Trying harder when you have a chronic illness

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I’m lying on the couch, hoping against all hope that my body will decide to cooperate with me today. I have somewhere to be and I’m so fatigued I can barely lift my head. But I have things to do today, I tell my body. I ask myself, why can’t you just try harder to get up? Maybe if you get up, your body will respond. So I force my body up off the couch. Once I’m up, I wonder if I will stay this way. Just try really hard, and it will be okay; it’s all about will power. I manage to convince myself that this is going to work, but a few minutes later… reality hits. It isn’t going to happen. Trying as hard as I can has failed, and I don’t know what to do next.

This scenario has repeated itself many times since I became chronically ill. I kept thinking that if I tried harder, it was going to make things better, but it didn’t. I tried to make sure my illness didn’t inconvenience anyone; I tried to make sure that no one saw my pain; I tried to pretend like everything was just fine. But none of that worked. All this trying eventually caught up with me and caused both a physical and mental breakdown. I realized that compensating for my illness by trying harder was only making things worse.

Instead of trying harder, I needed to try smarter. 
So I developed some coping mechanisms to help me.

Being more open about illness

It took some vulnerability on my part, but I decided I had to be more open about my illness. I spent too many years trying to control my illness as well as people’s reaction to it. Those efforts only backfired and things spiraled out of my control. Eventually, I had to be more open about sharing when things were not going well.  When I did share, I was surprised by the amount of support I received. It was far from universal, and many people still treated my illness as “the uncomfortable presence that shall not be named,” but there was an astonishing number of people who were there for me. Because I had been trying too hard to control for their reactions, I hadn’t given them a chance to prove themselves. Instead of trying to avoid my illness, I learned I needed to try to be open with others.

Allowing others to help

It can feel easier to isolate ourselves when we are pushing ourselves to “try harder.” We feel alone in our struggles so we shut people out.  That loneliness combined with the desire to appear normal often leads to a refusal of help from others. We think that something is wrong with us because we are different and we can’t keep up with everyone. To protect ourselves we become isolated and try to hide our pain.
I learned firsthand that this was not a smart method of dealing with a chronic illness. I was not able to “try harder” my way out of my physical limitations even though I really wanted to. I eventually had to swallow my pride, allow myself to be vulnerable, and let people help me.  After I did, it was easier to manage my illness. There was less isolation, fear, and pain because I reached out to others.

Learning to say no

Part of moving past trying harder is setting boundaries and learning to say no. You will probably feel guilty at first, but the more you honor your own personal boundaries, the less guilty you will feel over time.

Repeat after me:

  • There is no shame in taking care of yourself and your body.

  • You are not obligated to do everything a healthy person does.

  • You are not obligated to hide your illness to make people comfortable.

  • You are allowed to know your limits and have bad days. It’s not your fault if people leave you because of your illness.

  • You don’t have to apologize for something out of your control.

There will be plenty of people who don’t understand your illness and why you say no. They will wonder what your problem is and they will think you are lazy.
Ignore them. You can’t carry the burden of their dismissal on your back. Maybe one day they will change their mind, but maybe they won’t. You’re only doing damage to yourself by trying so hard to please everyone but yourself.

Stop comparing yourself to healthy people

If you are constantly comparing yourself to healthy people, you are never going to measure up. Every time you “try harder” to be like your friends, you are devaluing yourself and sacrificing your health in the process. You are working with a different set of tools than a healthy person, so it’s not surprising that you will see different results. Allow yourself to feel validated by your accomplishments, even if they might seem insignificant to other people.

It’s easy to think that trying harder will fix the issues your illness has caused, but all it does is cause further damage to you mentally and physically. Instead of trying harder, change your mindset to trying smarter and you’ll feel more confident and at peace.

Shelley Smith started writing about her health after she noticed a lack of blogs about the challenges of parenting and having a chronic illness. She tries to find humor in the sometimes ridiculous situations that she finds herself in as she battles illness and parenting at the same time. To follow her journey and to find more information about living with chronic illness, you can find Shelley at chronicmom.comFacebook, and Twitter.

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One thought on “Trying harder when you have a chronic illness”

  1. Ani99 says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I agree being open & honest about illness is important, but difficult. Not everyone responds well, but finally being fully honest will help YOU! About comparing yourself to healthy people – I’d also say comparing yourself to others who are ill can be defeating. Everyone’s experience with this illness & level of support is different, so let’s stop comparing ourselves to each other, as well as those with other illnesses!

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