4 Signs You are Having an Identity Crisis While Living with a Chronic Illness
An identity crisis is a period of time when you feel confused about who you are and the role you play in your life – typically expected during adulthood. But living with a chronic illness can change how you see yourself and experience life at any age.
Here are some signs that you are having an identity crisis while living with a chronic illness.
#1. You don’t recognize yourself anymore
Have you ever looked in the mirror and not recognized yourself? Or maybe parts of your life look differently, and it catches you by surprise? This is common when living with a chronic illness.
We all have things that we do in life that make up part of who we are. From hobbies, personal/professional goals and even the type of personalities we have. All of these things make up your identity.
However, a chronic illness diagnosis and the effects it has on your life can change how you see yourself, because some of the things you knew about yourself may not be the same anymore. Instead, you’ve been adjusting to life with a chronic illness by making tweaks here and there to help you function as best you can.
It’s common to have a moment when you don’t even recognize yourself anymore because the changes have altered important parts of your life. And it bothers you. That moment makes you question yourself and your life as a whole, because you don’t know the person you’ve become.
This person is a stranger.
You’ve been taking care of yourself and trying to make the best of your life, but you still feel that big parts of you are missing, and you wonder what is next in your life without those important parts of you.
Imagine that you’ve seen yourself as a painter, athlete, professional, devoted parent, or even spontaneous. And now that your chronic illness has changed your reality, you feel like those identifiers are things of the past, lost or untrue. And it brings up so much pain and regret for you.
You feel empty, like you’ve failed, and worry about how your future while living with a chronic illness will turn out.
All of these changes (whether sudden or over time) can affect how you see yourself (for better or worse).
Common situations that make you question your identity:
- Spending more time indoors to recover.
- Less opportunities to participate in cherished and exciting activities/hobbies.
- Needing to quit (or take time off from) your job or school to support your health.
- Feeling that you are missing out on life and not accomplishing your dreams/goals
- Spending less time with friends/family.
These situations can oftentimes make you question if you’re the same person that you used to be. Do you even want to do some of these things anymore?
It’s quite possible that sometimes you don’t. But it still leaves you questioning what you want or are able to do now… and that’s confusing.
Your Identity Has Evolved
Living with a chronic illness does change parts of you, because you have to do many things differently than you had planned. The way you make decisions, interact with others and even carry out your day changes based on how you feel.
Even though much has changed, it’s possible that there are some other qualities that have 1) remained the same or 2) have grown as a result of these changes (i.e., self-compassionate, flexible, problem solver).
The current chapter of your life requires you to be intentional about exploring who you are right now with curiosity and wonder. Yes – you have a chronic illness, but it is not the most important thing about you.
There are still things about you that deserve attention and celebration. As a matter of fact, life can still be full of meaning, purpose and joy while living with a chronic illness.
Allow yourself to feel all of the hard feelings that come with moving into a new phase of your life, and then gently experiment with what is possible now. Embrace who you are right now and seek new things/experiences that interest you. You may be surprised at what you find.
Learn more about “how has chronic illness changed you” by reading “Finding a New Normal” by Suzan L. Jackson.
#2. Feeling more emotional
Have you ever noticed that you are responding to things that didn’t bother you before? Maybe you or others feel like you are “overreacting” or “being dramatic,” but you’re not sure where all of the emotion is coming from? This is a sign that finding who you are right now while living with a chronic illness is becoming overwhelming.
Your tank is full and you could use some healthy release. I mean, think about it. It is a difficult process trying to find yourself with a chronic illness, because so much is changing.
Allow yourself to experience those emotions as they come up. You have permission to grieve your past, present and future, because they all affect how you see yourself.
Keeping those feelings inside without support can affect your mental and physical health over time. So, it’s important to be open about those feelings and talk with someone who can help you with them (i.e., mental health therapist, psychologist, trusted loved one).
You can learn helpful strategies to manage those feelings so that they no longer interfere with your life. Here are some tips to keep your mood steady during a chronic illness flare up.
Using these tips help you to focus on the present with more clarity, in spite of what has changed.
#3. Your Health Limitations Can Distract You from Your Value
The experience of living with a chronic illness can be compared to riding a roller coaster, full of highs and lows with your physical and mental health. Let’s face it, your health can often determine what you’re able to accomplish during the day, and that can bring on many different emotions along the way.
An identity crisis can occur when all you notice in yourself in limitations. Have you noticed moments of trying to do things important to you (i.e., exercise, spending time with friends, completing a work or school task) and then you are unable to complete it like you want to?
That reminder makes you ask questions like: “Who am I if I can’t do this?” Some people even ask, “What will other people think of me if I can’t do this anymore?” The thoughts can literally take off like a marathon if not careful. How do you answer those questions?
Most people don’t immediately have answers, because experiencing those fearful and heartbreaking moment takes time to work through. It’s not a light switch that you can automatically turn on for all answers (although that would be nice).
