No man is an island. As much as we’d all like to believe we’re independent creatures, everybody depends on others for things like food, shelter, transportation and medical care.
But when you have to rely on others for your most basic self-care, from getting dressed to making a sandwich, ‘dependency’ gets a whole new meaning. Without help, everyday things suddenly become a major obstacle.
A study from the UK shows that many people with chronic illness are very concerned about becoming a burden. So much so, that some sick people will go to “supernormal lengths” to keep doing their part, even when that takes a physical toll on them. Being dependent can also make people feel useless, guilty and shameful. And this uselessness only intensifies the loss of self so many ill people struggle with.
But when you’re chronically ill and are limited in what you can do, how can you maintain a sense of independence despite your real reliance? There’s no simple answer, but here are some ideas.
1. It’s ok to grieve your losses
Sometimes, in our hurry to start feeling better, we forget that it’s perfectly normal and healthy to grieve the things we’ve lost. You have every right to be sad and frustrated about depending on others for your basic needs. By making room for those feelings, eventually you’ll be able to move on, without suppressed emotions nagging in the back of your mind.
2. Redefine what independence means
Ok, so you’re not able to earn a living, run your household or even move around without assistance right now. But that doesn’t mean you have to rely on others for every single thing. Try to see it from another perspective: what are you still able to do for yourself? Accomplishing boring self-care tasks like making breakfast, dressing yourself and doing dishes are still tiny victories worth celebrating!
Maintaining your independence also isn’t limited to practical capacities. The dictionary defines being independent not only as “not depending upon something else for existence or operation“, but also as “not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion and conduct; thinking or acting for oneself.”
That means that even within your limitations, you can still have a sense of independence. You can do your own research and make your own decisions. You could schedule doctor’s appointments and stick to your treatment. And don’t overlook the importance of trusting your gut and setting boundaries for yourself!
What could independence mean in your current situation?
3. Let go of unhelpful thoughts
“I have to pull my own weight. Asking for help feels like giving in to my illness. I am a burden to others.”
Everyone who’s struggled with chronic health problems has probably had thoughts like this one time or another. But are these beliefs helping you or hurting you?
When recurring thoughts are making you feel sad, guilty or ashamed, it’s time to change your negative self-talk. That’s not a quick or easy process, but reframing automatic thought patterns will make big difference to your mental wellbeing.
The first step is identifying common cognitive errors. For example, when you have to rely on others for one specific thing, do you automatically think: “I can’t do anything by myself anymore!” That kind of black-and-white thinking can magnify and distort your thoughts, leading to unrealistic expectations and setting yourself up for ‘failure’. Once you recognize those kind of thinking errors in your internal dialogue, you can start tackling them with psychological techniques.
4. Look at the big picture
When you’re struggling with specific dependencies, it could be helpful to look at the bigger picture. Let’s say your best friend is throwing a big party for a special occasion. To be able to attend, you’d need assistance and perhaps even some adaptations, like a wheel chair ramp or an allergy-friendly meal. You know your friend wouldn’t mind doing these things for you, but the thought of having to ask fills you with guilt.
In that case, do the Rocking Chair Test. When you’re grey and old, sitting in your rocking chair looking back on your life, what would have mattered most? Would you have wanted to be a part of as many special occasions as possible, even if that required (a lot of) help? Or would you take pride in knowing you’ve stayed as independent as you could?
Both options are perfectly ok! Taking a step back from your specific situation and looking at the grand scheme of things can just make it easier to help you come to terms with your decision and (in)dependence.
5. Nurture and grow your support system
Many of chronically ill people worry about overburdening their loved ones and caretakers. If that’s you, is there any way you could get (more) help from different sources?
Take inventory of the kind of help you need. Maybe you qualify for professional help provided by your government or health insurance. Or perhaps you could enlist services like meal delivery, patient transport or automating medical prescriptions. When it comes to family and friends, who’d be willing to help out and what are their strengths? You can find more ideas on how to mobilize your support system in this article.
In that spirit….
6. Look into aids
There are lots of products out there, that could help you maintain your independence. From walking aids and robot vacuum cleaners to food processors and electric can openers, which gadgets would make your daily life easier?
You could also look into making your home more accessible. Replace thick rugs, install grab bars in the shower, use anti-slip mats in the bathroom and put a stool in the kitchen. And when it comes to self-care, cleansing wipes and dry shampoo come in handy on days when you’re too exhausted to shower.
You may not be able to overcome every obstacle, but items like these can make it possible to do things yourself again.
7. Learn to say “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry”
Do you feel useless, guilty and ashamed more often than you should? A simple change of wording came make a big difference to how you feel about yourself and how you connect with others. Instead of apologizing for asking for help, why not thank your caregivers for their assistance? It sounds corny, but saying “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry” can change the dynamics of your relationship for the better.
8. Rebuild your self-worth
Although you rationally know that (in)dependence does not define your worth, you may still feel differently. When you’re struggling with negative thoughts and emotions about yourself, what can you do to rebuild your self-worth? Here are some ideas:
- Practice self-compassion. Instead of being self-critical, take a more caring approach. Learn to be kind to yourself and pay attention to your wants, needs and limits.
- Identify your strengths. What are you good at? It could be a skill or ability, but don’t overlook characteristics like being open-minded and generous.
- Develop (new) competencies. Chronic illness forces you to learn so many new things: how to communicate clearly but kindly, being patient yet determinant, managing your symptoms, … It may feel sometimes as if you’re standing still while your peers move on, but you’re developing yourself in more ways than you realize.
- Find new ways to be helpful. Offering a smile or a listening ear sounds less altruistic than volunteering in a soup kitchen, but those gestures of kindness can have a big impact on someone else’s day.
- Contemplate your true power. When everything is stripped away from you, what’s left? That inner strength and wisdom is what you carry with you through it all. Your self worth does not depend on things you have little control over.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. There’s no point. And remember, you can’t tell from the outside what people truly experience on the inside.
Finally: Remember, you are more than your circumstances.
You may not be physically independent, but that doesn’t make you any less worthy. You can still be kind, thoughtful and supportive in your own way. Like Albert Einstein said,
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” We all have our strengths and weaknesses.”
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What helps you to maintain a sense of independence despite your illness?
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