Health + Wellness

How to Stop Negative Self-Talk With Chronic Illness

As someone with a chronic illness, I know how difficult it can be to maintain a good quality of life with such conditions. Whether we’re dealing with symptoms daily, balancing home life, relationships, and work with our health, or visiting doctor’s offices day in and day out, after a while, all of this can take a toll on mental health. It can lead us to develop negative self-talk–a destructive internal monologue that makes us feel worse about ourselves. However, with the following tips, you can learn how to stop negative self-talk with chronic illness and get back to being the unstoppable warrior you are!

Where Negative Self-Talk Can Stem From With Chronic Illness

Sometimes, our acceptance with our chronic illness(es) waxes and wanes. We may have days where we feel unbelievably strong and unstoppable no matter what we’re faced with because we are warriors and we fight through it all!

However, other times, we may feel hatred towards our bodies. We may mourn the lives we had before chronic illness. Or, we may feel devastated or discouraged each time we are hit with severe symptoms. 

Trust me, I get it. I live on this roller coaster right along with you. In fact, I’m strapped in the same train car, desperately wishing I could get off because I never was a fan of roller coasters. Yet, here we are–strapped in for life.

The truth is, we have to find a way to enjoy the ride and manage the discomfort that comes from riding the unpredictable ups and downs.

While I am better at stopping negative self-talk now, there was a time early in my healing journey when I let it get to me. I felt a lot of self-hatred, and I often wished I had a new body until I realized that the only new thing I needed was a better mindset.

Before this realization hit, I would allow mean, inaccurate thoughts to enter my head and stay there. Sometimes, when I’m in a bad flare, these thoughts still slip in. (I’m only human.) Thoughts such as, I am weak. I wish I were normal. I am unlovable. What did I do to deserve this? I am not enough. I wish I weren’t a burden to my loved ones. 

The negative self-talk goes on and on, on an endless loop that just won’t shut up–even though none of it is true! Can any of you relate? 

But, here’s the most harmful thing: If we say these things to ourselves too often, or hear these things too often, we can start to believe them. This is so wrong, my friend. We shouldn’t be believing them. We should be actively dispelling them.

So, I want to unpack each of these destructive examples of negative self-talk associated with chronic illness and offer kinder, more realistic replacements for them. This is not an easy process, and it will take some work on your part to change habits, especially if they’re deep-rooted. In the meantime, hang in there. I’m here with you.

How to stop negative self-talk when chronically ill

#1. I am weak.

For me, this statement originates from two triggers. 

One: When my symptoms are bad, I often feel weak. Because I feel physically weak at times, my mind extends this weakness to every other aspect of myself. Which is so wrong in so many ways!

We are unbelievably strong for everything we must endure on a daily basis. We have more strength and resilience than we know. Sometimes, as my boyfriend has said, we just have to remind ourselves. So here’s your gentle reminder: You are SO strong, and you are stronger than whatever battle you are facing!

Now for trigger number two.

Sometimes, people can make comments on our health that makes us feel weak or inferior. Things such as, “What is it this time?” Or, “Gosh, you have so many problems!” Or the classic, “You’re always sick.”

Now, I guarantee that these people aren’t trying to make us feel worse about ourselves by saying these things. They’re just responding to what they see, albeit in an insensitive way.  

However, even though they may not be trying to make us feel worse, I have never ever EVER felt good after hearing these comments. Luckily, for me, this has mostly stopped since graduating high school. I think people around me now understand that such comments trigger negative self-talk, and they choose their words differently.

Although, despite our wishes, we can still hear responses like these from people. So, how do you stop the negative-self talk from descending when they’re said?

A therapist gave me a great response to throw back at people several years ago. It goes like this: “Gee, I had no idea! Thank you so much for the reminder; I had completely forgotten that I live with a chronic illness! What would I do without you?”  

While this response made me laugh at the time, I’ve never had the nerve to actually say it to anyone. Maybe you will!

Instead, I’ve taken a different approach that better aligns with my personality. I’ll say something like, “Everyone has their own challenges. But knowledge is power and I am learning how to manage mine with my health, and I’m a stronger person for it.” 

See how I took the word “weak” and flipped my response to contain its antonym? This is exactly what you need to do when someone–or negative self-talk–tells you something detrimental to your mental health. Brainstorm phrases to counteract the negativity and repeat them to yourself, over and over and over, until you believe it.

#2. I wish I were normal.

For a solution on how to stop this example of negative self-talk with chronic illness, I will simply direct you to a Forrest Gump quote. As Forrest’s mother would say, “What is normal, anyway?” Think about that. Then stop trying to be “normal.” 

#3. I am unlovable.

Even if we feel unlovable because of our health–which is totally inaccurate, by the way–there are plenty of other qualities we can focus on about ourselves. Your best bet on how to stop this negative self-talk with chronic illness is to follow it up with other qualities about yourself that make you so darn lovable (because you are!).

For example: You are lovable because you can make a whole room erupt with laughter. You are lovable because you do small acts of kindness for others without being prompted. You are lovable because you are a mother, father, son, daughter, sibling, friend, partner, aunt, uncle, etc. Or maybe you are lovable because you’re an awesome cook.  