Let’s be real… The lack of answers can bring on a range of strong emotions (i.e., confusion, disappointment, hopelessness, loneliness, sadness and worry). You may also begin to feel angry with yourself, your body and even your Higher Power.
You are not your limitations. Instead, remind yourself that you can still connect and enjoy your life experiences within your limits. This is your time to explore what you CAN do today (regardless of those limits).
I get it… That exploration can be scary, because you’re not sure how it will play out. But remember, you are more than your limitations. And most times, you can experience more meaningful experiences when you do things a little differently.
Ask yourself, “What are my options?” and “What’s possible for me?”
#4. Forcing yourself to do things that don’t work for you
Have you had moments when your body says “no,” and you try to force it to say “yes” anyway? How did that work out for you?
I get it! It’s a bitter reality when you have other things you want or need to do, but your body wants you to do the complete opposite. Your body is literally making different plans for your life that can feel inconvenient and unfair.
It’s hard to do things differently when you’ve been doing what you know for a long time. I don’t blame you! We really are creatures of habit, and it can feel like you’re learning to speak a new language or experiencing a new town for the first time when you and your body are not on the same page.
Consider what your life would look like if you continued forcing yourself to do things that don’t work for you? Many chronically ill people that I’ve talked with (including myself) have agreed that it would be harder and likely make them sicker.
Something has to change for your own benefit. It’s not an easy decision to make necessary changes sometimes, but remember, this is to enhance your life – not punish you.
Forcing yourself to do things that don’t work for you while living with a chronic illness is harmful to your mental and physical wellbeing (for your present and future). Let’s consider what other options you have.
Show Yourself Compassion as You Make Adjustments
I know you’re probably asking yourself “How the heck am I supposed to keep my life going when my body won’t let me?!”
The answer to this is to reevaluate which body you’re dealing with (the body of the past, present or your dreams) and respond with compassion – not unrealistic expectations. Whew… that was a lot. So, let’s dig into that for a second.
If you are forcing yourself to keep things going that don’t work for you at the moment, you are likely responding based on unrealistic expectations of yourself.
Perhaps you are hoping that your body will respond 1) how it used to, 2) how you dreamed it could or 3) beyond what it’s capable of right now.
Expecting your body to respond in an unrealistic manner can bring on resentment, anger and despair mentioned earlier (and the ultimate identity crisis). These unfair expectations can be detrimental to your mental and physical health, because it repeats the cycle of you feeling inadequate.
Show yourself compassion by adjusting your expectations and being flexible. This opens doors for you to learn more about yourself (even with limitations). Now is the time to explore what your body needs and is capable of right now. Give yourself permission to listen to your body, and it will tell you what it needs.
You may be surprised with what you’re able to accomplish or enjoy when you allow yourself to do things differently.
Now here’s the hard part… Sometimes compassion is dropping all of your expectations (and plans) and allowing your body to rest. Other times this looks like you are making small tweaks in your routine to help you be at your best (whatever “your best” means for that moment). Here are some chronic illness management tips that help you make those adjustments and experience more “good days.”
Stay Connected with Your Values While Living with a Chronic Illness
You may not know what the future holds for your health (and that’s scary), but we do know that living with a chronic illness requires you to expect the unexpected, including certain lifestyle and health changes.
Take the time to connect with your values (even in the face of disappointment and change) by giving yourself messages that uplift you and meet your emotional needs.
Here are some examples of value-focused messages:
- “I may not feel well enough to go out for dinner, but I can still be part of the experience by ordering something from the menu to eat at home.”
- “I may not be able to organize this event like I used to, but I can still support the cause in a different way.”
- “I can still support my kid at their sports game by having someone live stream or record it for me. I look forward to talking with them about the game afterwards.”
These messages don’t change the fact that you have to make changes (or that you don’t want to make the changes at all), but it helps you to stay connected with things important to you. It’s the connected moments that promote joy, meaning and excitement in your life even when you are trying to learn more about your current life with a chronic illness.
You’re allowed to do both – be chronically ill and have meaningful moments and joy.
Value-focused thoughts help you to mentally shift to focusing on what DOES work for you instead of what doesn’t. You prioritize doing things that speak to who you are. You’re still able to connect with loved ones and feel like you are part of something special because you are exploring other possibilities.
This helps you to feel less like a unicorn and more like a part of your community.
Next Steps for Building Your Identity While Living with a Chronic Illness
I help teens and adults who are living with chronic illnesses and feeling stuck with who they are and who they expect themselves to be. Therapy is a powerful tool that can help you work through those feelings and re-establish who you are with renewed, healthy expectations.
Although your journey with a chronic illness has been hard, therapy can make it more bearable because you get to have the important conversations about your health and identity during the therapy session, giving you more confidence and improving your mental health. You have the option to invite your loved ones for family therapy and even participate in chronic illness group counseling to overcome these challenges with support.
You’re not alone, and re-establishing your identity while living with a chronic illness is possible.
Schedule your first appointment with me by booking a free 15-minute consultation.