illness and identity

Illness and affliction are things that most of us will face, in some form, in a lifetime. It can even be life-changing and when an illness lasts a long time, it can be restrictive and limits what we do. But it is still only a part of who we are, it is never the whole story.

When we suffer illness it is usually transitory, we get better and move on. I say ‘get better’ rather than ‘recover’ because although it is unpleasant, experience of illness can strengthen us, make us better in some way.

Illness teaches us several things (we’ll get over it, unpleasantness passes, it’s necessary to take care of ourselves from time to time…). Serious illness can make us more compassionate towards the suffering of others and, if an illness is related to a personal crisis it can provoke life-changing decisions.

If you are suffering from something as you read this you might be tempted to write me off as some sort of happy-clappy optimist; dismiss me with “It’s alright for you…”, or something less polite. That’s a natural response, and though you may not think it, one I sympathise with. You might even think that you know where this post is going, which is more than I do as I write it. Read on anyway, you never know, and we might both learn something.

An ‘illness’ can be psychological rather than physical – though I think we are too quick to label complaints of the mind and spirit as illness – and any physical illness has psychological consequences. How we think and feel about an illness can have a big effect on its course. Attitude has been shown to be an important factor not just in resilience and recovery from sickness, but in longevity and happiness in old age as well.

Getting illness in perspective helps to minimise its impact. Understanding that illness is inevitable, usually tansitory and that it can provide insight and opportunity can help avoid dramatising and treating it as a calamity. This last point applies to serious or incurable illness as well.

Illness and disease are unavoidable elements in the human condition, but we should not confuse illness and identity. When we suffer – however serious it is – our ailment is only a part of what we are. If we allow it to become who we are by weaving it into our identity, it is much harder to deal with.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.


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