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How Acceptance Can Transform Our Relationship With Chronic Illness

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When chronic illness shows up, it often robs us of our plans. It reroutes the itinerary we had for our life. It steals the future we imagined. It diminishes our capacities and transforms our circumstances. It kicks our ass and demonstrates with absolute clarity (in ways that many of us are not accustomed to being shown) that we are absolutely NOT in the kind of control we had thought. What do you mean accept, lady? Why would I want to accept the thing you’ve just described? That sounds like loser talk!

What we resist, persists. When I struggle against something, the struggle itself perpetuates the adversarial relationship. I become locked into the fight. I become defined by opposing or being in defiance of that thing, rather than being able to be something else. Acceptance is not the same thing as giving in or giving up. However, almost every illness is fueled by stress in the body, and stress is magnified by our fight and flight responses. When we are feeling things like anger and fear, those emotions are compounded in our sympathetic nervous system. In order to lessen the burden of stress, we need to reduce these experiences and tap into our parasympathetic nervous system. Acceptance is a key component of this process.

By struggling against my illness, I can become defined by that contrary relationship. I am making an enemy of my body when I have determined that it is acting against me. What good can come of this perspective? How do I treat myself, speak to myself, think of myself, when I see things in these terms? When I look at only the ways my body is falling short, I become unable to see all the miraculous ways my body is functioning. Take my muscle wasting disease for example: if I look at my body as my nemesis, then I might think “my body is failing me. Muscle is dissolving off my bones and I am breaking down. What a weakling I’ve become!” However, by accepting the diagnosis and thinking about how the disease is acting within my body, I can shift my perspective and think, “unbelievable, even in the face of such difficult odds, my body is fighting to help keep me functioning!”

Just as one is powerless to transform addiction until she can see the addiction with some clarity, I cannot transform my experience of illness until I accept it. Once I accept my condition, then I can begin to work with it and work to shift it. Does that sound counterintuitive? We cannot change what we do not acknowledge. By acknowledging and accepting the truths of my illnesses, I am then able to start focusing on what I can shift and begin to shift it. How can I eat better, rest better, reduce my stress, treat myself with more kindness? Each of these things can have an impact on the course of my illness.

Acceptance does not mean that my disease can never improve or be resolved. In fact, I’m giving myself a better opportunity for increased health and remission by practicing acceptance. It is through acceptance that there is room for other possibilities to arise. When my body and mind are so full of resisting my current reality of illness, there isn’t room for anything new to be true – by moving into acceptance, I make space for new possibilities.  Like an over-crowded hanging bar in a closet, when it is so crammed full of there isn’t room for anything more to be hung up, clothes will get wrinkled and start to smell musty. At some point, I’ll have to put things in drawers or allow them to collect on the floor because there simply isn’t any more space. The same principle applies to resisting my illnesses: when I am so set on fighting and resisting my diseases, there isn’t any room for anything new to arise. My acceptance means that I am freeing up opportunities for new healing possibilities, new perspectives, and new options to be available – because I’m no longer set in battle mode.

Allowing acceptance to emerge means changing the narrative from what I’m not able to do, being grateful for the ways I can still function and all that my body is doing on my behalf; working to keep me functional in many ways I may take for granted. Notice I said “practicing” acceptance. That’s right, this too is a practice; this isn’t a one-and-done situation. This kind of acceptance and gratitude work is an ongoing habit, something I must do, and do again. As often as I notice my battle metaphors or the resistance in me arising, I have an opportunity to turn again towards acceptance.

What about you? Do these ideas resonate with your current understanding of your chronic conditions? Do you see the benefits of acceptance? Let me know your thoughts. And, in the meantime, treat yourself with kindness and remember that whether or not our bodies are healthy, our spirits can find wellness.

Follow Annette on her website and YouTube.
Getty image by globalmoments.

Originally published: October 22, 2021
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