Approaching a new year can be difficult for a chronic illness warrior, especially those of us who are living with ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome) The nature of ME/CFS is that even when we do make progress, it is often very slow, and it is difficult to set goals and aim for achievements in the same way that a person with normal energy levels can. We have to be careful not to set our expectations too high or set ourselves up for failure. It can be very tempting to set ourselves a seriously strict regime at the beginning of the year, thinking if we get good enough at pacing or follow our diet strictly enough, we might just have a chance of making a difference. That kind of pressure doesn’t help anyone, and even if by some kind of miracle you manage to stick to your regime, the results are never as clear and rewarding as you might expect them to be. However, I still believe that there can be a great deal of value from reviewing the previous year and setting goals for the next, as long as it is done with compassion and understanding for yourself and your ME/CFS diagnosis.
Setting Goals When You’re Living with ME/CFS
Looking Back on Last Year
In my way of thinking, the only way looking back can ever serve us is if it brings us pleasure or if there is something to be learned from it. It doesn’t really help to think about the goals we had this time last year and see whether we met them or not. Goals have one use only and that is to help drive us forward. However, what can serve is to recognize what we have learned, what we’ve achieved and what obstacles we overcame. Achievements might involve meeting goals, but they can involve a whole lot more too: getting through a rough patch of me/cfs symptoms; honing an illness management skill; being kind to yourself or paying attention to your happy moments, are all valuable achievements for a chronic illness warrior. If you find yourself compelled to look back on last year before moving on to the next, keep the focus positive!
I had many little moments of pleasure last year, particularly while I was able to take my meals outside. I made a point of appreciating the view, the sounds, the experience of warmth or breeze on my skin, the taste of my food. Mindfulness brought me a great deal of easy pleasure last year!
One thing that had the biggest impact on my wellbeing last year was really cultivating a trust that things would get done in their own time, and really listening to my body so that I only did what I felt like at any given moment. It kind of felt lazy at first, but I wanted to trust it would be alright; I wanted to take care of myself properly, and I was amazed to find that nothing important got missed, and my health steadily improved! I definitely want more of that next year!
Planning for Next Year (AKA New Year’s Resolutions)
If you’d like to set goals to help motivate you to move forwards this year, make sure you think about them precisely in those terms. The purpose of goals is to motivate; don’t allow them to be used as a stick to beat yourself up with. It can be so easy to turn our goals into pressure, which then turns into stress and tension. But stress and tension have nothing to offer our health and happiness, and it takes us further away from improving our quality of life and managing ME/CFS symptoms. My number one goal is always relaxed effortlessness in all that I do!
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For many of us, it may be unrealistic to set big goals that involve being a productive member of society, but there are many ways we can think of how we can take responsibility for improving our own lives (and generally when we improve our own lives, life becomes better for those around us, too!) I like to think about what illness management skills can I work on. How can I hone my low energy happiness skills? How can I get better at resting? How can I bring more balance into my life?
I’ve always loved the SMART goal acronym. Goals are most likely to be helpful if they are:
One of the happiness skills I want to continue working on this year is gratitude. I know I’ve been getting a bit sloppy with it recently, but I also know it’s something that works when I do it well. I can make this a specific goal by including the 10-finger gratitude practice in my daily meditation. I can make it measurable by recording whether or not I do it each day. I know it’s definitely achievable because I’ve done it before, but to be kind to myself I’ll set myself a target of doing it 5 days a week for the month of January (by then it should be an established part of my routine again). I know it’s relevant because I’ve had it as part of my routine before, and I know it helps me notice the things that I appreciate more often and leads to more happy moments in the day. And aiming to do it for the month of January (until it becomes a regular part of my routine) is a way of making it time-bound.
If you have a broader goal to achieve something within the year, break it into smaller steps and make sure each of the steps are smart, also make sure you’re not tackling too many steps at once. If your general goal has a lot of self-help elements to it, like improving your health or discovering new ME/CFS treatments, pick a priority and get it established before tackling the next important thing!
Finally, remember rewards are a good way to get motivation started. I find that withholding treats until I’ve achieved a small step is a good way forward (as long as the step is small and achievable enough). After a while, the sense of achievement from having taken those steps is motivation enough.
So how will you use what you learned from last year to help you make this year even better? What’s your focus for improving your health and happiness in the new year?
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on December 30, 2015 and was updated on December 30, 2019.
Julie Holliday, ProHealth’s Inspirational Editor, is a holistic life coach and writer committed to helping people overcome their challenges and live a great life despite chronic illness. Writing as the ME/CFS Self-Help Guru, Julie shares tips on her weekly blog. You can also follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. To find out if Julie’s coaching could help you live a great life despite chronic illness, book your FREE introductory consultation here. (10 available each month).