become-ideal-self-with-chronic-illness

Become Your Ideal Self (Despite a Chronic Illness)

I have a bad habit of being repetitive and this blog is no exception. It’s not a bad habit as much as it’s ingrained from my years of teaching. I found that when I explained the same concept several different ways students had a higher chance of understanding and committing it to memory. It was important that they understood a fundamental point, so I wanted to do everything I could to help them. The same goes for this year’s blog theme: you’re here because you want to become your ideal self while dealing with a chronic illness, so I am going to hit similar concepts multiple times.

We have looped back around to working on becoming your ideal self, but this time we are hitting it with self-reflection in mind. I’ve broken down some key concepts I noticed in my own journey for today to help you work towards your personal goals. You’ll see a lot of repetition to previous blog posts and that’s intentional: we’ve been building on concepts this year to make the process easier to manage.

5 “Simple” Steps to Achieve Success

I dislike clickbait articles that say they can solve my problems if I follow specific steps. Life is never something that can break down in a series of steps. Sure, the steps can get you started, but it’s never that simple.

I am basically painting myself into a corner if you saw this particular section header.

The steps I am offering below aren’t actually simple, and they aren’t the limit. There are many, many other steps you’ll need to consider, but these steps are ones that are there to get you started. And when you are on your personal journey, you have to start somewhere.

So what are those steps?

  1. Selfishness
  2. Self-Reflect
  3. Self-Control
  4. Self-Compassion
  5. Self-Assess

Yes, there is a theme. It’s all about yourself. Because it’s a personal journey, it absolutely has to be about yourself.

You may have a wonderful support network, but even in your illness, you are alone. You are alone in your symptoms, you are alone in coping, you are alone in the management. You may have shoulders to cry on, but no one KNOWS your experience. No one KNOWS what you are going through because no one has the perspective you do.

Let’s break each step down a little bit further.

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Self-Reflection with a Chronic Illness

My self-reflection journey had two significant steps: step one, reflecting on life immediately after receiving my diagnosis; and step two, reflecting on life after Jai’s birth. You could say that I am in the middle of step three because self-reflection with a chronic illness is a lifelong exercise. I am a firm believer that self-reflection should be a lifelong practice regardless of your health. It keeps us moving forward and prevents becoming stagnant.

Today’s post is about the answers I came up with when I looked at my life just after my diagnosis up until now. Like with Monday’s post, I will end with some questions to ask about your current situation.

Post-Diagnosis; Pre-Health Minded

I have discussed this period of my life a few times on the blog.

After my diagnosis, I was in not in a healthy emotional place. I grieved the loss of my “old life,” such that it was. I tried to process the physical betrayal I felt, the uncertainty of my future, and why I felt like life just hated me. Despite that, or perhaps to help cope with it, I did self-reflect a little bit about my life and MS.

A thought I kept coming back to was my mortality and what that might look like. While MS is unique to everyone, the only example I had in my life was Annette Funicello. I swore that my health trajectory would take me to a place where I would be trapped in my body like her. I told those close to me that I was convinced my RRMS would progress to SPMS by the time I was forty, just eight years away at the time.

I was in a weird space of fighting the progression of my disease, but also just accepting what was happening. Part of my anger and self-loathing I had at the time led me to just want to give in and let MS kill me. But I also wanted to fight MS and get healthier. Torn between the two extremes I got stuck in a holding pattern for several years.

I did make an effort, if you could call it that, by speaking with my neurologist about disease management through healthy living, but I didn’t make any of the changes I told him I would. Thankfully, he was patient with me to wait until I was ready to get onto a drug regimen to manage my MS.

Once on Copaxone and later Tecfidera, I managed my flare-ups. Any exacerbations I got tended to be mild compared to the ones I got off medication. I was still super stressed, not exercising, not eating well, and not feeling good. The medication worked overtime.

