your expectations” conversation. We should scrap all the expectations we have for ourselves and accept whatever life sends our way with an open mind.

This refers to the positive and negative expectations we place upon ourselves.

Why We Set Expectations

Why do we even set expectations in the first place?

In childhood, expectations are placed upon us and for us. Parents might expect us to take on a level of responsibility around the house, or they might share their desire to see us succeed when we become adults. We extrapolate this external expectation and internalize it for what we think we’re capable of doing. Expectations drive our dreams and our desire for achievements.

But rarely are limits placed on these expectations, and as a child, why should it be limited? We imagine being firefighters, doctors, and presidents as our career goals, not wanting to pick between the three. We expected to achieve anything, especially when told we can be whatever we want when we grow up.

Illness or not, we learn quickly that there are limits to our expectations. Not all of us will get into an Ivy League school. We will have to choose between a firefighter, doctor, and president for a career, if only to pick one to focus on at a time.

Life will not work out the way we expected. And then we get our diagnosis.

The Problem with Expectations

The obvious problem with expectations, at least at first, is that we are often unprepared for the letdown. When we don’t achieve the way we expected, it can feel like a failure. For some, that can lead us to shutdown and get stuck.

When we set expectations early in life and achieve them, it’s often viewed as a good thing. Rightly so, you set a path for yourself and achieved your goal. Rich Karlgaard writes about the problematic relationship Western culture has with early bloomers in his book Late Bloomers. Western culture is so hyper-obsessed with the Mark Zuckerbergs, Elizabeth Holmes, and Malala Yousafzais, that it overlooks those who quietly grind away to achieve their success later in life (30s and beyond).

Because there’s an intense expectation for early success, often when we leave high school or college without making some “30 under 30” list, there’s a feeling of panic. This can bring our personal expectations down, or cause us to stall out for a few years.

This is one problem with societal expectations: we misplace expectations on people who may not be emotionally mature to handle the pressure (for reference: Elizabeth Holmes, Martin Shkreli). When young people are pushed to succeed early, they forget that a window does not close as soon as they turn twenty-five. That window for success stays open their entire lives.

If you are alive, you still have the chance to bloom and succeed.

The second problem referenced in Karlgaard’s book is that early bloomers do not know how to handle failure in the same way late bloomers do. When you are a late bloomer, you get used to “failure;” you get used viewing it not as a failure but as a learning experience. Late bloomers are better equipped with managing their expectations.

Learning to Manage Expectations

In life, there are two sets of expectations: “positive” and “negative” ones. This is a false binary, but I am going to use it for clarity sake. Positive expectations are the goals we set for ourselves that we want to achieve. Negative expectations are the times we don’t believe we can achieve it.

At the time we receive our diagnosis, we might drop our positive expectations: career, family, personal goals; and replace them with negative expectations: lack of mobility, exacerbations, and limitations.

For example: before my diagnosis, I intended to become a University professor. After my diagnosis, I dragged my feet because I assumed I wouldn’t be able to handle the rigorous testing due to memory issues. I replaced a positive expectation, “career goals,” with a negative one, “my memory prevents me from achieving.”

If you are like me, a late-bloomer, hopefully you know how to handle disappointment and also view perceived failures as learning experiences. Transfer that awareness to how you view your illness: manage your expectations away from the negative reasoning of “I can’t do this,” to positive “why not try it anyway?”

Often after a diagnosis, we work our way through grieving for our health. It’s a healthy and necessary process, but sometimes we decide to get stuck on the negative thinking. It’s easy to look at all we think we can’t do, rather than focus on what we can do.

But you might surprise yourself if you take a moment to release the expectations you place on yourself. Yes, you may be struggling to walk or get out of bed today because you physically cannot do so, but does that mean you should indulge in the negative expectations of what you can’t do?

No.

There was a time after my diagnosis where I didn’t think I could run or do anything active due to numbness and fatigue. I was in a negative expectation mindset. I actively decided to remove all expectations on myself and said, I can do something. It won’t look the same as a person without an autoimmune diagnosis, but it will be something.

The moment I removed all my expectations (negative and positive), I found I was able to achieve.

I actually found I went farther than before my diagnosis because I removed all expectations I placed upon myself and my abilities. Even when I was “healthy” I had numerous expectations that prevented me from achieving.

This is because when we manage our expectations by removing them, we remove the mental obstacles that prevent us from attempting in the first place. We go out and attempt to achieve without thinking about the limitations we might have. We may still stumble, but it isn’t a failure as much as it’s a learning experience.

