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Mindset Matters: Who Am I with Chronic Illness? Acceptance and Letting Go

Living Well

July 25, 2022

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Collage design by Ryan Hamsher; Photo provided by Natalie Kelley

Collage design by Ryan Hamsher; Photo provided by Natalie Kelley

by Natalie Kelley


Medically Reviewed by:

Cynthia Taylor Chavoustie, MPAS, PA-C


by Natalie Kelley


Medically Reviewed by:

Cynthia Taylor Chavoustie, MPAS, PA-C


Coming to terms with my ulcerative colitis diagnosis was hard, but it allowed me to build a more compassionate relationship with myself.

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.

It can feel impossible to have a positive, loving relationship with yourself when you feel like the vessel you live in is fighting against you every day. Trust me. I’ve been there.

When I was first diagnosed, I was the queen of distraction. I didn’t want to have to face who I was, how I felt, and how I was changing. I didn’t want to confront the fact that I needed to change.

Building a more compassionate relationship with yourself is crucial as you learn to navigate chronic illness. The more you realize you can rely on yourself and trust yourself, the softer life will feel.

When you have a loving relationship with yourself, you can make kinder decisions for your body and your mind. You will be more likely to maintain boundaries with people who don’t treat you in the way you deserve.

You will find it easier to remind yourself that you are worthy of so much love, friendship, and joy.

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Recognizing the barriers to self-love

I once asked my followers on Instagram about the barriers they have when it comes to creating a conscious and loving relationship with themselves. Two ideas I heard repeatedly were:

  • I have a hard time loving what my body looks like because of my illness
  • When I’m sick, I feel distant from my hobbies, and I, therefore, lose myself

So let’s get one thing straight: Your relationship with yourself goes so much further than your physical vessel and your tangible interests.

I find that this is where many people get stuck when it comes to their relationship with themselves.

When you only define yourself through certain aspects of “who you are” (like your physical features or abilities), it makes it harder to truly get to know yourself.

Having a deeper relationship with yourself can help you through the times when it feels as if your chronic illness is making decisions for you. The first step in building this relationship is acceptance.

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Starting with acceptance

What do you feel when I say the word acceptance?

Do you think of giving in? Resignation? If so, you’re not the only one. For me, the idea of acceptance felt like I was letting my chronic condition “win.”

With time, I realized that I couldn’t move forward to create a new relationship with myself until I had accepted my diagnosis.

Ignoring your diagnosis or pretending it isn’t there can block your personal growth. Ignoring the changes that need to be made to your mindset and lifestyle can keep you from accessing the joy you so deserve.

Acceptance is necessary on your journey because it allows you to make decisions that support your body. It can help you build confidence on your chronic illness journey.

Acceptance can help you own your story and share your truth.

When you try to ignore a diagnosis or pretend that life is the same as it was before diagnosis, it can hurt physically and mentally. It can feel like a part of you is unworthy or needs to be hidden. And I promise that isn’t true.

Once I accepted my condition, I was able to take steps toward building a life that allows me to live healthily and happily with chronic illness.

What scares you most about acceptance?

Accepting your diagnosis can be difficult because it often means also accepting the changes that come with it. If you’re like me, change can feel really scary or overwhelming and comes with so many emotions.

Letting go

A big part of accepting my diagnosis was figuring out how to let go of my old self while recognizing that I still am who I am at my core.

The post-diagnosis me let go of a lot. Some of the parts of me I worked to let go of include:

  • perfectionism
  • feeling like I have to go, go, go, all the time
  • comparing myself to others
  • over-exercising
  • obsessing over what my body looks like
  • basing my self-worth on how much I do or how busy I am

I was able to distance myself from parts of me that were not productive. In doing this, I was able to embrace the parts of me that will always be the same — the important pieces — and that’s all that matters.

When I was first diagnosed, I felt like I lost so much of myself because I fully defined myself by the things I did rather than the qualities that made me me.

Before my diagnosis, I defined myself by things like my body’s physical strength, how far I could run, or how many hours I worked. Now, when I look back to that time, I realize I didn’t give my past self enough space and support to figure out who I was beyond that.

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Giving myself permission

Once I let go of the “old me,” I was able to get to know my true self. When I was diagnosed, I was able to give myself permission to finally slow down.

I remind myself that the version of me now is not a lesser version of my past self. It’s just a new version. I like to say: different, not bad. Life with chronic illness is different, not bad.

The path I’m on now is different, not bad. The way I navigate relationships will be different, not bad. Who I am is different, not bad.

Reframing not replacing

As humans, we often have a very black-and-white, all-or-nothing way of thinking. I know I used to. After my diagnosis, I found myself thinking: “I am a long-distance runner, I am no longer me because my chronic illness doesn’t allow me to run.”

This way of thinking would escalate to: “If I can’t keep running marathons, I don’t want to run at all” and then to, “If I can’t run, I don’t want to move my body at all.”

My ego convinced me that if I couldn’t do it all, I’d fail. With time, I learned that there are so many gray spaces in life that are beautiful.

Learning to live in the gray has been key for me. It’s opened me up to focusing on the feelings I would experience when I was doing things that I loved rather than the actual actions I was doing.

I learned to reframe what I had initially seen as failures. When I found myself questioning my identity, as a runner I reminded myself that long-distance running is just a label. The qualities that made me a runner were that I was hard-working, disciplined, and dedicated. I can still embody these qualities without running.

While my ego told me, “you are a runner therefore you are only worthy if you can run.” My truest self now recognizes that I am still worthy without the external action of running. I know that I can continue to nurture the deeper qualities that running instilled in me.

I can apply my hard work, discipline, and dedication to a meditation practice, to advocating for myself, to my self-care, or to getting through my reading list.

It can be empowering to nurture your strengths in new ways. How can you extract the values and qualities you developed from past hobbies and apply those pieces of you to your life now?

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The bottom line

While the word “acceptance” can bring to mind the idea of resignation or giving up, in reality, I’ve found that the only way I can “win” when living with a chronic illness is when I’m accepting my diagnosis.

By accepting my diagnosis, I have been able to embrace the new me.

Acceptance has empowered me to make decisions about what is best for my physical and emotional health.

Change is hard, but it is inevitable. Your life will change. Your body will change. You will change. But your soul — your truest self — will always be there.

Medically reviewed on July 25, 2022

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About the author

Natalie Kelley

Natalie Kelley, the founder of Plenty and Well, is a chronic illness mindset and lifestyle coach, and the host of the “Plenty and Well Podcast.” After years of symptoms, she received a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis in 2017 at age 21. She then changed paths to discuss life with a chronic illness and provide support for others. After a life-altering flare-up, Natalie realized her purpose ran deeper, and she obtained her holistic health coaching certification. She offers personal coaching to women with chronic illnesses. Her group program, The Path to Empowered Acceptance, helps individuals find acceptance, confidence, and joy on their health journeys.

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