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What Positive Thinking Means in My Life With Chronic Illness

A positive outlook is a skill. Some people master it at 3 seconds old, 3 years old, or 30 years old. I like to think of it as a martial art with many different disciplines. There’s the classic Kung Fu and TaeKwonDo, great at destabilizing assailants of negativity, the slow and poetic Tai Chi, perfect for artistically overcoming your inner demons, and the energetic and strategic Fencing and sword arts, suited for those who love to victoriously skewer their suffering on a pointy metal object.

Some people never enter the martial arts studio, some enter later in life, some stay as white belts, some make it to the sparring levels and stay there, some practice swordplay and bloodily dash their issues gleefully and gorily, and some dedicate their lives and become masters. Gifted folks have a natural talent. They may naturally gravitate towards self-defense and fighting arts, and know maneuvers without even stepping foot inside a studio. Many may ask Mom for lessons at age two after running around pretending to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or Batman, or Mom may sign her child up after noticing disruptive behaviors with other children.

Hi, my name is M. O’Shea, and I was the white belt, Ninja Turtle, fencer who tried hard, but never got it.

Oh, and I had disruptive reactions too. Like feeling overwhelmed when my chronic illness appeared, numbness upon the deaths of close family members that confused me, and bitterness at the unexpected path my life took despite my hard work and integrity.

These came with disruptive behaviors, like crying, spending too much time thinking, complaining excessively, messiness, and neglecting hobbies I once loved, such as music and art.

First, I will say that these are natural reactions to life events. It’s also called depression. Depression is actually expected when a trauma occurs in a person’s life. If your pet died tonight and you weren’t sad about it, I would probably think you were a monster. Most people would! That’s a silly example, but think about it. When bad things happen to people, it is rational for us to assume we would have a negative emotion to accompany the event.

OK, so sadness and negativity is normal. Where does positive thinking fit into this?

Let’s first examine my definition of what life is all about.

1. Life is not about eliminating what’s bad, or all of our problems.

2. Life is about reaching our full potential.

3. How we reach our full potential is by investing in ourselves.

4. We invest in ourselves by spending time on things we like, knowing what things we like, and ultimately knowing who we are so we can be ourselves.

Life is not about solving problems

Think about it. What are problems? Why are they problems?

There are obvious problems like “I need to put a roof over my head” or “I am experiencing serious pain.”

Let’s examine the markers that go with each of these two major problems.

What if needing to put a roof over your head was not a problem to be solved?

What if you still needed to put a roof over your head, but instead of it being a problem to be solved, it was an opportunity to be met with your full potential? Not necessarily a passion of yours, but your abilities?

What if this problem of needing to provide was a blessing? So many people cannot provide for themselves. They cannot work, are unemployed, or are at the mercy of someone else controlling them.

Next, “I am experiencing serious pain.”

This is hard for me. I admit I am still working on this one a little as a white belt, but this is what I’ve worked up.

Try to turn this problem to be solved into a relationship with your body of affection and compassionate curiosity.

Engage in a dialogue with your body. Please seek medical care if you can. But when you’re not at the doctor or taking medications, practice talking to your physical self. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Ask your body where it hurts the most and try to sense if there is an emotion there. Keep asking the places where your pain is questions. Get to know your body and the pain it harbors.

Your Full Potential

The term “potential” always bothered me. As I grew up, people always told me I had so much potential. In this article I am not referring to monetary or physical success. I am talking about personal fulfillment.

Investing in Yourself

I believe this is the key to positive thinking.

We spend so much time running around with self-help books, diets and exercise, so concerned with the person we need to be, the person we were told we should be. These are all actions that take away, or subtract, from who you are.

Let’s talk about adding to yourself.

When was the last time you sat down and did something for yourself, even if it was small, like listening to an audiobook of your choice on your commute? Or instead of scrolling through social media before bed, you read verified sources on a subject you’re passionate about?

Passion and curiosity are the soil and water through which the roots of a grounded, healthy self grow. From here the flowers of a positive outlook blossom and your happy little person plant can become sturdy enough to make it through the aphids and the pesticides of life.

The big lesson here is instead of working so hard on subtracting negative traits from yourself, focus on adding to positive things you like about yourself.

Knowing Yourself

When you have a solid identity, it isn’t easily shaken. True, identities change and fluctuate over time, but being in a relationship with yourself and allotting time to seek yourself out regularly buffers this a bit.

If you can like yourself because you do the things you like, you can charge your positive energy batteries for the storm of life. Here, you can begin to sense the inherent value we are all born with as human beings.

Remember: you have your own light and it is already on. You just have to remember to take your sunglasses off inside the sanctuary.

I hope this was helpful, and I wish myself and all of you out there well on your journeys to positive thinking. Remember that positivity is not about ignoring the bad, never feeling sad, or invalidating your dark experiences. It is a path to wholeness in our somber, embarrassing and painful moments.

Ultimately, positive thinking is an equation. Sadness + gladness + investment = positive outlook.

A recap:

Pocket full of starlight: positive thinking can be learned, and you have all the tools already inside of you.

Pocket full of darkness: there wouldn’t be positive thinking without negative thinking. Honor your journey and the journey of others. No one knows anyone else’s struggles. You can be in the dojo, on the playground, or trying to stick a straw in someone’s ear in the school cafeteria.

This story originally appeared on The Spoonie Bard.

Getty image by Sergey Peterman.