If you were an early bloomer, this is your opportunity to bloom once again. Or, as it is in my case, my chance to bloom later in life.


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Book Review: Declutter Your Mind

After finishing Unf*ck Yourself, I did what many readers do and look for more books to read. I find that similar books help commit what I want to learn. One of the books that popped up was S.J. Scott & Barrie Davenport’s book Declutter Your Mind. I figured I would give it a go, considering July is all about mindfulness and loving ourselves. One thing often stands in the way of my own journey of love, and that’s the clutter that takes up space in my mind.

This book seemed like the perfect follow up to Bishop’s book since I still had some clutter holding me back. I wanted to get some new techniques, ideas, and perspectives to removing the clutter that prevents me from fully loving myself.


Note: I was not compensated to review this book, I am sharing my thoughts as it might help readers on their journeys. All links are unaffiliated and I receive no monetary benefit by providing them.


Book Information

Title: Declutter Your Mind: How to Stop Worrying, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Thinking 
Author: S.J. Scott & Barrie Davenport
Date Published: 2016
Publisher:  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Pages: 156
Genre: Non-Fiction, Self-Help

Goodreads Link
Amazon US Link


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Gratitude

Looking for an easy way to hack your brain? Consider practicing gratitude on a daily basis. It’s rather simple, but sometimes hard to do. When we practice gratitude, we are stating to ourselves and those around us that we are worthwhile and we appreciate our life. Gratitude is so important to our overall well being, it really does re-wire your brain to focus more on the positive and make healthier choices.

Gratitude can help you manage your stress, your illness, and how you operate in the world on a daily basis.

In the month of November, I try to focus on gratitude in some capacity. I decided to do it a few months early this year because gratitude should be a year-round thing. Doing it for a month out of the year, a week, or a day, is not enough to make meaningful changes.

Gratitude should come as a daily practice if we want to truly rewire our brains to be healthier.

The Science of Gratitude

Often we look for quick and easy solutions for our problems. Living in an age of instant gratification dulls our ability to be patient, so finding a solution to a long-term problem is difficult sometimes. With that in mind, gratitude is one of those easy to do exercises that offers a short-term response with long-term ramifications.

Have you found yourself feel better after doing something nice and unexpected for someone? Or when you express your appreciation for someone without cause? It might be a temporary good feeling, but science backs up that these moments, when added up, can re-wire your brain to be more receptive to positive experiences.

But when you are dealing with a chronic illness, sometimes the last thing you want to do is express gratitude for yourself or the world around you. After all, your body’s betrayed you. Often all we can think about is what we lack, such as our health, and not what we have.

When we take the time to incorporate more gratitude in our lives, despite our illness, we rewire our brains to spend less time on the negative aspects. Focusing on the positive brings us into a space to make healthier decisions for ourselves and can lower our overall stress.

And stress is something we strive to avoid in chronic illnesses.

Creating Space

We must be present in our lives, chronic illness or not. We choose to take a chance to do what needs to be done, or we choose to let life happen to us. If you struggle, like I have, with incorporating gratitude, consider creating a five-minute space to practice one instance of gratitude each day. Often the recommendation in the morning to set the tone for the rest of the day, but if that’s not possible, do whatever time works for you.

I learned this lesson recently: there’s an expectation to do things at a specific time because “that’s what’s right,” but that may not work for you. If your moment of gratitude is in the middle of the day or before going to bed, then do it then. When it happens does not matter. Just that you are doing it.

Try to set the alarm at your preset time if you often forget to do something, and commit to a short practice of gratitude for five minutes. Five minutes out of all your day is but a drop and passes by rather quickly.

Practicing Gratitude

Find the practice that works best for you, there are so many ways to practice gratitude. Try until you find something that works, don’t settle on what you think you’re supposed to do. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

  1. Buy a gratitude journal and follow the prompts
  2. Think of something silly about yourself that you love
  3. Do a random act of kindness for a stranger with no expectations of a acknowledgment/validation (i.e. don’t post about it on social media)
  4. Compliment a stranger on something you genuinely like about them
  5. Create and maintain a list of things you appreciate everyday. Add a new one during your gratitude time
  6. Find a silver lining in a difficult situation
  7. Relish a challenge or adversarial situation, rather than taking on a victim role
  8. If you are able to, volunteer your time
  9. Surround yourself with people who are grateful and make you feel good about yourself
  10. Find a gratitude rock or object that you can keep near yourself at all times to remind you of being grateful

The Importance of Gratitude

We don’t have to wait until November to practice gratitude in our daily lives. If you want to work towards rewiring brain towards a more positive outlook, just start with gratitude. It’s still going to take time to undo what might be years of negative thinking, but it gets you into the head space you need to be in to be receptive to change.

