Living with a chronic illness is unpredictable. Some days, you feel well enough to socialize with friends and go to the shop. The next day you can't get out of bed. These ups and downs are all part of the journey to getting well.
This is especially challenging if you are trying to increase your activity level. It’s where GET (graded exercise therapy) often fails. GET expects you to be able to consistently increase your activity levels as your muscles get stronger. Yet, you can’t always do more the next day or the next week or the next month. When living with a chronic illness you can never be sure how your body is going to respond.
Trying to always move forwards without listening to the signs of your body can do more harm than good for your wellbeing.
But, if you want to get better it’s important to set goals for yourself and to make a commitment to your wellbeing. How can you set goals for yourself without setting yourself, and your body, up for failure?
Yogi’s and meditators discuss these questions all the time. One of the principles of mindfulness is to be non-striving. Yet, what’s the point of meditating or doing yoga if you’re not hoping for some good result?
Here is my best advice on how people living with a chronic illness can set goals like a yogi:
1. Set an intention, not a goal
Making yoga, meditation, or exercise an intention is different than making it a goal. Intentions are found, lost, and re-found in the present. So just by setting the intention to practice you’ve already done what you set out to do (well done, you!). With an intention, there is no specific result we’re hoping to achieve. We are simply choosing an action and sticking to it ‘to see what happens’, inviting a sense of curiosity. So instead of saying I am going to meditate so that I can feel relaxed. You can set the intention to meditate. Likewise, you don’t have to say I am going to practice yoga so I can do a handstand. Setting the intention to practice is action enough.
An intention doesn't have a specific outcome. It's a commitment to make space for well-being in your life.
2. Focus on what you can control
Just like you couldn’t control whether or not you got ill, you’re not able to control whether or not you get well. If you make your goal to cure yourself of your illness, you’re setting a goal that is out of your control to achieve. This can lead to frustration, stress, and negative thoughts if you are not making the progress you want to. This is unnecessary stress because it is over something you cannot control. Instead, set an intention to focus on things you can control. For example, choosing to eat 7 servings of fruit and vegetables per day is something that is well within your control. Just as choosing to practice yoga 3 times a week (even if it’s just for 5 minutes, and even If you’re ‘only’ lying down and meditating) these are intentions that are completely within your power to achieve. We want to make choices that can set the conditions for healing, rather than trying to magic ourselves well. That's something that we have no power over.
3. Allow for setbacks
You can set yourself an intention to allow for setbacks. You know that your energy levels will vary and that your illness is unpredictable. But it’s not helpful to let a bad day or week throw you off of your progress. If you set realistic expectations for yourself from the start, I think you will find that setbacks are all part of the process. Know that EVERYBODY needs days off and time to rest. Your body needs more right now because it is sick and needs to heal. If you feel worse now than you did a month ago, allow yourself to rest more and ease your activity levels. Let go of the expectation to always move forward. Allow yourself the self-compassion to have setbacks like every other person on the planet. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never get better or that what you’re doing isn’t working. It means that your body and health are fluctuating. Even just seeing a change can be encouraging. It means nothing is permanent. Your pain and energy levels will ebb and flow.
In our yoga and mindfulness practice, we are meant to be non-striving. Yet, it’s still possible to set goals and intentions to help you move forwards. What are your experiences with goal setting with a chronic illness?