How to Figure Out Your Values When You Have a Chronic Illness

Which would you rather do – something (a behaviour) to give yourself short-term symptom relief or something (a behaviour) that aligns with your core values, even if the goal isn’t to bring you symptom relief? The first option, by the way, isn’t necessarily connected to your values. There was a time for me that I probably would’ve done the later. Hell, I did do the latter! I definitely acted in ways that weren’t indicative to what was important to me at all but did help me out in the moment. Things like lying in bed, avoiding exercise, asking my partner to rub my back or just stay near me for hours, missing work, and on and on and on. And I’m not even saying that any of these are bad things. They were just bandaids that made that moment better, but didn’t help my pain long term and ultimately had a lot of costs (like the end of that relationship, feeling physically weak, and making work more difficult). Over time, reconnecting with my values became a much more viable response – and in some ways, even helped to decrease my pain.

What are values? They are our principles or standards of behaviour that we want to engage in. They represent what is important to us. Some examples are:

  • acceptance
  • adventure
  • assertiveness
  • authenticity
  • caring/self-caring
  • compassion-self-compassion
  • cooperation
  • courage
  • and on and on and on

Different values can also show up in different areas of our life, like work and education, relationships, personal growth and health, and leisure. Values often motivate how we behave in different situations. Sometimes we just live by our values without thinking about them. However, sometimes, when we find ourselves dealing with chronic pain and chronic illness, we can get removed from our values, like I did. There are two things we can do to figure out if we have been removed from our values while dealing with the terribleness of chronic pain and illness.

  1. Figure out what our values are – using a checklist and/or a bull’s eye.
  2. Figure out (nonjudgmentally) what “unworkable action” we are engaging in that is acting as a “bandaid” but isn’t really lining up with our values and how we want to be long-term.
Unworkable action occurs when: (a) the solution is short-term, and (b) the behaviour takes you away from your values.

Okay, but why should we do all that? You might be wondering why not just stick wth the bandaid solution. And you can. But typically we have better overall quality of life if we live by our values. We engage in behaviours that are more fitting to the person we want to be and the life we want to live. And, what research finds (plus just looking at my own life and the lives of my clients), is that pain and other symptoms bother us less. It doesn’t mean they go away, they just don’t really interfere with our lives anymore. The research finds that our self-care for our illnesses and pain improves when we are motivated by our values (everything from self-direction, pleasure, and health to responsibility and socialization). We become more willing to “make room” for our difficult sensations (and thoughts and feelings) when we live by our values.

There are many ways we can live by our values. For example, when I travel I balance the adventure/activity part with rest.

I’ve shared in a number of posts different ways that I live by my values. Here are a few consistent ways I do in my life.

  • Presence (aka mindfulness) – I meditate daily, do yoga several times a week, and just try to fully engage in as many activities during the day that I can.
  • Fitness/health – I eat healthy (gluten-free, dairy-free, meat-free – though I do allow myself some cheat days) and I exercise daily (walking and/or strength training, and/or physio exercises)
  • Creativity – I’m writing a book, I play the piano, I write screenplays with a friend
  • Adventure – I travel (looking forward to getting back to that), hike, kayak, try new restaurants, meet new people
Actively living by my values doesn’t take the pain away, it takes the hold the pain has on me away.

And those are just some ways I live by my values even with an autoimmune disease and chronic pain. It took a lot of work to get here though, so be kind and patient with yourself (hey, that’s the value of self-compassion). I hope this helps you to make the most of it!

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