It's mental health awareness week! This year's theme is "body image - how we think and feel about our bodies". This is a topic that comes up time and again in my work, and I wanted to use the opportunity to think about how we think about ourselves when something goes wrong with our body. When we feel like it's letting us down.
The distinction between "wellness" and"illness" is often a blurry line rather than a clear one. It can happen overnight of course, but it so often happens by degrees, a slow corrosion of the things that you take for granted. Not being uncomfortable. Feeling alert. Being able to run, or to lift shopping bags, or to breathe without restriction. When this happens, the first reaction isn't - and probably shouldn't be - acceptance. People are allowed to grieve for the things that they now struggle with, for the things that they may never do again. If the initial response was "meh, okay," then it probably wasn't that important to the person to begin with. Acceptance comes later; fire and fury and despair can come first.
When you start to realise that because of pain, or fatigue, or other changes that mean that you just can't do the things you used to, I think it's important to remember the following things:
Your body isn't doing it on purpose
Any health difficulties that you are having are not your fault. Nobody "deserves" health problems, and any problems you do have are not a result of anything you have done wrong. This is just what your body is doing at this point in time. It's not doing it to spite you, or intentionally - that's not how any of this works. Life isn't always fair (in fact, most of the time it's not), and believing that it should be doesn't help you when you're struggling. It's still okay to be angry, or frustrated, but it's not okay to take that out on yourself.
Your body still needs - and deserves - care
Punishing your body for "letting you down" is only going to harm you more in the long run. You and your body are the same, after all! People often don't take good enough care of themselves when they're hurting, but punishing yourself is likely to make things worse. Make sure that regardless of how you feel about your body, it still gets nourishment, movement, sleep and sunlight. You deserve all those things and more even if you can't do everything that you used to be able to do.
Your difficulties do not define you
It's helpful to figure out your new limits as early as you can, and be aware that these are never fixed - even if they only change in a way that means you can do a little less over time, that's important to know. But it's also important to remember that you aren't just your health condition. It impacts on everything, that's true, and it's likely to make you feel as though that's all you are - but you're not. It might be a condition that needs to be taken into consideration in everything you do, but that still makes you a singer, D&D player, film aficionado, and everything else that you enjoy. Whilst you difficulties may feel like they define you in some circumstances, that won't be true of everything.
Nobody else can tell you how to feel
I mean they literally can, but that doesn't mean you should listen to them. When you have a chronic health condition there's lots of well-meaning advice out there, ranging from the relatively benign ("well, I hope you feel better soon!") to the more insidious ("you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself all the time!") and the downright damaging and dangerous ("your constant negativity is the reason you don't get any better!"). None of it is really helpful, and unsurprisingly it's unlikely to change how you're feeling.
If you've just been diagnosed with a chronic health condition, or if you're coming to terms with changing abilities, it's okay to feel however you feel about that. You can be sad, depressed, pissed off, calm, terrified - whatever the emotion, it's valid because it exists. If it starts to impact on living the life that you now have then it's a problem, but until then don't let other people's fear of negative emotions make you feel that you have to be relentlessly positive all the time. Everyone has times when they don't feel positive, and that's okay.
Things that can help
If you're struggling to trust your body again, let alone love it, some of these things can be helpful:
If this post has been helpful to you, or you have any other tips for loving your body when it lets you down, let me know in the comments.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects