One of the most difficult aspects of chronic pain has to be how it has affected my self-esteem. I went from being a completely independent senior graphic designer, making good money, having my own apartment, managing all my finances and mental state, and seeing a wide group of friends on a regular basis, to a dependant woman on disability who now needs to rely upon medical staff, counsellors, friends, and family just to get through each hour of every day. This drastic change not only affected every aspect of my life, but every aspect of my self esteem. Since I could no longer support myself financially, I felt horrible needing to rely upon disability insurance and government assistance. Moreover, I lost my job due to the chronic pain, lost my apartment, my financial and mental state dwindled, and also my social circle drastically decreased. Needless to say, this was the darkest time of my life because I no longer felt worthy of anything. How could I have any self-esteem when I no longer can contribute to society or be there for my family or friends? I considered myself to be a burden on society, and my social circle. This realization hit me hard, and due to my lack of self-esteem brought on me by my chronic pain, my depression went in a downward spiral.
Anyone who battles with genuine chronic pain has at least one time in their lives also battled with severe self-esteem issues. This arises when one realizes they can no longer perform the same tasks they once did and feel guilty or liable for not being able to do so. Where does one go from here? This entry will touch upon some of the issues of self-esteem and how to rebuild your confidence in regards to chronic pain.
Acknowledge your limitations/old self and grieve
I believe the key to rebuilding self-esteem is to first of all acknowledge your limitations/old self and grieve.
Acknowledging your chronic pain and limitations can be extremely difficult and may take many years. If you ignore or hate your chronic pain, you are working against it, and this is the worst way to deal with your issues. By acknowledging your limitations you are respecting your pain. You don’t have to like your pain, but by respecting your pain, you are giving yourself a chance to work with it in a positive manner. Acknowledging your pain, wherever you are, and whenever it may creep up on you, is an integral part in dealing with it. Once you have realized this, managing your problems (such as self-esteem) can be more easily dealt with.
Grieving your old self may also be extremely difficult and take many years.
“The 5 stages of grief and loss are: 1. Denial and isolation; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Depression; 5. Acceptance. People who are grieving do not necessarily go through the stages in the same order or experience all of them.”Axelrod, J. (2016, May 17). The 5 Stages of Grief & Loss. Retrieved 16 July 2019, from Psych Central website: https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/
A person grieving their old self may jump back into any of these stages at any time. The best way to understand your self-esteem issues is to understand that you are grieving the person you once were before your chronic pain started. Like any type of grief, if you do not deal with it, then it will catch up with you years later and become a big problem. But once you learn how to grieve your old self, then this is a positive step forward in accepting your new self. I have left some good links on the 5 steps of grieving in the “reference” post of this article for your review. If you require additional information or support on how to grieve in an effective manner, I suggest making an appointment with your doctor, counsellor, or psychiatrist.
Educating yourself (and others) on where to go from here
Chronic pain forces you into a lot of changes whether you like it or not. It is likely that every aspect of your life will be affected by this massive change. The best way to deal with this is to educate yourself on your disability/chronic pain, and to share that with your loved ones. By understanding what is causing your chronic pain, you can better equip yourself on how to deal with it, the proper medical attention/medicine you will require, and also how it will affect the loved ones in your life. When you arm yourself with education, this can be a surprisingly strong force in dealing with building your damaged self-esteem.
The best way to gain education on your chronic pain is to speak with a professional. This may be a friend who specialized in the area, a doctor, specialist, or reading at the library. Although the internet is a good source of valuable information, be careful not to ‘self-diagnose’ as this can add to your already-growing-pot of issues. Proper education regarding your chronic pain can empower you to not only make the correct decisions about your care, but can aid in rebuilding your self-esteem from the ground up.
Re-Assessing your Pride
If you are coming from an area of complete independence to an area of almost complete dependance, the issue of pride will be extremely difficult. Learning to be open and vulnerable with your family and friends can be a challenge, but it must be done so you do not fall into the danger of isolation. The power of a good friend or family members ear will not only remind you of your worth, but provide a much-needed shoulder to bear the burden of your predicament on. Needing the help of a professional or friend does not mean you are weak or incapable of solving the issues on your own. It simply gives you an alternate view of the situation that you may not have originally thought of. This new perspective and support can be not only enlightening, but also aid in your building of your damaged self-esteem.
