Chronic Illness & Self Esteem Issues

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How often have you thought, “If only I felt good about myself, I know I would feel so much better”? Low self-esteem and self-confidence are chronic, serious personal problems that exist in epidemic proportions in today’s society.

Low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence have a variety of sources. Many of us tend to blame our parents. And, in fact, many parents who never learned good parenting skills from their parents have contributed to this problem. We can all support parenting classes in our schools to help remedy this problem. There are, however, many other sources of low self-esteem in all sectors of our society. Some of these include educational institutions, the media, the workplace, social and religious institutions, peer relationships, personal relationships, and health care facilities (and that’s only a partial list).

It is very important to recognize that chronic pain conditions also contribute to low self-esteem. Years of pain and fatigue that have obstructed meeting life goals can have a disastrous effect on self-esteem. Other factors that can arise as a direct result of chronic pain will also contribute to low self-esteem. Some of these are as follows:

  • Inability to complete educational programs and meet educational goals
  • Loss of jobs and career opportunities
  • Unstable or failed relationships
  • Estrangement from poor/unsupportive relationships with friends and family members
  • Inability to be financially self-supporting
  • Inability to take part in community activities
  • Cognitive difficulties

When a chronic illness is involved, it sometimes seems that we are unable to do anything worthwhile and we therefore label ourselves as “worthless.” Feeling worthless for long periods of time leads to depression, which can, in turn, become a kind of chronic low-level stress that makes the symptoms of FMS or FMS/MPS worse.

Pinpointing Sources of Low Self-Esteem

To help pinpoint possible contributors to your feelings about your self-worth, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there anyone in your life right now who is feeding you negative, inappropriate messages about yourself?
  • How do these messages make you feel?
  • What are you going to do about it?
  • What circumstances of your life have lowered your self-esteem and self-confidence?
  • How valid were these circumstances as determinants of your worth?

No one has the right to offer information or opinions that might have long-term negative impacts on another’s self-esteem. Children, however, don’t have the ability (or the power) to question the validity of negative, inappropriate messages that they receive about themselves. They tend to believe anything that is said to them, especially by their families and peers.

Raising self-esteem takes a long time and is often a very difficult process. Negative thoughts about ourselves, especially those that originated in childhood and were reinforced by others during adolescence, are deeply ingrained, and hard to dislodge. Nevertheless, the end result is worth any amount of hard work.

Achieving a Sense of Personal Worth

Our most difficult problem to overcome is often not pain but negativity. The antidote to a negative self-image is to have a strong sense of individual worth that does not depend on others or society for its existence. As a first step towards achieving a stronger sense of self-worth, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do you feel about yourself right now?
  • How self-confident are you?
  • How would you like to feel about yourself?

So often we tend to give someone else the power to determine how we feel about ourselves. We must NOT give away our personal power to anyone. We must NOT let anyone else define who we are. We must, in a very positive way, determine who we are and stick to our definitions.

To optimize the quality of your life, surround yourself with people who will affirm and validate you. They don’t have to agree with everything you do, but they must respect your rights. It is often difficult for those with invisible chronic illnesses to find support among their families and friends. They may not believe that you are in pain and will dump guilt on top of your pain, if you permit this. That can lead to deeper feelings of unworthiness.

If people you associate with, including family members, friends, and colleagues, treat you badly, try to correct the situation by explaining the devastating consequences their comments and actions have on you. They may not realize the damage they are causing, and they may be able to change their behavior.

In my next message, we will explore more techniques for improving self-esteem.

- Adapted from Fibromyalgia & Chronic Myofascial Pain Syndrome by Devin Starlanyl, M.D.