When Illness Defines Identity

October 14, 2016

multiple identity
Identity is comprised of many aspects of our selves, and physical wellness or illness is just one element.

When we have chronic illness, it is very easy to get consumed in what we can’t do and be. This comes to shape our identity and can even hamper our self-esteem. Unfortunately, diagnostic labels can come to define us if we don’t take active measures to prevent that from occurring.

As a psychologist I see how people with mental health diagnoses get labeled (e.g., Schizophrenic, Bipolar) and then come to identify with that label. Sometimes this occurs to such an extent to make the person feel helpless and hopeless about being well, and functioning better in the community and in their lives.

Sadly, this can happen with physical health diagnoses too. People sometimes say things like “I can’t do that, I have X diagnosis” or “I’ll never feel better because I have Y.” While I think self-compassion is in order if you suffer from chronic pain or illness, I don’t embrace the idea of a diagnosis limiting one’s identity. I think it’s important to remember ways that you’re able, strong, and resourceful even with the illness you have. Thinking of yourself only in terms of your diagnosis constricts what you feel is possible for you.

You might think, “Well there are some things I cannot able to do as a result of my illness, like be a professional athlete, dancer, construction worker, etc.” Yes, there are some careers that might be very difficult to achieve with limited mobility or chronic pain. I don’t think that’s unrealistic. However, even with disabilities, some people have attained tremendous success, by using prosthesis and other aids. To the extent we can, we should make the most of our abilities and gifts to have a joyous, meaningful life.

What labels do you put on yourself? How do you define yourself? How much of your identity concerns your chronic illness? I’d like you to think about what else defines you: roles; talents; achievements; personal qualities; familial relationships, etc. When you take all these different aspects of your identity together, you can see that you’re much more than your chronic illness. You’re a person with a chronic illness, yes, but there is so much more to you than that!