2014. Hampstead Heath, London, UK. I was on Copaxone at the time, but unmotivated to take care of myself. I tried several months before to live “healthy” for a while, but failed to actually do anything.
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Reflecting on Life Before a Diagnosis

My MS diagnosis was one of the best things to happen to me. I hate admitting this because it means I needed a chronic illness to shake me out of complacency. I am one of those people that needs to be smacked in the face, hard, to get an important message. I know this because I’ve reflected a lot on my life prior to my diagnosis.

Hopefully, I learned the lesson to listen more closely to life before it needs to hit me with another big smack.

I think it’s important to acknowledge and honor our life before the diagnosis. It’s so hard to look back at that time: seeing how capable we were, what we could do, what we took for granted…

I wanted to highlight some of the thoughts I’ve had while I’ve self-reflected on my life before my MS diagnosis. Towards the end of the post, you’ll find some of the same questions I asked myself to get you started.

Unhealthy Before the Diagnosis

To say that I was unhealthy prior to my diagnosis is an understatement.

I was unhealthy in body, mind, and emotionally speaking. I will primarily focus on the negative aspects of my life in this section. As I mentioned last Wednesday, self-reflection takes us down paths we would instead not acknowledge. I have a lot of pain I carry around in my life, and I’ve found what I’ve done up to this point has not worked in effectively managing it. I noticed looking at the origins of the pain helps me begin the process of healing. I am able manage situations differently, in a mature manner, and manage my MS until I am ready to get back on medication.

I broke down each section of my life where I did significant self-reflection.

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The Difficulties in Self-Reflection

A wellness journey is no different from a physical one: the path will get difficult, overgrown, washed out, detoured, and sometimes disappear. Through perseverance, we find the path again or overcome the difficulties encountered in the journey. Self-reflection functions as rocky terrain: it requires heavy emotional lifting that bogs you down and hinders forward movement. If you are training yourself to meet your personal goals, the resistence builds you up to tackles the next stage in your life’s journey.

It’s April, and you may have dropped any idea of completing your New Year’s Resolutions but know that you can still make those goals. The “New Year” is just a date, and it’s always a good time to get started on your life goals. For the sake of your own wellbeing, consider taking the next couple of weeks (in blog posts) to self-reflect even if you’ve decided to completely reject your goals.

What’s Ahead: the Difficulties in Self-Reflection

What should you expect in the next two weeks of posts?

I will be using the lens of self-reflection to review three parts of my life: pre-diagnosis, during the diagnosis process, and post-diagnosis. Within these posts, I will provide exercises for you to reflect on the same moments you encountered in your journey.

The goal will be to see where you were, where you are, and where you are going in your life as it is. Think of it as the famous Christmas story: we’ll be visiting three “ghosts” in our lives to see how we can change our current life’s trajectory.

The tough part is the level of honesty required. When self-reflecting, it’s easy to rationalize certain thoughts and behaviors rather than being honest.

I am not able to get a certain task done because I am too overwhelmed. My illness prevents me from achieving a professional goal. When I am in a better emotional place, I can finally learn that hobby I’m interested in.

The truth is this: you have to be honest about why you are not getting a task done and why you feel overwhelmed. Is it because you don’t actually want to get it done or completing the job makes you feel worse than avoiding it? Is your illness actually preventing you from achieving your professional goal or are you using it as an excuse to justify mediocre work?

I know that sounds harsh, but the truth we avoid is the one that holds us back from achieving our goals. With the next set of posts, I will ask you to be honest with yourself, so let us acknoledge the frustrating nature of self-reflection.

Remember Self-Compassion

Back in February, I discussed the importance of self-compassion. As you reflect, remember to be compassionate with yourself as you begin to uncover your truth.

A quick refresher: self-compassion is being kind to yourself in the same way you would be sympathetic to a friend or loved one. Imagine a friend approaches you with the same fears, concerns, and scenarios you are experiencing. What comfort or advice would you provide them? Take that same advice and apply it to yourself.

Remember to take it easy on yourself, be kind when you hit a roadblock, but find a healthy and workable detour.

Taking a Much Needed Break

While we will be moving forward with working towards our goals, be okay with needing to take a step back. If you need to take a break, there is nothing wrong with giving yourself the time. The process it took to get to your current state didn’t happen overnight, nor will the process to get out of it.