See the value you have as a human being, and how your presence lights up the world. Realize that despite your illness, there are countless other things about you that make you worthy of so much love. 

#4. What did I do to deserve this?

This one kind of goes along with “Why me?” They’re both difficult questions to answer. The simplest way to respond is to say that you didn’t do anything to deserve living with chronic illness. No one deserves it. No one expects it. It just happens. 

We can’t beat ourselves up for things we cannot control or change. With autoimmune diseases, for example, the body mistakenly attacks itself. It’s nothing we actively caused. We didn’t wake up one day and tell our immune system to go attack our thyroid because it’s been acting a little suspicious lately. We don’t command our autonomic nervous system to start slacking off on its responsibilities. 

Instead of asking why you’ve been dealt this hand of cards, ask yourself what you can do with your situation to make a difference. How can you take this negative and turn it into a positive? Doing acts of kindness is proven to improve mood and increase feelings of self-worth.

For me, I’ve decided to start this blog as a way to educate and inspire others who have similar conditions or other chronic illnesses. I also want to spread awareness for POTS because it is such an under-diagnosed syndrome that many suffer from for years before receiving a diagnosis. 

So, when I ask myself in those dark days what I did to deserve my illness, or why I’ve been afflicted by it, I try to remind myself of the opportunity it has given me. It’s not always easy but just knowing that I could be helping one other person who feels as alone and scared as I was before getting diagnosed, fills my heart.

Find a way to take your situation and plant a seed of kindness from it. What blooms will be a constant reminder of your self-worth that can counteract the “Why me?” syndrome. 

#5. I am not enough.

Hold up right there! Stop whatever you’re doing and mosey on over to the nearest mirror. Look yourself in the eyes and tell yourself: I AM enough. 

Spoiler: You are more than enough.  

To stop this form of negative self-talk with chronic illness, ask yourself why you feel as if you are not enough. Dig deep. Where do those feelings stem from? Is it from your chronic condition(s)? Or is it from another aspect of your life? Do you not feel healthy enough, pretty enough, smart enough, likable enough, strong enough, etc.?

Once you’ve discovered the origin, I want you to think about any and all achievements you’ve attained–big or small–or other favorable qualities about yourself, despite that origin.

For example, when I think I am not enough, it usually stems from my disappointment from not being able to do things as I could before living with chronic illness. So, it stems from not feeling healthy enough, or strong enough.

Since I’m living with symptoms that can make life more difficult than it was prior to their onset, I sometimes see myself as not enough in the present moment. I see a lesser version of myself. 

However, I counteract that negative self-talk by reminding myself of the achievements I’ve made, despite being chronically ill. I finished undergrad and got my BA in Psychology and Health and Wellness, even when my health began declining my senior year. I worked my way through the Levine Protocol and conditioned my body to tolerate running again even though it took many months to get there. I took on grad school in the thick of seeking a diagnosis and still graduated with my master’s degree, even though I struggled like hell.

Even the small things I’ve come to celebrate, such as getting through a workout on a day when I really felt zero motivation to do so. Or cooking a new delicious meal. Or writing just 500 words every day for my novel. Even not spilling coffee on myself when I stand up and get dizzy is a win in my book! 

Bottom line, the trick here is to remind yourself that even though you are living with a chronic illness, you are still more than enough. You are capable of accomplishments and small wins alike. It may be a different journey to get there, but you can and will still get there. 

#6. I wish I weren’t a burden to my loved ones.

You are not a burden. Anyone who makes you feel that way is not showing you unconditional love–which is the only kind of love there should be, if you ask me. 

If anyone makes you feel like a burden, you don’t need that kind of energy in your life. Refer back to the section about being lovable. You possess plenty of other qualities that make you lovable, qualities that make people want to help you when you are not at your best. Find those people and hold on tight to them. 

If you find yourself feeling this way, talk to your caretakers and/or loved ones. They will most likely tell you right away that you are NOT a burden. Let them put this negative self-talk to rest. Sometimes, communication is the best way to stop negative self-talk with chronic illness.

Often, I find that burdensome feelings stem from knowing how much everyone else helps me. For me, doing something thoughtful for my loved ones stops these irrational feelings.

For example, write your loved ones a sweet note, or buy them their favorite snack. Compliment them. Let them pick the movie you watch. Get up early one morning and make them coffee. Pay it forward with thoughtful gestures here and there–whatever you can do. It’ll make you feel good, and your caretakers will enjoy it too!

The takeaway on negative self-talk with chronic illness

Dealing with negative self-talk is going to happen when living with chronic illness. Just like our symptoms ebb and flow in severity, negative self-talk will flare up now and again as well. You don’t need to let it consume you, though. You don’t need to let it keep you locked up in a dark place.

Practice some of these exercises I detailed here on how to stop negative self-talk with chronic illness. If you experience other phrases of negative self-talk that I didn’t unpack here, think along similar lines of how you can flip the switch on them. Come up with antonyms, brainstorm actions, or think of other examples from your life that disprove their truth. 

Perspective can also play a huge role in how we approach living with chronic illness. Check out a refresher for some tips on how adopting a new perspective can transform how we experience life.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes.

“Life is tough, my darling, but so are you.” 

Stephanie Bennett Henry

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