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5 Holiday Dos and Don'ts: When Chronic Illness Forces You to Cancel Plans

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Heading into the holidays, my stomach always drops a bit thinking about how vulnerable my chronic illness makes me to needing to make last-minute changes to treasured plans with my loved ones. Over the years, learning how to navigate this situation gracefully —  by extending compassion to both myself and others who are impacted — has been a challenging, yet incredibly worthwhile, process.

The extra emotion and nostalgia around the holidays can make canceling plans feel even more difficult than at other times of the year. When heading into a busy season jam-packed with memorable events, it’s disappointing and unfair to not be able to send a memo to my chronic conditions saying things like:

“Dearest body, my niece is performing on Saturday in ‘The Nutcracker,’ please cooperate!” or, “I have a big travel day tomorrow, let’s keep the symptoms chill, OK?”

In my decade of learning how to navigate chronic illness with less suffering and more compassion, implementing better vocabulary and communication skills when dealing with canceled plans has been pivotal in smoothing some of the inevitable emotional turbulence. It still feels demoralizing to do everything “right” leading up to a big day, and wind up in a pain flare that keeps me from spending precious moments with friends and family. However, the language my loved ones and I have learned to implement when pain does strike helps to soften some of the jagged hurt these scenarios can trigger.

Sending you all of my love as we head into this season and hoping that we will all be able to courageously expand our ability to hold pain in one hand and hurt in the other. Remember, we can do hard things with soft, gentle hearts.

1. Do communicate clearly how much you value your relationships.

There are many ways to show up as a good friend and family member, and they don’t all require in-person socializing.
Several of my close friends have been kind enough to reassure me of this in open, honest conversations where I’ve expressed how my inability to socialize in the way I used to can make me feel like I am “not enough” or lacking as a friend. Little by little, I have been able to begin to embrace and believe what they have told me: that our friendship is not dependent on the number of times we are together, but rather the truth that what truly matters is the quality and depth of our interactions.

When you need to cancel plans, it can be tempting to explain how terrible you feel about having to do so. Instead of jumping to shame and self-depreciation, try to use the conversation as an opportunity to express how much you value your relationship.

This might look like resisting saying, “I’m the worst, I am so sorry I have to cancel again,” and instead, trying something like, “You mean so much to me and I am so sad to miss out on time together, thank you for being such a source of kindness and understanding in my world.”

Mindfully speaking positive reinforcement aloud about how much you value a relationship or friendship, even when you are canceling plans with the person reminds them (and you!) that it is not permanent or an overall reflection of how you feel about them.

2. Don’t over-apologize.

As hinted above, today, when my symptoms force me to cancel plans, I am careful to avoid effusive apologizing and the release of a waterfall of “I’m sorrys.” Although I used to open any conversation relating to canceled plans in that way, I’ve intentionally stopped apologizing when symptoms outside of my control limit what I’m able to do.

Time and time again, this opens the door for healthier communication between me and my loved ones — and redirection of any misplaced guilt, disappointment, or frustration from me as a person and onto my pain as a symptom.

3. Do set realistic expectations.

For several years, I struggled immensely to set realistic expectations about my health. Although I would set lofty expectations with the best intentions, doing so ultimately resulted in creating more pain and frustration around my health limitations.

When discussing holidays, special events, or vacations (even when the news you’re delivering is disappointing) try to be honest about what is realistic. By saying these things out loud, It will help you to embody acceptance of these truths within yourself and to be better accepted by others.

Another thing I learned in over-committing is that as tempting as it can be to “over-promise” and “hope for the best”, it can create major long-term misconceptions. That can leave others with the wrong impression about the severity of your health conditions and leave you feeling pressure to meet a standard that is out of reach.

Some of the boundaries, limits, and expectations I’ve had to set with friends and families have been uncomfortable to bring up, forcing me to confront narratives of guilt, shame, and feeling like I am not enough. As challenging as those thoughts and emotions can be, they’ve also paved the way for a much calmer and authentic existence.

Learning this lesson reminds me of the saying: “The only way through is through.” Sometimes, in order to reach deeper levels of acceptance and compassion around your needs and limits, you have to trudge your way through conversations and emotions that feel uncomfortable at first.

4. Don’t sacrifice your well-being to try and “be enough” for others.

This is a reminder I need to offer myself constantly, both over the holidays and in general throughout the year. Because canceled plans are something that I have to navigate frequently as a result of living with chronic illness, sometimes it feels like I am walking around with a permanent cloud of guilt hanging over my head. This weight manifests in emotions and thoughts of not being “enough” and shame about my inability to be as present as I would like to be.

When I am in a calm, grounded place, I can make decisions that honor my well-being with more ease. However, when guilt spirals are tugging at my ankles, it’s easy to lose perspective and feel like I owe everyone around me my time and energy — even if it results in me paying a physical, spiritual, or emotional toll.

At the end of the day, I know I can show up for my family and friends with more love when I am caring for myself in a loving way, and I try to use this truth to gently nudge me toward moving at a pace that actually works for me, even my inner-critic might be whispering to me that I am letting others down in the moment.

5. Do practice self-compassion.

You are the only one who can reassure you that honoring your needs and canceling plans is OK and allowed.

I’ve had many conversations with my loved ones over the years telling them how much it means to be reassured by them that I am still loved even if I have to cancel plans frequently. However, something that has been just as important has been learning to practice compassionate self-talk, and to let it become a recurring narrative woven into the story of my life. Learning to look at myself and tell myself that I am doing my best, even when it doesn’t look like the version of “best” I would like, has opened the door for a more gentle way of relating to the voice of my inner-critic.

Self-compassion is one of the most important ingredients in my personal recipe for well-being and crafting a life well-loved. If self-compassion feels out of reach right now (it did for me at first!), start with acceptance and neutrality, gently wade your way into gratitude, and trust that self-compassion will bloom from all of your hard work.

No two souls are exactly the same, no two chronic illness patients are exactly the same and nobody has ever lived your life with your particular set of circumstances; so you are in charge of picking up what helps and leaving behind what doesn’t. I hope the strategies outlined above can help you to enjoy this season with more ease — and as always, take what works and leave what doesn’t!

Originally published: November 16, 2021
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