One of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of 2017 was to set-up a blog so I could talk about the challenges of chronic illness. I wanted to do this because I felt like having a regular writing habit and an outlet where I could reflect on the challenges I was experiencing would help me find better ways of coping. Plus I am a creative person and like to find ways of expressing myself.
But it’s taken until now (late October) to set up an account and to write my first post – that’s nearly 11 months gap between setting an intention and then actually taking some action. But what spurred me to action today? A few days ago I was reviewing the list of goals I had set out for the year. A huge amount of grief and anger swept over me as I noted how much I still hadn’t managed to get done – not least because some of these goals were repeats of previous years’ goals.
I got really stuck for a while in a negative mindset and self-interrogation: ‘Why can’t I get anything done? Why am I such a mess?’ Once the harsh self-talk quietened, I was able to recognise that a big part of what had stopped me was, in fact, my chronic illness: from the days when I felt too exhausted to get out of bed let alone out of the house, to the days spent either having to chase or be in endless hospital appointments. By paying more attention to these challenges and accepting them, I grew more self-compassion and my inner voice became less blaming.
And then I started to wonder whether it was still even possible to be goal-led when you suffer from a chronic illness or whether it is better to simply concentrate on taking care of yourself so that your days are as struggle-free as possible. Below are the insights and tips I’ve come up with when thinking about the challenge of goal-setting with chronic illness:
Achieving goals is just one part of the equation of leading a happier life. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt over the last couple of years is that a big component of happiness and contentment comes from the ability to enjoy what you have in the present moment because – as all those books about mindfulness say: “the present is all we really have”. Remembering this has helped me a great deal even in my darkest moments. It’s forced me to look for the things I am grateful for in each moment and to do the small things that I need to do each day to help me feel better despite the pain and problems that my chronic illness brings. The more I have concentrated on getting the most out of each day, the more satisfied and content I have felt despite a lack of improvement with my health.
You need to be realistic. To counter the above point slightly, I’ve also learnt that a successful life is all about balance. So while it’s important that we cultivate the ability to enjoy each present moment that we are given, it’s equally important to think about the future and to strive towards achieving the things we want in life. It is just that your system of setting goals needs some adaptation when you have chronic illness: in particular, they need to be realistic! I’ve learnt that I need to set goals that are achievable given my current limitations because otherwise I risk fuelling the fire of frustration which often has all sorts of negative consequences on how I view myself.
An example: for years I have wanted to take part in an Arctic Expedition – the type of thing that involves dog sledding and cross-country skiing across the plains of the North Pole. I wanted to see the northern lights, to feel the exhilaration of adventure and meeting a physical challenge. But with fairly severe musculoskeletal problems where I currently find walking the one mile to my local underground train station impossible, I’ve finally accepted that setting a goal that involves trekking through a winter wilderness isn’t going to be possible any time soon, and instead I’ve set myself the more realistic goal of trying a new form of low-impact exercise.
Focus on the things you can control. I recognise that this may sound like the sort of trite advice you might read in a magazine article or self-help book, but it is very true! With chronic illness in particular you need to set goals that focus on the things that you can control rather than the things that you can’t. This means setting small, specific goals that once achieved can help build a sense of accomplishment and reduce the fire of frustration. Start with the smallest step!
This is particularly true when it comes to goals related to health. For years I’ve set goals that are about regaining my health and becoming really fit and strong. But this year I’ve finally recognised and accepted that I am not necessarily able to control whether or not I become well again (like I was before), but I can control developing habits and making lifestyle changes that will support me to have a better life despite my chronic illness.
I’ve still set health and fitness goals, but I’ve become more mindful of what is truly in my control. For instance, I’ve set myself goals that are about developing my emotional wellbeing and resilience such as the goal of completing a CBT course to help me learn how to challenge some of my negative thought patterns and to keep a gratitude journal to help raise my awareness of all the positives that I still have in my life in spite of all the hardships.
Set goals that are about having fun. I think this is probably the most important insight I’ve made: it’s more important to set yourself goals that are about bringing you enjoyment as much as it is to set goals that are about challenge and self-development.
This year I set myself a target to plan one day of ‘joy’ each month which could mean anything from meeting up with a friend or sitting down to watch a film at home. Spending time on identifying the things that bring joy and/or light relief and making it a priority to do some of them is hugely beneficial because each time you do something you enjoy you are essentially bolstering your resilience and your ability to stay positive the next time you hit a particularly difficult road with your chronic condition.
If I am honest though, I must add that this is an area I’ve found most difficult: I find setting dates to go out difficult because mobility is such an issue for me; I also find it really hard to do some of the enjoyable things from home because I often find I am too anxious to relax enough to watch something like a film. I expect that buried in this is probably some element of not feeling like I deserve to relax or be happy; over the years I’ve developed the habit of putting ‘joyful’ things off until I am well enough to properly enjoy myself. But I know now that this is absolutely the wrong attitude and I want to stop living my life in waiting and instead make the most of the here and now.
Be accountable for taking action. I don’t expect it’s particularly surprising when I say that tracking goals and being accountable to yourself for working on the areas you’ve set as priorities are really important components of successful goal-setting. I’ve found it has helped me enormously to keep the list of my goals for 2017 on my desk so that I can take a look each day. This forces me to identify the small actions I can take to help me get closer to achieving them. After all that was the final push that I needed to actually sit down and write this post after almost eleven months of procrastination.
So while I’m still coming to terms with the fact that my life hasn’t really worked out the way I wanted because of chronic illness, I still do firmly believe that there is an opportunity I can find in this someday (hopefully soon!) to live a life better than I would have done without it. Why? Because I think that this condition is really forcing me to reevaluate everything in my life and to ruthlessly prioritise the things that have most meaning for me.
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