You are not the illness!
By Patti Koblewski, M.S., and Larry Lynch, M.S.S.W., L.C.S.W.
Chronic pain touches every aspect of your life which makes it critical to surround ourselves with others who are supportive and understanding of our pain.
Healthy self-esteem enables us to accept, respect, trust and believe in ourselves. Having opportunities to develop confidence and problem solving skills early in life are important. Self-esteem comes from our genetics, environment and other life experiences. Genetics accounts for things like our temperament and a predisposition to physical disability or chronic depression. Environmental factors include poor parenting practices (being overprotective, overindulgent), abuse and/or neglect, and enabling behaviors. Life experiences with our teachers, coaches and friends impact our self- esteem as well.
Chronic pain has a way of radically changing a person’s life; even those with strong self- esteem and coping skills can struggle. For some, the most difficult blow comes when they can no longer do things connected to their identity (loss of a job, not being able to participate in sports or hobbies). For others, using a cane or walker or having to use a handicapped placard is devastating. Many have difficulty adapting to changing roles in their family, feeling guilty that they are not contributing as much as they “should.”
It’s a vicious cycle. Pain increases negative emotions such as anger, worry, depression and not having your feelings validated by others. Conversely, an increase in our negative emotions and other added stressors can cause our pain to increase. Some lose the desire to keep fighting their pain and fear their future. Pain distorts their overall perception of their life, their contributions and past accomplishments. They have trouble asking for help and can even convince themselves that their loved ones would be better off if they were no longer a “burden.”
But there is good news. Due to the prevalence of chronic pain and good research, we are able to present a plan of action to help, and they are based on two simple principles.
Care For Yourself
Treat yourself with the same respect you would give others. Get in touch with your needs. What would help and encourage you? Often just being listened to and validated is a powerful first step. Allow time for yourself. Get creative and explore new hobbies and interests that could decrease your pain through distraction.
Allow yourself to have fun and laugh. Rent a funny movie, walk in the sunshine, take a bubble bath, listen to music, relax and meditate. Find things that are practical, affordable and available to you on a regular basis. Many patients find that they can exercise with their physician’s approval. The benefits are tremendous:
• Your body releases endorphins more powerful than morphine that decrease pain and elevate positive moods
• Sleep often improves (we fall asleep faster and at deeper levels)
• Our circulation and immune systems are enhanced
• If we feel and look healthier we often see a boost in self-esteem
Good nutrition is also important. Learn about helpful foods. For example, curry powder can help with muscle and joint pain, and cherries and almonds have anti-inflammatory properties. Limiting certain foods and stopping destructive habits can help decrease pain, improve mood and give you a sense of accomplishment.
It is normal to get frustrated and to feel like we’ve done something wrong, and we often beat ourselves up because we feel like we should be doing more. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches us not to fall into “catastrophic thinking” and other negative self-talk. We need to challenge our distorted thoughts and learn to be grateful for what we have.
• Remind yourself that you are worthwhile — you are valuable not because of what you can do but because of who you are
• Stop comparing yourself to others — don’t let them define you; you control your heart and mind
• Find new ways to express yourself — you still possess the same qualities; you just need a new
way to share them with others
• Grieve the loss of your “former self;” accept that some things have changed and embrace the
ability to create a new vision for your future
• Make every day meaningful — set S.M.A.R.T. goals that help you move forward
S.M.A.R.T. is a method designed to help you set goals. It is particularly helpful in providing clarity, giving structure and breaking down the “Big Picture” into smaller steps so you are able to be confident that you can achieve them. It enables you to track your progress, celebrate your successes and stay motivated. See the graphic on the next page to see an example of a S.M.A.R.T. goal.
Caring for oneself can be challenging. You will likely need the help of others which is why the second key to boosting your self-esteem is so important.
Develop a Support Network
Family, friends and faith are the most common relationships we rely on in times of need. Chronic pain touches every aspect of your life which makes it critical to surround ourselves with others who are supportive and understanding of our pain. Family and friends may not want to hear about your pain and may become uncomfortable being around you and watching you suffer, but it is important to talk about it. To help you explain to others what it’s like to have chronic pain, please read Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino on her website: Butyoudontlooksick.com.
Some healthcare professionals even have trouble listening to and validating chronic pain patients. Learning to be more assertive and planning goals for doctor visits can help. You need to take an active role in your healthcare.
Many find encouragement and resources through their faith to help them see a bigger picture than their daily pain and suffering. Some people want to make a difference in their community. Research shows that when people volunteer and help others, they seem to do better finding meaning and purpose in their own lives. We need to be connected to others — don’t try to fight your pain alone.
To improve your self-esteem and apply these strategies, you need to make yourself a priority and have people in your life who love you unconditionally. Being in a group or seeing a counselor can help hold you accountable so you don’t give up before seeing the results of your efforts. Your pain does not define you — take control and believe in yourself. You are worth it!