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How I'm Taking Back Control of My Illness By Rewriting My Story

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Like so many of us with chronic illness, I have good days and bad days. When I feel well, I am an active, creative, productive person who doesn’t let anything get in my way. On my bad days, I feel weak, unmotivated, fragile and frustrated. It’s almost as though I am two different people on these days, and I’ve named them Light and Shadow.

I have to be careful, because even on good days Shadow is lurking around the corners and can easily taint how I perceive myself. According to the famous psychologist Carl Jung, we all have shadows. Anyone who has done Jungian shadow work knows that they shouldn’t be ignored, but respected and given their proper place. But when you have a chronic illness, it’s difficult to give your shadow credence and attention without letting that acknowledgement turn into permission to rule.

My shadow isn’t allowed to define who I am. It’s possible to do this when you look at your life as your own personal myth. A personal myth is the internalized story that we all create about ourselves. If you see your life as a narrative and yourself as the author, you have the ability to gain control. Perhaps you can’t control what is happening to your body or your circumstances, but you do have control over how you perceive and react to it. We can edit and reinterpret how our stories go. Reframe the narrative, so to speak. We can’t change the facts, but we can change the role of the main character. Even small edits can make large impacts on our lives. We have the power to write our stories in a positive way, including finding meaning from hardship and struggles.

A black and white image showing a ladder, and light and shadows.

Self-talk often revolves around fear and limitation. If I spend too much time focusing on what is difficult and what hurts and what might trigger discomfort, I begin to allow those things to define my actions. For example, on bad days Shadow whispers negativities into my ear, “I am an invalid. I am weak. I’m no longer capable. I can’t do that ever again. People see me as incompetent.” If I choose to believe these things, I begin to accept them as truths in my personal myth. However, there is a huge difference between believing that at this moment I am weak, and believing that I am a weak person. Light steps in and reminds me of this when I doubt my abilities even on good days, or make decisions based on what I might not be capable of rather than my potential.

Shadow might write, “She became the shell of the person she once was. She lost faith in herself and her ability to do the things that brought her joy in life. She stopped trying to do difficult things, because she was defeated by her illness.” And Light would counter, “She had good days and bad days. On the bad days, she accepted her limitations and treated herself with compassion. With more time and patience, she was often able to accomplish tasks that felt overwhelming. On the good days, she was thankful and moved forward with the full potential of what she was confident resided within her.” That’s the story that I choose to add to my personal myth.

It’s taken a lot of time and practice to be in control of my personal myth. Do you ever think about what it would feel like to have more control of your life? Not to change the things about your health that are out of your control, but to be empowered and at peace with it.

Take a few minutes and try a little exercise with me. Write a paragraph about how your illness has affected you recently. Write from the third person (“she or “he” rather than “I”). First write it from your shadow’s dark perspective, and then change the narrative of how you would like it to look in a positive light. How do each of them feel to you when you read them? I would love to see what you come up with. Please feel free to share your writing or your reaction to it in the comments below.

Getty Image by Victor_Tongdee

Originally published: August 1, 2018
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