Let me tell you a story about a chair. The story is short and simple, but I think you will find it interesting.
This chair was no ordinary chair, yet not extraordinary either. Being small, made of wood, and of simple design, the chair had three legs and looked a little something like this:
Left untouched, this chair was fine to stand on its own and was quite content doing so. The chair’s three legs offered adequate support and stability. However, the chair was one day overcome with an unexpected burden, which broke one of the chair’s legs, and the chair quickly toppled over. Under the weight of this burden, the chair looked like this:
Now, let me ask you – what does your chair look like?
You see, this chair could represent any one of us, with each leg representing a part of our identity, or one aspect of our sense of ‘self.’ When things are going well in a particular realm of our lives, this leg is strong and supports us; the more aspects of our selves we develop and nurture, the better supported we feel. Then, if something goes wrong in one area, we remain supported by the others and are less likely to topple over like that poor chair pictured above.
One aspect of our lives could be social support from family and friends. Another could be our career or work life. Other parts of our identity are shaped by our hobbies or goals. For example, my sense of self is made up of my relationships with others, my day job, this blog, cooking, being physically active in various pursuits such as dance, and creative outlets such as sewing.
The goals we have that are associated with these various aspects of our selves could be in any number of stages at any given time, but the idea is to have multiple aspects of ourselves so that if one ‘leg’ is broken, we have something else to stand on. That is, if things aren’t going well in one area of our life (e.g., goals in that area are proving difficult to accomplish), chances are that we will have other aspects of our identity, from which we can draw self-worth or self-esteem. At work, maybe you just got a big promotion and that makes up for the fact that you have been struggling to make it to the gym during the holiday months.
Have you ever thought to yourself, during those times you’ve experienced a road-block, “Well, at least [fill in the blank here] was a success/was good last week/went well?” This kind of thinking keeps you from feeling knocked-out, toppled over, or down-in-the-dumps.
While it’s beneficial to have multiple aspects of ourselves for this reason, it can be counter-productive to have too many aspects. Spread too thin, we cannot focus our attention to any one part of our identity long enough to strengthen it. Many legs do a chair no good if all of them are wobbly.
I bring this up here because many of you, like me, are living with a chronic illness. Chronic illness can make strengthening the various aspects of our selves more difficult than usual.
Unfortunately, it can be very common for individuals with a chronic illness to experience a loss of self that arises from living a restricted life or feeling socially isolated. Given the extent to which food is such an integral part of social interaction, memories of family, and celebrations, it is easy to see how many of us might begin to feel restricted and socially isolated. For many, this might be the unexpected burden that crushes a chair leg. However, we can resist, or repair, this loss of self, by proactively restructuring our gluten-free lives as different from our gluten-filled lives, in a way that supports a positive identity. In some cases, this might be a simple as swapping one activity for another, but in other cases it requires a grand restructuring of thought processes and behaviors.
Most importantly, and perhaps most simply, maintaining our sense of self in the face of chronic illness requires us to not let the illness prevent us from engaging in the things that are meaningful to us. However, when that is not possible, we need to be flexible enough to redefine ourselves, developing illness-compatible aspects of our identity so that we may continue to feel whole and supported.
As we go into the new year (and the new week) ahead of us, take stock of what your chair looks like. If it looks like it could use some wood glue and a couple of vice grips, think about what aspects of your identity could use developing, or what new aspects you would like to create.
Start with the question, “who am I?” Then set some goals, both short- and long-term, that support your identity. If you don’t like what you see, or you don’t have enough legs to stand on, create some goals that put you in the direction of developing your ‘self’ more. It might feel daunting at first, but start with some baby steps, and remember that the more energy you put in to the development of your ‘self,’ the more you get back.
If you’re like me, you’ve got some work to do…
Happy new year to you all and best wishes for strong chair legs this year!
For more on how goals related to our sense of identity improve our mental health:
Ryan, R. & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
McGregor, I., & Little, B.R. (1998). Personal projects, happiness, and meaning: On doing
well and being yourself. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(2), 494-512.
For more on how chronic illness affects our mental health through loss of the self:
Charmaz, K. (1983) Loss of self: A fundamental form of suffering in the chronically ill. Sociology of health and illness, 5(2), 168-195.