The clock strikes midnight and you’re into a new year. Suddenly you’re bombarded with “new year, new you” messages. Become a better version of yourself they say. And countless people the world over join gyms/pick up new hobbies/start a juice cleanse/…the list is endless. I’m not against these things, but here’s a January that those of you with chronic illnesses might be more familiar with.
When I see self-improvement messages in January I think:
I’m already trying!
As someone with a chronic illness I’ll give most things a try if there’s a chance it may improve my health and well-being in some way. I love to learn from others where I can. Any small improvement is a big achievement. But I can get a little defensive about this topic in January. Why? Because when I’m surrounded by messages telling me that all I need to do is put more effort into x, y or z, I feel the universe is implying I’m lazy! I work hard to try and look after my health and to practice self-care. It adds a third dimension to the work-life balance so that it becomes work-life-health all of the time. Letting things slip too much can mean big consequences and some days are much more about ‘surviving’ than ‘living’. Everything else can fall away until health is the only dimension in focus. So while I recognise everyone can use a little push from time to time, the subject can make me feel a little sensitive.
New year’s resolutions are not my “cure”
This is a note to well-meaning friends and family. I know you care about me and good intentions are great. However, managing a chronic illness is a long-term and often lifelong commitment. I appreciate that you want to motivate and support me, but please see above and try not to suggest that this might be the year I “get better”.
Please give me one suggestion at a time. I’d love to throw everything and the kitchen sink at trying to improve how I feel but there are two problems with this. The first one is a simple but often overlooked point: if you try too many things at once, how will you know which of these things has had a positive (or negative) impact? The way I handle this is to devote a page in my bullet journal to things I’d like to try. If I see something I’d like to look into further or try for myself then I jot it down in the journal. I only change one thing in my routine at a time and try it for a suitable period of time to see if I notice any change (I tend to try one new thing each month). This means I can better evaluate the benefits of each change.
Secondly, I need to remember to pace myself. If I try to do too many things at once then I could end up overdoing it and completely burning myself out. I need to picture what a tortoise looks like when they’re throwing themselves into something and let that tortoise be my role model. Otherwise I’m faced with a situation where I’ve done too much too soon, it’s put me off, and I probably won’t try that thing again. And maybe that thing would have been useful to me, which is a shame.
A pinch of salt is needed
I have to take other people’s advice with a pinch of salt for the simple reason that they are not me. Their starting point is not my starting point. How something affects each person is completely unique. So next time you see “my easy tip for…” you should proceed with caution. For example, I recently found an exercise which is meant to tone your arms. It suggested doing 3 sets of 10 repetitions on each arm whilst holding small weights. Now I knew my starting point was very different from the average person, and so I modified it: I didn’t use the weights and I only did 1 set of 8 repetitions on each arm. The result: I couldn’t move my arms for four days!
I felt silly but could laugh about it as no real damage was done. But it reminded me to be careful. Don’t forget to seek medical advice where appropriate before making any changes that may affect your health. Particularly if you’re planning on making any bigger changes.
And finally, I don’t need your judgement
I defy you to show me someone who doesn’t get stuck in a rut or fall into negative patterns. I’m guilty myself of ‘falling off the good habit wagon’. Who doesn’t? After all, even the best of us are only human. And so I will admit that January can be a good time to take stock and refocus. But some of the messages about self-improvement at this time of year can be a little heavy-handed. Being bombarded with these kind of messages can actually lead me into a negative thought pattern. Before I know it my mind is saying:
Other people can do these things so why can’t I? -> I must not be as good as others -> I am a failure
Cue a negative spiral which may lead me to not even bother attempting self-improvement. Now this might sound a little dramatic, but I bet you’d admit to at least a bit of self-doubt creeping in. I think the problem is that these messages pit us against one another. There is the image of an ideal person at the top of the ladder, with the rest of us trying to climb up to be just like them.
So how do I re-frame this for myself? Maybe ‘being the best’ can mean lots of things. What it means to me might not be the same as what it means to a magazine editor, a wellness blogger or the marketing department of a chain of gyms. I need to aspire to reach my own goals, and not someone else.
And so my focus this January?
It’s reminding myself that “success” does not mean winning the race. Sometimes it means knowing where you’ve come from and managing to edge forward from that point, even just a little bit. Sometimes it means managing to maintain a certain state and not let yourself slip backwards. And sometimes it means recognising that a slip backwards is inevitable from time to time, and that’s OK, as long as you’re kind to yourself and look to the future.
Over to you
What are your feelings around January? Do you identify with any of the points above, or relish the idea of a ‘fresh start’? Perhaps a bit of both? Leave me a comment below – I’d love to hear from you.