Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
My client, Noah, slumped forward as he talked about how he was coping with his recent diagnosis.
“I know this is a chronic condition and I have it for life,” he said. “That’s the deal. I also tell myself that I didn’t bring this on. It just happened. But I have had to make some changes in the way I live my life, and I feel like everybody around me is aware of how I live differently from them. So it’s like I’m not normal. Like I’m damaged goods.”
Noah said it well. He expressed something I often hear from my clients who are newly diagnosed. Finding out that you have a chronic condition and beginning the process of living your life in a new way—as a person with a chronic condition—can take a hit on your self-esteem.
There are a lot of reasons why. First, just knowing you have a condition that makes you different in some way brings up the question that Noah was struggling with: Am I normal? Medications can change the way you feel physically. Adherence to lifestyle changes can set you apart in some way, especially if you have to adjust your schedule or activity levels in some way. You may have to modify when or what you eat, which can be hard to hide. And chronic conditions bring up questions about disclosure, which opens you up to concerns about how others might react to the news of your diagnosis.
Taking a hit on your self-esteem is normal. But you can do something about it!
Being diagnosed with a chronic condition can affect your self-esteem, but only if you allow it to. Here’s what I mean:
Remind yourself that your chronic condition simply happened. You didn’t ask for it. My clients often talk about how they blame themselves for their chronic condition—what they did or didn’t do, even their thoughts, might have somehow brought on their diagnosis. Instead, I encourage them to view their chronic condition as one of those curveballs that life has a way of tossing in our direction. Blaming yourself is a way of hurting yourself. Don’t you think this is a time to be on your own side?
Don’t be alone with your chronic condition. Living with a chronic condition can feel like you’re on your own. After all, you are having to cope with so much, take in all this new information, make decisions, and deal with changes. It can feel like being alone in a whole new world. Reach out to people who are willing and able to be there for you. Stay connected with others who share your diagnosis so you can support each other on the road ahead. Get inspired and be an inspiration—a great way to feel better about yourself!
Be careful about mind reading. Chances are you aren’t qualified. Believing that certain thoughts are in someone else’s head—especially when those thoughts are all about how you aren’t measuring up—is a great way to feel bad about yourself. In fact, this is about the best way I can think of to damage your self-esteem. We have no idea what other people are thinking, even when we think we do. Not everybody is going to understand your chronic condition and what it’s like to live with it. And sure, some people may even assume you brought it on yourself. But be careful about making your own assumptions, planting thoughts in someone else’s mind, and using those imagined thoughts as further ammunition for self-criticism.
Here are three ways to cope with the tendency to mind read. One, assume that people think well of you. Two, live the best life you can, according to your own priorities and values. Three, when criticism or negativity comes your way, decide to let people be who they are and stay focused on what’s good in your life, and the people who want the best for you.
Embrace your new normal, but hang on to what’s important to you. No doubt about it, your chronic condition is going to mean making changes in your life. But instead of focusing on what you can’t do, or have to do, focus on what you can do. Especially the activities that you have always enjoyed and can continue to enjoy, even if some modifications are needed. Doing things you value and enjoy is a great way to build yourself up.
Watch your self-talk. Don’t give in to that voice of criticism and negativity. Give yourself encouragement instead of criticism. A new diagnosis is a lot to deal with. Give yourself credit for doing the best you can. Show yourself some compassion.
And most of all, remember, you are still you. Remind yourself that you are still the multidimensional person you have always been. Your chronic condition is part of your life; it is not all of your life. Your foundation may feel a little shaky at times. But it’s still there.
No, it’s not easy adjusting to a new diagnosis. This is a time to build yourself up. To be patient with yourself. To give yourself time to find your own best way to navigate the road ahead. You can do it. And you will!
What has helped you adjust to living with a chronic condition? Share your advice by commenting below.