“A dream is a wish your heart makes.” – Walt Disney
Remember when you were young, you’d fantasize about all the things you would do when you were grown up: becoming a doctor or a rockstar, traveling the world, getting married and having kids.
Some of those dreams may be shattered when you get diagnosed with chronic illness.
Suddenly, the life you’d envisioned for yourself is gone. Sometimes there’s little chance of your dreams ever becoming reality. I mean, how can you finish your studies, work a demanding job or raise a family when just getting through the day is a huge challenge?
It’s a heartbreaking feeling to have your deepest desires go unmet. When there’s a gap between what you’d do if only your body would cooperate and what you can actually do, you may experience an inner conflict between accepting your new reality and still trying to shoot for the moon.
Because even the sickest of us still have goals and dreams we wish to fulfill. Living means more than simply surviving. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when our basic needs like food, shelter and safety are met, we all long to belong and be loved, to cultivate self-esteem and self-respect, and finally to reach self-actualisation. We want to give meaning to our lives, even in the most harrowing circumstances.
But when you’re chronically ill and struggle to do the simplest things, pursuing your dreams and achieving your goals is not as easy as “you can do anything as long as you want it badly enough“. Of course determination, hard work and commitment are key, and there are plenty of stories out there of people accomplishing greatness despite their limitations. But sometimes all the persistence in the world just isn’t enough – at least not right now.
Despite my reservations about some motivational slogans, I’m a fierce believer in hope and going after your dreams. Whether you want to finish your studies, find a loving partner or pursue your passions, here are some realistic ideas to help you set and reach new goals when you have a chronic illness.
How to Pursue Your Goals and Dreams
When You’re Chronically Ill
1. Set Realistic Goals
There’s nothing worse than torturing yourself by wanting things you can never have – and then blaming yourself for ‘failing’ to achieve your impossible goals. So don’t set yourself up for soul-crushing disappointment and go after doable dreams instead. Here’s how:
- Adapt. If you don’t want to let go of your old dreams, give them a realistic spin. Let’s say having chronic illness has stopped you from going to law school. Could you fight for justice in another way, for example by doing a low-stress, parttime job at a human rights organisation? Maybe your experience with the healthcare system makes you a great health advocate. Or perhaps you can study for your law degree from the comfort of home at an Open University?
- Break down big dreams into intermediate goals. To stick with the law school example: it’s ok to have graduation day in mind, but focus mostly on one course, one chapter at a time. And no matter how painful, it’s wise to remember that despite your efforts, life can mess up the best laid plans.
- Make your goals small (really small) and doable. It’s much better for your spirit and longterm success to slowly but consistently take steps towards your goal than to go all-in and fail.
- Come up with out-of-the-box ways to reach your goals. If the conventional route isn’t working for you, experiment with life hacks, make adjustments, use aids, get creative – whatever it takes.
- Adjust your time-frame. I wish it were different, but it took me twice as long as normal to get my Psychology degree. I can feel ashamed about that or I can be proud about not giving up despite the extra obstacles. If you’re doing all you can but progress is slow, don’t beat yourself up over it.
2. Identify Your Underlying Desires
When you think about all the things you want to do but can’t, which underlying desires are you trying to fulfill? Which feelings do you want to experience?
Maybe you’ve always dreamt of visiting Africa someday, but you’re too sick for that to happen anytime soon. What do you wish to get out of that trip? Are there other ways to satisfy those emotional needs?
For example, do you want to learn more about wildlife? You could watch documentaries, visit a wildlife sanctuary or get a behind-the-scenes look at a zoo. Are you looking to be in touch with nature, feel free? Perhaps you’re fit enough to go glamping or drive out to a national park, even if it’s just to sit and enjoy the view. Or do you long for a sense of adventure? Then step outside your comfort zone in any way that’s doable for you.
Knowing the why behind your goals doesn’t only help you to fulfill your desires in different ways, but it can also motivate you when you hit a road block.
3. Be Flexible
This might be the most important trait one has to develop when diagnosed with chronic illness: flexibility.
Having a fixed plan in mind isn’t realistic nor convenient when you don’t know how you will feel from day to day. For one, the road towards your goal might be very different than you had imagined. What’s more, your goal itself may change along the way. Not just because of the (physical) limitations that make it much harder to achieve your dreams, but also because you might develop new priorities. When you have very little energy, you have to make tough choices about how you spend your time.
Experts on goal setting always recommend setting SMART goals – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. But the unpredictability of chronic illness can make it hard to stick to your carefully-laid plans on bad days. In that case, choosing a ‘word of the year’ (or month, or season) might suit you better: a theme or intention that guides your actions in the desired direction, without getting hung up on checking off your to-do list.
In the same spirit, you might benefit from having weekly goals instead of daily goals. Extra buffertime in your planning takes into account that you will have inevitable flare-ups and rest days.
4. Keep Your Motivation Up
“People often say motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.” – Zig Ziglar
Pursuing dreams and reaching goals isn’t easy when you have a chronic illness. There are added obstacles to overcome. That’s why it helps to keep your motivation up. Remind yourself regularly what you want to achieve and why, with inspirational books, a moodboard or empowering quotes. You can also fuel your determination by creating a coping box.
And when you break up your goals into workable chunks, don’t forget to celebrate the milestones along the way. Reward yourself! Small progress is still progress.
5. Don’t Get Hung Up On The End Result
Having a fixed idea of what and how things should happen only sets you up for disappointment, especially when you’re ill.
Success isn’t always about achieving your goal. Sometimes the reward is in the striving. Other times the journey matters more than the destination. Either way, be kind to yourself, no matter the outcome.
And remember that life shouldn’t only be about pushing yourself hard to pursue your dreams. Find a balance between working towards a better future and enjoying the present, even in your current circumstances.
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like:
- Illness and Identity: Redefining Who You Are When You’re Health Changes
- Why Acceptance is Not The Same As Giving Up
- 7 Lessons I Learned About Recovery from Illness