That’s the best space to be in: open to making positive changes in your life if you’ve previously struggled with it. Gratitude truly is one of the easiest and quickest ways to get into a positive space for yourself. I am already finding that I let things go a lot quicker than I used to, and appreciate the moments I have more.


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Engaging in Positive Self-Talk

Back in May, I wrote about the negative internal talk I experience. For a long time, it was the loudest voice in my head. We all engage in self-talk daily. All day; every day. The self-talk can be positive, or in my case, it can be detrimental. When it takes a negative turn, it brings our mood and motivation down. When we engage with positive self-talk, we embrace a loving relationship with ourselves.

It’s hard to shift our negative self-talk into a more positive one: when we are used to the talk being a particular way, especially when it’s become background noise, it’s hard to know how to change the internal narrative. What this requires is a mindful practice, self-compassion, and gratitude for the moments we’re able to shift to a positive dialogue.

It’s going to take time and practice. But we can do it because we have the desire to have a healthier inner life.

Shifting Negative Self-Talk to Positive

As John Gary Bishop wrote in Unf*ck Yourself, engaging in positive self-talk isn’t going to be last stop on your self-improvement train. Rather, it’s positive actions that get you to improve, not thoughts. But, I would argue that shifting away from self-defeating talk helps motivate us into those positive actions.

If you walk around believing you can’t do something, chances are you won’t take the risk to try it, or set yourself for failure from the beginning. You fall into the trap of confirmation bias: I believe I can’t do this, I don’t succeed as I thought; therefore, I am right. I can’t do this.

So how do we shift away from the negative self-talk? One way is to be aware that it is happening. My negative self-talk was such background noise that I don’t think I was fully aware of it happening at the moment. I had gotten so used to it buzzing in the back of my mind that when something confirmed the negative noise, I would say, “of course, this happens. Of course, I messed up.”

When we take a more mindful approach to our internal dialogue, the thoughts that operated in the background come to the front of our mind, loud and clear. I sat for thirty seconds, engaging in mindful practice when no fewer than five separate negative thoughts popped into my consciousness that I wasn’t even aware of. I was able to address each of them with loving kindness so they would quiet down before the next set popped up.

Now that I knew these negative thoughts existed, I could hear them more clearly when they popped up again during non-mindful moments. I could address them directly again until they eventually quieted down altogether.

By having a heightened awareness of the thoughts and what they are trying to say, we can find the best ways to counter them. The quieter the negative thoughts become, the louder the loving thoughts get. Those, we want to encourage as much as possible.

The Advantage to Openness

When you grow more open to yourself, you become more open to your deepest thoughts and feelings about yourself. You create a more realistic image of yourself, and hopefully can see yourself as others see you.

Which can be a terrifying thought in of itself, but if we want to change, we want to have the self-awareness to know what needs to change. By being open to your inner life, you can see how it affects your external life on an unconscious level.

You may surprise yourself with what you learn. That leads me to an important question.

What do you Want to Learn about Yourself?

It’s an easy enough question, but we don’t often ask it because we might not be willing or ready for the answer. But the answer is important if you want to change your internal narrative from negative to positive.

I asked this question of myself back in January, and I did not like the answer: I am an echoist. This means I struggle to express my own opinions, I don’t want to be a burden to others, and I have an intense fear of coming across as selfish. I had a weak sense of identity, which leads me to engage in toxic relationships because that’s what I thought I deserved.

It was a blow to my ego, but it was so enlightening. It placed my internal dialogue, life decisions, and behavior in relationships into proper perspective. I was finally able to see myself as others saw me.

Because I answered this question and worked with all the associated implications of that answer, I finally addressed the negative dialogue in my head. I could start nurturing my own identity, which is confident and independent and does not accept the negative internal talk.

I unraveled one of the final pieces of my personal puzzle. Healing could begin.

So, what is it that you want to learn about yourself?

You may not arrive at an answer right away, it will take time as you peel back the layers, but you might be able to find a temporary solution until another one pops up. The answer will be different for each of us, and what you do with that answer will be different too.

Engaging in Positive Self-Talk

For the rest of this week, take time to address your negative dialogue and flip it into positive self-talk. See what it feels like when you engage in the positivity. Do you feel better? Do you feel calmer?

Hopefully, you’ll arrive at a positive place which can help you make healthier decisions for yourself and push you forward in your wellness journey.


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Featured photo credit: Noah Buscher on Unsplash