“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl
For those of you who are not familiar with Viktor Frankl, he is a psychiatrist, author, existential philosopher and Holocaust survivor. His belief system, which was seemingly helpful to him while he was in a concentration camp, is that life can have meaning even in the worst possible circumstances (like he himself faced) and we are motivated to continue to live when we find that meaning. Like many other existentialists, Frankl believed we had the choice to do what we wanted with the circumstances we are given, even if we don’t always get to choose the circumstances ourselves. When it comes to chronic illness – physical or mental – it can be hard to always see the choices available to us, and sometimes those choices may be more limited, but they are still there. If I am in pain today, I can choose to lie on the couch or I can choose to do some stretches. I can choose to do nothing, or I can choose to sit at the computer and write a blog post that will hopefully help someone else. Depending on your situation, your choice options will look different than mine and that’s okay. The last part of Frankl’s above quote says that “In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Personal growth, and healing journeys (check out my podcast about healing here and personal growth here) are difficult but necessary if we want to live full and rich lives, if we don’t want to give up and into our circumstances. There is so much overlap between chronic physical illness and mental illness and feelings like hopelessness and helplessness play into both. Breaking ourselves out of the cycle is the key. That often takes the form of reaching out for help, and/or using our own self-help and self-care skills to propel us forward (for example, reading self-help books about these topics can be helpful if you don’t want to or can’t afford therapy).
Recently I have been learning a lot about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as that is what I would like my practicum to focus on (I have to pick something that is CBT – cognitive behavioural – focused and ACT is “third-wave” and combines a lot of mindfulness). Here is a quote from the ACT training I’ve been completing.
“In this moment I’m holding my pain so that I can choose to do the things I care about.” – Timothy Gordon
ACT is very values focused and as you can see values are closely related to life meanings which stem from growth and freedom, which stem from choice. This is a therapy with a lot of efficacy for chronic pain and chronic illness because it asks us to acceptance our pain, and helps us to move toward our values. I personally accepted my pain and my illness a long time ago. That acceptance has allowed me to do more with my life, like go back to school and start a new career, travel, exercise, write a book, and help others. These are all values of mine and they all bring my life meaning. But I didn’t have to choose to move toward any of these. I could have stayed where I was, but truth-be-told, I wasn’t happy. That realization of unhappiness sent me down this growth path which in many ways started with the acceptance piece. If you’re not happy, or you don’t know what your life meaning is or what you want it to be, I would suggest just starting with your values. What’s important to you? And then what your life would look like if you were living for those values. Now, this work is of course best done in the context of therapy, but if you’d rather some reading on the subject I would say check out the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.
Your pain and illness don’t have to control your lives if you don’t want them to. Keep making the most of it everyone.
One thing that can always be certain in life (besides death that is), is that we will encounter many transitions. These can be developmental, social, societal, living circumstances, jobs, losses, wins, health, and on and on. There is absolutely no way to avoid going through the transitions. Of course, some are positive and make us feel good. Others are neutral, it just is what it is (that’s how I look back on puberty but probably not how I felt at the time!). And yet others are, of course, negative and make us feel crappy. So how do we deal with all these transitions? Especially the bad ones? There’s no perfect answer, and everyone is unique and individual, but here’s my take on it.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I am very drawn to existentialism. In fact, when I become a psychotherapist (almost done my masters!) I plan on practicing from an existential-humanistic-maybe-some-positive-psychology-thrown-in perspective. Why do I like existentialism?
1. we, as humans, have choice and free will
2. it’s normal to have some anxiety
3. we need to make our own life meanings
4. the only guarantee is nonbeing (death) – okay this one’s a bit grim but it’s also true
What does this have to do with transitions? Well, let me take you through some of the transitions I’ve been through in the last month (there have actually been too many for my tastes but sometimes that happens), and how I dealt with them.
1. My 11 year old dog, Spike, my little baby, had to be put down. I cried, a lot, for three days. The I decided to give some meaning to this and wrote a children’s book. My friend is currently illustrating it and we plan to self-publish. And the book, it goes with the theme of health issues and will be helpful for children with chronic health problems.
2. My old roommate (whom I adore) moved out and my new roommate moved in. This started off great, with us hanging out and going out for dinner. Then this less than happy situation occurred and to be honest, she may not be my roommate much longer… which would then be another transition. However, my choice was to do some investigating into the issue, talk to the appropriate people, and manage my anxiety through meditation.
3. Yesterday I left my job at the retail company I worked at for 7 years (I had taken a year off before that, and worked for the company for 6 years before that). made the choice to leave, and now I am making the choice to focus on school and my side projects (writing, podcasting, maybe making some cool merch).
4. I have an interview for a practicum placement this coming Saturday. This is like a pre-transition stage because if I get the placement (which I really hope I do) then I will be starting a new chapter of my studies and career come January, with just a few months to prepare for it. Again, my anxiety will be managed through preparation and meditation.
I tend to be someone who is proactive. If I see a problem I try to fix it or resolve it, and then just manage my anxiety around it. Since death is the only given in life, then I choose to try to make my life as awesome as possible (thus the title of my podcast, Chronically Living and how to make the most of it). The title of this blog is Jane Versus Pain, and pain can come in many forms. Physical (like my undifferentiated connective tissue disease, fibromyalgia, and labral hip tear), or emotional (grief, anxiety, sadness, etc.). Managing life’s anxieties and working through those transitions that we will inevitably face is something we best learn to do.
Have a good week, and stay safe.