I don’t know about you but for me a lot of the emotional entrapment that comes from living with chronic illness is related to guilt.
That small niggle has a lot to answer for! It’s also quite often circular and spiralling, thus making it one of the less helpful emotions to feel. The other difficult thing in grappling with guilt, is that whilst it may appear initially to be inflicted from an external source (‘he made me feel really guilty’), in reality (and in my experience) a lot of that shizzle is actually internal (‘I feel guilty that I have let him down’ – regardless of what ‘he’ actually thinks or feels).
The spiral then comes as a double hitter:
Hit One – The Knock on Spiral:
I feel guilty that I can’t help my partner paint the spare room, so I’m going to help, even though I know it might be too much for me (aka a spooniliscious activity).
Yesterday I did too much helping my partner paint the spare room and now I feel too exhausted and in too much pain to go to work, I feel guilty that I am letting everyone down, so maybe I’ll try and go in anyway.
My symptoms are really starting to flair because I didn’t take time off work when I needed to. Now I feel guilty because I need to call in extra help with the kids, maybe I could just keep going and do it myself.
I have had a full blown relapse of symptoms, because I didn’t rest when I needed to, because I felt guilty. Now the Doc says I need three weeks off work, I’ve had to call on permanent help with the kids and my partner is having to do everything else, I could’t feel more guilty! Maybe I could manage with only one weeks rest…
And so on and so on and so on.
Hit Two – The negativity spiral
Guilt is a negative emotion (no shit Sherlock, don’t worry I’ll be aiming for more profound statements later in the post, I promise!) and as a result sets a negative energy and a negative frame to everything we do and achieve:
I am forced to do this thing because I feel guilty.
I don’t want to do this because I know it’s too much, but I’m going to have to because I will be made to feel guilty of I don’t.
Achieving things from this negative state doesn’t make them achievements at all, but chores and inconveniences, and that doesn’t make for a particularly happy frame of mind.
My Rheumatologist is quite strict and strong in her opinion that negative spirals were the nemesis of healing and recovering. And it’s easy to see why. There is plenty of research which points to the link between negative thoughts and increased perception of pain, reduced sleep and even negative impact on the cardio vascular system. In fact negative thinking about our health can even impact our actual health, in other words we can think ourselves sick, or sicker than we are.
It’s a little old now but there’s a post by Dr Lisa Rankin on MindBodyGreen title ‘Scientific Proof that Negative Beliefs Harm Your Health’ Goes into this topic in more detail (link at bottom of post).
So dear reader, how have I tried to reduce this particular negative thought?
Well I have to say it’s a tough one as this is probably my worst, and the one I find hardest to let go of. And when I think I’m getting there I take my eye of the ball for one second, and bam, I’m back in the guilt loop, spinning around in circles. However, it has been working most of the time, so here’s some things to reflect on, to see if they can help you in anyway :
- Stop doing other peoples thinking for them.
You know the drill ‘they are going to feel X about me’ or ‘they get pissed off when I do Y’. Firstly, how do you know? Unless someone has actually said, ‘it really pisses me off that you have a chronic illness and can’t do everything all the time’ (in which case, unless they are a child, it may be worth reviewing your relationship with them), then you don’t know what anyone is thinking. So don’t try.
Try this formula instead:
Take an honest recce of the situation and add a twist of love (for yourself and them).
If I don’t paint the spare room with my partner, it is going to take him longer, and he won’t get much rest this weekend. However, I know that he wants me to remain well and will understand if I can’t help.
(Note: the honest recce is important, without it you could and up being one of those people who breeze through life unaware or unbothered by the way their actions effect other people and that’s just annoying, but you’re lovely, so I know you wouldn’t do that.)
2. Weigh the situation
Every situation is different and you are likely to judge how you feel going into it and the likely effect it will have on your wellness. It’s worth sometimes weighing up the importance of the task (or guilty action) to you and the person you are concerned about letting down with other surrounding environmental factors.
If I help my partner paint the spare room, it is likely to take me out for a few days, however as I am on leave next week and my mum is down helping with the kids, maybe I could help on this occasion because I know it means a lot to him as he usually has to do everything alone.
If I help my partner paint the spare room I will literally be dead and I have a big week at work next week and children to co-ordinate, it just really isn’t possible on this occasion as it will make things worse for my partner next week if I am unable to play my part in keeping things running smoothly.
This is really all about playing out the future guilt spiral in your head, what are the knock ons and what is effectively going to make you feel more guilty in the long run. In my experience the difficulty here is that it is often the thing right in front of you that takes the highest precedence for guilt at that moment, even if that isn’t true of the over all picture.
3. Does the fact that you can’t do it exactly mean you can’t do anything?
It can be very easy (trust me I know) to fall into the trap of checking out entirely because you can’t engage exactly as required, or as you would like. However, often we feel better about ourselves and more positive about what we can achieve if we look for a middle ground. We also feel less guilty than we had to drop out completely.
I can’t help my partner paint the spare room as that type of work is likely to really take it out of me and send me into a downward spiral. I wonder what I can do that would help support him and give him a bit more time this weekend to relax? Perhaps make cups of tea, make lunch, wash the brushes at the end of the day whist he has a shower, so he can relax a little earlier this evening. Maybe even just hang out with him while he paints.
Sometimes, I think (although I’m guessing what other people are thinking again!), it is almost the disappointment of you not being physically present as much as not doing the thing that makes the other person feel sad. All to often I find that because I can’t do I drop back completely, mainly as I don’t want to get in the way or hinder anyone, when actually sometimes the other person is just pleased your there, even if you can’t help as ‘do’ intended.
I offer up these reflections of my own experience in case they are of any benefit, as I say guilt is my nemesis. Most of it is fairly obvious and I am not aiming to patronise, you may already do all of these things and I may just be in the slow lane over here all alone. I just know for me this is a difficult process and one that has taken me a long time to grasp, despite the simplicity. (hehe, that implies I have now grasped it which may be a bit of a lie!)
If you have your own methods for dealing with, or even better preventing guilt, I would love to read about them in the comments below.
As promised you can find the article I mentioned above, here.