“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl
For those of you who are not familiar with Viktor Frankl, he is a psychiatrist, author, existential philosopher and Holocaust survivor. His belief system, which was seemingly helpful to him while he was in a concentration camp, is that life can have meaning even in the worst possible circumstances (like he himself faced) and we are motivated to continue to live when we find that meaning. Like many other existentialists, Frankl believed we had the choice to do what we wanted with the circumstances we are given, even if we don’t always get to choose the circumstances ourselves. When it comes to chronic illness – physical or mental – it can be hard to always see the choices available to us, and sometimes those choices may be more limited, but they are still there. If I am in pain today, I can choose to lie on the couch or I can choose to do some stretches. I can choose to do nothing, or I can choose to sit at the computer and write a blog post that will hopefully help someone else. Depending on your situation, your choice options will look different than mine and that’s okay. The last part of Frankl’s above quote says that “In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Personal growth, and healing journeys (check out my podcast about healing here and personal growth here) are difficult but necessary if we want to live full and rich lives, if we don’t want to give up and into our circumstances. There is so much overlap between chronic physical illness and mental illness and feelings like hopelessness and helplessness play into both. Breaking ourselves out of the cycle is the key. That often takes the form of reaching out for help, and/or using our own self-help and self-care skills to propel us forward (for example, reading self-help books about these topics can be helpful if you don’t want to or can’t afford therapy).
Recently I have been learning a lot about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as that is what I would like my practicum to focus on (I have to pick something that is CBT – cognitive behavioural – focused and ACT is “third-wave” and combines a lot of mindfulness). Here is a quote from the ACT training I’ve been completing.
“In this moment I’m holding my pain so that I can choose to do the things I care about.” – Timothy Gordon
ACT is very values focused and as you can see values are closely related to life meanings which stem from growth and freedom, which stem from choice. This is a therapy with a lot of efficacy for chronic pain and chronic illness because it asks us to acceptance our pain, and helps us to move toward our values. I personally accepted my pain and my illness a long time ago. That acceptance has allowed me to do more with my life, like go back to school and start a new career, travel, exercise, write a book, and help others. These are all values of mine and they all bring my life meaning. But I didn’t have to choose to move toward any of these. I could have stayed where I was, but truth-be-told, I wasn’t happy. That realization of unhappiness sent me down this growth path which in many ways started with the acceptance piece. If you’re not happy, or you don’t know what your life meaning is or what you want it to be, I would suggest just starting with your values. What’s important to you? And then what your life would look like if you were living for those values. Now, this work is of course best done in the context of therapy, but if you’d rather some reading on the subject I would say check out the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.
Your pain and illness don’t have to control your lives if you don’t want them to. Keep making the most of it everyone.