In some circumstances, family or friends will not understand what you are going through or may even condemn or ridicule you for not dealing with your pain properly. These people do not deserve to be in your life, and the further you let them disrespect you, the longer it will take for you to heal your self-esteem. Be wary of toxic people in your life and weed them out immediately.
Addressing the issues of inadequacy and feeling like a burden
When I was wheelchair bound, I could do almost nothing for myself. This included getting groceries, cleaning, bathing, etc. The feeling of being inadequate and burdensome on my friends were heavy. The first thing to acknowledge in this situation is that your pain is a burden, YOU ARE NOT. You are still able to retain the ability to make choices, and this goes a long way in rebuilding a sense of self-worth. Remember that everyone at one point in their lives feels inadequate or burdensome, and recall all the times you were a support for that person or people in your life. Unfortunately, we do not always get to be the counselor. Sometimes being ‘the counseled’ can have many rewards in itself.
Graham Scambler says:
“As long as an individual feels that he or she exercises choice in valued activities and some freedom of action to pursue these choices, everyday life does not seem so restrictive, suffering is reduced, and self-images are maintained.”Scrambler, G. (2005). Medical sociology: Major themes in health and social welfare. London: Routledge.
Examining what you can still do
If you still have your head, you are still able to do something. Can you still see? Read, learn, and teach. Can you still speak? Inspire others and encourage. Can you still move your hands? Create something wonderful for a loved one, garden, or worship if you are spiritual. Can you still move your legs? Kick life in the ass! You get the idea! Instead of focusing on what you cannot do, focus on what you CAN. When you shift your perspective and focus, many things become more clear in your life.
Focus on what brings you joy
At one time I immensely enjoyed creating graphic design ads for my customers. Even though I am not working in an office today, I can still enjoy my sewing machine, and create jewelry in the comfort of my own home for my new customers. The ‘joy’ for me was in the ‘creating process’. So although I cannot work full-time anymore, I can still enjoy the creative process at home when I am feeling well enough to sit at my desk. Ask yourself: “What brings me joy?” And how can you modify that so that you can still experience that essence of joy in your own life.
Taking care of yourself first
If you were once a fiercely independent person like me, then you probably were taking care of others in your life as well. When that switches to not being able to take care of others, this hits hard and forces you to reexamine your priorities. You are no good to others if you are not well. That’s why prioritizing your needs are a must in self-care and rebuilding your self-esteem. Make time everyday to do something special for yourself. This may include a walk, reading, a craft, praying if you are spiritual, or meditation. By putting yourself first you are beginning to value who you are, and your self-esteem will blossom.
Learning to Appreciate your new Self
I liked my old self, so learning to appreciate my new self was a challenge. We all go through transitions and difficulties in life, but few of us choose to learn and grow from them. Look at how far you have come. Review your obstacles you had to overcome, and the perseverance and courage it took for you to get to where you are today.
Being disabled from chronic pain has taught me lessons about patience, perseverance, and empathy that I would never have learned otherwise. Although, the process was (and remains to be) extremely difficult, I have chosen to learn these lessons with grace, instead of resentment and hate. Not only do I appreciate life more, but I also value more the things I have. This especially includes the amazing friends and family that have been on this journey with me throughout the last decade. I understand pain more now and can truly empathize with others who are hurting. I feel I can truly help others who may be going through a similar situation such as mine. I also appreciate life and show love to others more when I am in pain. All of these things have come through learning to appreciate my new self, and in turn have truly helped my self-esteem.
I have also learned to replace my heels and work dresses with sparkly butterfly sandals and an artistic cane. I am choosing to become a good new self. Even better than the old.
As you can see, the way that chronic illness affects a person’s self-esteem is extremely complicated and a lot more impactful than it might initially seem. Maintaining a positive self-image through chronic pain is very difficult, but not impossible. The way you think about yourself will reflect on how you look at the world around you, including how you perceive and experience your pain.
And so, I leave this final quote with you,
“Instead of cursing the storm, learn how to dance in the rain.”unknown
Much love to you,
Some helpful resources