Reviewed by Phillip Waite, Ph.D.
Life with chronic illness may bring unexpected challenges, but that doesn't mean you can't be in control of your life. In fact, if you're not, then something or someone else is.
As human beings we're hard-wired to be in charge of ourselves -- and our environment. Some of us just take longer than others to learn the distinction between ridding ourselves of symptoms and getting to their source. If we think we don't have control of our lives because we see our obstacles, like chronic illness, as insurmountable, we stay where we are -- and our problems are guaranteed to become steady companions.
If you think that options and choices are for others, but not you, you sell yourself short. Looking at yourself and how you live your life does requires courage and effort. As you invest in yourself, you'll make progress -- how much depends on you.
What Do We Mean By Control?
Let's say a cute little gremlin pops up on the screen while you're reading this article (humor me with this one, OK?), and asks you what the word 'control' means. And let's assume you're willing to play along and answer the question. Which of the following dictionary definitions of 'control' would you offer the little guy?
- To exercise authoritative or dominating influence over; direct.
- To adjust to a requirement; regulate
- To hold in restraint; check
- To reduce or prevent the spread of
Now ask yourself how you define 'control' based on your experience. Is there a difference in your definition and the dictionary's? Do specific circumstances change the definition of control? Does control mean influencing or even manipulating others in the hope they'll change so you don't have to? Do you try to control your life simply by exerting will power? What do you do when it doesn't work? Perhaps there isn't one simple answer to define what it means to be in control. Maybe this is because control is more subtle and elusive than we'd like to think it is. We have to involve more of ourselves than just our will if we want to be in control of our lives. After all, we aren't just one dimensional creatures. Learning to take control involves looking at the whole of us -- at our ideas and perceptions about ourselves and others, as well as the world we live in and how we interact with it. It behooves us to examine what we tell ourselves about who we are and what we can or can't do. None of us becomes an adult without collecting some baggage along the way. Taking control of our lives implies a willingness to look at and rid ourselves of this dead weight.
Tunnel Vision: Defining Ourselves By Our Baggage
Dwelling on what makes you feel sad, exhausted, angry and powerless won't help you see your options, or control your life. We all need a degree of distance from problems in order to shift our perceptions and discover our choices. When we define ourselves by problems we increase the weight of our baggage and become attached to it, as it is to us. This blocks our ability to create solutions. You are not defined by your illness.
Have you ever talked with someone who complains about the same things repeatedly? Have you offered suggestions and received either icy silence or hot anger in response? When you challenge someone and receive a negative response, it's because you've dared to walk on 'sacred ground'. Their problems may be challenging and make them miserable -- but that baggage is theirs -- and they guard and defend it dearly.
People who hang onto baggage and define themselves by problems are often terrified of risk, change and the unknown. They make the choice to remain attached to the problems and situations they're familiar with. Their only hope of change comes when their misery reaches an intolerable level and the weight of their baggage threatens to crush them. Finally, the fear of change and what they don't know becomes preferable to the misery they know.
Open The Door To Your Options
Options are available to us when stop defining ourselves by problems, broaden our vision and ask the right questions. So, if you're truly serious about taking control of your life -- start now. But remember, this is a process -- not a one time event you either pass or fail.
These exercises take time and effort. The results you get depend on you. If you become frustrated or run into a wall, don't give up. The frustration has a message with your name on it. Your choice is to get the message and move beyond the frustration -- or stay where you are. As always -- the choice is yours.
Broaden Your Vision
Think of three goals you want to accomplish. Write each one as a positive statement.
For example: 'I'm going to focus on one thing what goes well with my health today.' When you state your goal as a positive statement, there's a direction to follow and an action to take. You decide what ideas you want to contribute, then you outline and share them.
On the other hand, if you write a goal in terms of a problem, for example: 'I will not focus on everything wrong with my body, instead I will try to be positive.', there's no where to go. Can't you just feel the draining effect of this statement? It's oppressive. When you set a goal in terms of a problem, you define yourself by it and reinforce your attachment to it. The result -- more dead weight.
Pay attention and really listen to yourself and others. Do you allow your baggage to spill into your conversations? When you hear others do this, how long do you tolerate listening? Why would they want to listen to you? The only answer to that question is that 'misery loves company.' It's not my cup of tea. Hopefully not yours either. This week work on not only what you communicate, but how you do it.
Ask The Right Questions
List each goal at the top of a separate piece of paper. Now write as many ideas as you can come up with that contribute to your accomplishing that goal. DON'T CENSOR ANY IDEA. Write your ideas as positive statements. Doing this increases to your options. When you're finished writing your ideas for each goal, choose your first goal. Review the ideas you've written. Keep an open mind. Then ask yourself these three questions:
- What steps will I take to accomplish my goal?
- What will I do more of to accomplish each step?
- What will I do less of to accomplish each step?
You're ready to work this goal and accomplish it! Look at what you have achieved. You've:
- identified three goals
- written three positive action statements
- shifted your perceptions
- broadened your vision
- created options and ideas
- outlined action steps
- incorporated your strengths
- minimized your weaknesses
Now you're taking control of the parts of your life that need attention. This is an ongoing process. As you take the steps to accomplish your three goals, you'll increase your ability to be in control of your life.
You'll always have challenges as you grow and change. It's part of life. Developing confidence and being able to feel good about who you are and how you live life is what's important.
Being in control of your life opens you up. The more you're able to stretch yourself, the more you'll access the benefits, depth and wisdom that come from using your mind, heart, spirit -- and the more you'll receive from what life has to offer. This is the important lesson. Learn it and live well!
Pauline Salvucci, M.A. was a former licensed medical family therapist.