Engage with self-care, go out and do something for yourself. Take yourself out on a date. Honor what your mind and body tell you. Just remember to re-engage with the wellness process, even if you don’t want to. There’s a difference between taking a break and avoiding the issue altogether.

Self-reflection is like any sort of physical exercise. Sometimes you have to push a little harder when it hurts in order to achieve your desired results. Like with exercise, be sure to do it in a safe manner to prevent causing harm.

Consider Outside Help

Because I am not a medical professional, any advice I give in my posts may not fit you. Consider reaching to an outside source if you think your self-reflection will take you down a problematic emotional path. Sometimes the things we discover ourselves are upsetting, or memories/emotions come up that are too much to handle alone.

If you aren’t in therapy but think you need the outside help, consider finding someone. There are many options available, including reputable apps, so finding the right fit is easier no matter the location. While I haven’t tried one for myself, these are ideal if your chronic illness affects your mobility.

If you don’t think therapy will work for you, but you have someone in your life whom you can speak with, approach them to see if they would be willing to help as you self-reflect.

Asking for help is not a weakness, it’s recognizing the current life-load temporarily requires a helping hand. We are social creatures, so doubtless you will find someone who wants to help see you through this journey.

If you haven’t already, please consider signing up for my weekly newsletter so you can get more information on this year’s wellness journey.


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My Self-Compassion Journey

This post contains potentially disturbing material surrounding the topics of self-harm, self-hatred, and other self-destructive topics that might be troublesome to readers. If you or someone you know engages in this behavior, please know that you are not alone and there is help out there. Here’s a wonderful resource to get started.


I sometimes come across as a know-it-all. Ash has experienced it first-hand and it’s only a matter of time before Jai tells me that I don’t know what I am talking about. Dunning Kruger is real with me. It’s one of the reasons why I loved teaching and I love blogging. 

But when it comes to this month’s topic of taking care of yourself as you undergo a personal growth journey, know that it is actually coming from a place of experience.

I have experienced a lot of pain in my life, many of it directed towards myself as a coping mechanism for emotions that got to be too much. It wasn’t until I embraced self-acceptance and self-compassion that I was finally able to push through my journey and fully embrace who I wanted to become.

For today, I wanted to touch base on my own experience engaging in self-compassion and provide some light as to why I am constantly pushing it as a way of thinking, especially with a chronic illness.

The Trouble with Emotions

Emotions are so sticky and frustrating at times.

Growing up I never received the necessary training on how to effectively and healthfully manage my emotions. In New England, any sort of expression of emotion was frowned down upon so I learned to suppress my emotions as much as possible. Because I did not have a good outlet to manage my emotions, I turned them inward and started taking all the frustration out on myself.

Self-Harm as a Coping Mechanism

Rather than finding a healthy way to manage my emotions, I found that hurting myself was the only way to let all the negative emotions out. It was partially as a form of relief, but also a form of personal punishment.

I felt like I deserved the pain I caused because of something minor I did. I had a tendency to burn myself with matches and candle wax. I would spend hours picking at my face for perceived imperfections, not even stopping after I drew blood. I graduated at the end of high school to cutting my upper arms and hips, with some scars still there today.

I’ve seen other examples of self-harm online and mine were never extreme. While I still have scars, I felt like I was an imposter, a wannabe looking for attention when I hurt myself. Yet I hid my scars and scabs so no one knew what was happening. It was my secret and I did not want to have to answer questions.

I was doing this because I did not love myself and I needed to find a way to help me overcome this unhealthy behavior.

Therapy but then What?

When one self-harms, the first piece of advice everyone tells them is to go to therapy. Therapy is wonderful if you have a good guide in your therapist, but finding a “good” therapist is a lot of work. Especially when you are emotionally drained and the mere thought of looking for a therapist is overwhelming.

I am not deriding therapy, in fact, I absolutely encourage it as a means to effectively and healthfully work through any difficult and frustrating emotions you are feeling.

Here’s the “but”: therapy is a partnership.

