Sometimes when people get a diagnosis of a chronic illness, the thoughts that they have about it make the illness worse and they suffer more. There is an implied stigma, or socially agreed-upon construct, that includes pity, shame, struggle, and a lousy future. If we have chronic illness, we can adopt this construct and internalize it, making it part of how we think of ourselves and our illness. The illness itself is hard enough to cope with, but when we have unexamined thoughts, feelings and self-talk about the illness, it makes it even harder to deal with. Ericksonian psychotherapist Dan Araoz calls this a “hidden symptom” in a different context, but I think this is a useful concept for whatever diagnosis we receive, whether it’s physical or mental.
However, chronic illnesses don’t have to become an undesirable part of your identity, nor do they have to increase our suffering. I think it’s important to ask yourself what it means to you to have this illness. What do you think it says about you? What do you think other people assume about you once they know you have it? Are you comfortable letting other people know that you have it, or are you ashamed of it? I don’t think we have to let everyone we meet, including total strangers, about our personal business, but I think we can let people we trust know that we have a chronic illness. When we can name and understand that complexity that we add to our experience of psychotherapy, it gives us the choice to keep it or discard what we don’t need. Maybe we don’t need any of the things we tell ourselves about our illness, or maybe some things are useful, like “I have to be careful what I eat, how I move, etc.” That is a practical way to relate to our illness, but “I’m useless” or “People think I’m no fun because of my illness” are not realistic or helpful. We all have gifts and challenges to bring to the world, with or without a chronic illness, and it is incumbent upon us to discover those, embrace them, and do our best to bring meaning and beauty to our lives and the lives of others.
Granted, some illnesses have more stigma and scary images attached to them than others, and I won’t deny that society’s judgments have an impact on us. But we don’t have to adopt the stigma and treat ourselves as shameful beings just because of our illness, whether it’s shameful to society or not.
If you would like someone to talk to who understands this and has experience coping with chronic illness, please give me a call. I want you to embrace all parts of yourself, including your chronic illness, because it has much to teach you and help you understand yourself more deeply. You can reach me at: 661-233-6771.
Araoz, D. (2001). The hidden symptom in sex therapy. In Geary, B. and Zeig, J. (eds.) Handbook of Ericksonian Psychotherapy. Phoenix, AZ: Milton Erickson Foundation.