Truly accepting your chronic illness can feel scary, but it can also open up new ways of living.
Welcome to Mindset Matters — a space to learn about the mental and emotional aspects of living with chronic illness. Mindset Matters is led by Nat Kelley, a certified life and mindset coach, and founder of Plenty and Well. For Nat, mindset work was the missing puzzle piece in her journey navigating ulcerative colitis, and she’s passionate about helping empower others in their journeys.
What do you think or feel when I say the word “acceptance” as it relates to your chronic illness? Do you think of giving in? Resignation? If so, I promise you’re not the only one. But the thing is, we can’t truly move forward on our journey until we accept our diagnoses.
Acceptance is so necessary on your journey because it allows you to make decisions that support your body and is a helpful filter for knowing what you deserve. It also fosters self-love, allows space to explore the new you, and helps give you confidence.
When we try to ignore our diagnosis or pretend our lives are the exact same as they were prediagnosis, this can hurt us both physically and mentally. And a lack of acceptance is almost like telling ourselves that we have a piece of ourselves that is unworthy and necessary to hide. But that just isn’t true.
If you’re still struggling with the concept of acceptance, here are five reasons why acceptance isn’t synonymous with “giving in.”
There are many changes you may have to make to help your body thrive while living with a chronic illness.
Perhaps for you, it’s finding new go-to foods that settle well or saying no to raw veggies and yes to cooked ones. Perhaps it’s releasing the need for intense exercise and choosing slow-flow yoga instead. Maybe it’s cutting out alcohol, reducing caffeine, prioritizing sleep, getting into a meditation practice to help manage stress, or trying new medications and supplements.
Whatever it is, a chronic illness diagnosis comes with a lot of changes. When we aren’t living in acceptance, it’s easy to continue saying “yes” to things that don’t truly support our well-being.
When we accept our illness, we also accept the changes that have to be made and the limits our bodies have.
For example, when a friend offers you a cocktail, you may find yourself saying “yes” because you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. When the clock hits 3 p.m., and you’re starting to feel tired from the day, you reach for another coffee instead of taking a nap. When you notice your sleep habits aren’t making you feel well, you simply keep pushing forward because you feel like you “should” be able to.
When we accept our illness, we also accept the changes that have to be made and the limits our bodies have. And we don’t see these changes and limits as negatives! With acceptance, we can more easily choose to say “no” to things that hurt our bodies, say “yes” to more rest and positive change, and feel confident while doing so.
Chronic illness isn’t who we are, but it’s a part of who we are.
Although our illness doesn’t make up our identity, it does play a big role in our lives, and therefore, who we are and how we operate in this world. When we try to ignore our illness or deny that it changes how we live, we can easily send a subconscious signal to ourselves that says, “My chronic illness is a bad thing that needs to be hidden.”
It becomes this dirty little secret that we lug around, eating away at us. When we accept our illness and the role it plays in our lives, we’re able to find love for the pieces of us that feel hard to love.
It’s difficult to feel a full spectrum of self-love if we deny and hide something that is a part of who we are. When we learn to love ourselves fully, we start to only accept others who love us fully as well, which brings us to the next point.
Without acceptance, it’s easy to accept what we don’t deserve. This could be related to friendships, relationships, work environments, or any other relational situation. It’s easy to see our chronic illness as something to be ashamed of or something that makes us unworthy or unlovable.
So, when someone gives us the bare minimum in a relationship or friendship or a boss isn’t willing to give accommodations, we think “Well, this is what we deserve” or “At least I have a friend/partner/job, even if it’s not the best one.”
Working on accepting our illness helps us have more space to rediscover who we are now.
We settle because we don’t think better is out there for us or that we don’t deserve better. But when you have acceptance, you not only have acceptance of your chronic illness but acceptance of your unwavering worthiness.
Because you have accepted your illness and what comes with it, you won’t stand for friends who don’t support your boundaries around your health, partners who aren’t willing to show up for you when you need it, or bosses that don’t give you the necessary accommodations.
I always say that my inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) diagnosis has been the best filter for me when it comes to the people in my life.
If you’ve read any of my other articles in this series, you know that I’m a big advocate for rediscovering yourself post-diagnosis. Giving ourselves time to explore who we are now — versus trying to cling desperately to who we used to be — helps us feel more acceptance of our illness. It’s like a positive feedback loop.
Plus, working on accepting our illness helps us have more space to rediscover who we are now. It can feel so unbelievably frustrating when we try to continue living as we once did and get met with symptoms or flares because our bodies can’t operate as they used to.
By working on acceptance, we can find joy in the process of finding out who we are now with our illness. And we can therefore support our bodies and minds in the best way possible.
If you pull all of these points together, you can come to the conclusion that acceptance gives you a huge confidence boost.
When we accept the changes we have to make for our bodies to thrive (and start making them), when we have more self-love, when we filter out what we don’t deserve, and when we give ourselves space to explore the new us, we naturally feel more confident. We can become more confident in who we are, the decisions we make, and in our worthiness.
What scares you most about acceptance? I find that it’s often a fear of life not looking like we thought it would, and that’s so valid.
But I want you to know that it’s OK not to have a 5-year plan. It’s OK not to fulfill the 5-year plan you created years ago. It’s OK to just let life flow and grow into a new version of yourself that you never could have planned for.
We live in a society that puts so much emphasis on having a plan and knowing what’s next for you, but you don’t have to live in alignment with that narrative.
I had a strict 5-year plan in the past, and it was like I had blinders on. I missed so much beauty in the present while striving toward things and visions of the future that I eventually realized I didn’t even truly want. I realized those things wouldn’t actually benefit my life, especially with ulcerative colitis.
I was so scared I wouldn’t reach any level of satisfaction in life because of my chronic illness, but the places life and acceptance have led me have also led me to true happiness for the first time in my life.
So, please remember that acceptance may feel scary — it most likely will feel scary — but it’s so worth it. It will open doors to new ways of living that truly support your body, and you deserve that more than anything else.
Medically reviewed on October 13, 2022
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