You enter a relationship with your therapist and if it’s not a beneficial, productive, and has an unhealthy dynamic, then it is important to look for a new therapist. Therapy should be supportive and productive and the dynamic between you and the therapist must be a healthy one.

It took me several therapists and therapy styles before I settled on one that works for me. While I won’t say what style it is, I can say that without my therapist telling me directly, the focus in each session is self-compassion. We work together on finding ways to love myself, imperfections and all.

I think my experience with various therapists and styles helped me be receptive to the idea that my imperfections are part of what make me, me. Perfection, though we may desire it, is rather boring. The asymmetry in my life, my flaws, mistakes, bad behaviors: that’s what makes me an interesting person.

A therapy style that focuses on self-compassion may not be for you. You may want to do that outside of therapy, or not at all, and that is okay. It’s really about finding what works for you and getting yourself into space where you are able to love yourself.

You’re Never Prepared

Whether you are in therapy or not, when you are starting a personal journey to wellness, a lot of junk comes up and that can distract you from continuing with your personal goals. I say junk because it really can be clutter that serves to distract you from making positive changes.

I am not demeaning whatever that “junk” may be because it might be something you need to deal with, but the important thing is to take a moment (or month or year) to really work through the stuff weighing you down and finding a way to let it go or work with it.

This isn’t saying “just move on” or “just get over it.” Absolutely not. Some things you can’t get over. Some things are so ingrained within us and define us or are a part of us that there is no way to “get over it.” Rather, it’s about recognizing what you can change and what you have to work with and learning to love yourself through self-compassion to help manage it.

Dealing with crippling depression? The last thing you want or are able to do is to say “I am worthwhile and I deserve to love myself.” But if you are able to take a single moment in the darkness to say it, it may bring a small comfort to help you get up for a few minutes to work on something before retreating. It’s about taking those small steps, no matter how small they may be, that can get you moving in a healing direction.

You are never prepared for what comes up when working through things, or trying to make self-improvement changes. I have found that I can be going along thinking everything is okay and then something pops up that distracts me and demands my attention. That’s why I’ve had to reframe how I look at my whole journey.

Self-compassion helps with that re-framing.

How I Deal with Emotions Now

Since working with self-compassion on a more conscience level I have found that my desire and action for self-harm has lessened greatly. I still instinctively hit my head or leg if I have a particularly distressing thought, but it is no longer on a daily basis, multiple times a day.

Now, I have a split second between that thought and my arm raising to stop myself. I can use a mantra I’ve created for myself to stop the behavior before I do anything. I self-soothe myself into a more calm state by putting my words and situation in proper perspective. There are still times where I will react to my thoughts too fast, but once I realize what is happening, I can stop it from continuing.

I am also finding my negative thoughts/actions in previously emotionally charged situations lowered. Before I might dwell on something for hours on end, get territorial over something extremely petty, or imagine hypothetical scenarios with confrontational outcomes; but now I just let it go quickly. I still may have a minute our two where I think about it, but it no longer consumes me in the way it once did.

In short, I feel healthier and less stressed than even a year ago. The other day I came to a wonderful realization about how well I am managing my MS (more on that in an upcoming post) and this is without medication. I can’t even begin to imagine where I will be when I start up my MS medication again.

I may be unstoppable.

Self-Compassion is a Journey, not a Destination

Once you’ve come around to the way of thinking and embracing self-compassion know that that’s not the end of it. Self-compassion is something that I’ve had to practice with myself every day and mindfully practice. There are days where I don’t think about it or it is unnecessary, but there are other days where an old memory will pop up or I do something that I regret and want to take out on myself.

It’s in those moments that I have to remind myself that I am worthy of my love and I need to be kinder to myself.

There isn’t going to be a moment where I can say “I can stop being self-compassionate now, I’m healed!”

Life is, well, a life-long journey. In 20, 30, or possibly 50 years I will still need to engage in self-compassion. It will hopefully come more quickly to me, almost reflexive because of all the work I am doing now, and I may not even recognize that I am doing it.

Regardless, now that I’ve discovered this healthy method for dealing with my emotions and feelings, I have no plans of turning back.


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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton