I used to think being positive meant focusing only on the good things in life. I was really good at it too. A friend would say she’d had something bad happen, and I wouldn’t miss a beat to respond with how great it is that a worse outcome didn’t result.
I did it with myself too. It seemed like if I let myself think about the difficult things, that it was being negative. That it could lead falling into a dark place of feeling bad and never climbing out. I once had a counselor tell me after 9/11 that thinking about what happened doesn’t make you sad. What happened makes you sad.
In that way, thinking about having multiple sclerosis doesn’t make me sad. My chronic illness and progressing MS symptoms make me sad. Ignoring them doesn’t change the fact that I have both. We’re not limited to feeling one emotion at a time, and feeling sadness or frustration with one aspect of life doesn’t preclude feeling optimistic. I’d argue that we need to feel one to appreciate the other.
To feel genuine gratitude, I need to know it’s not mandatory to stuff my feelings and be happy every moment. I can’t ignore the tough parts of my life and only acknowledge the things that make me grateful. I can’t just write a list of unrelated things to be thankful for and stay sane. If I’m feeling sad or resentful, I need validation that it’s understandable to have those feelings. If I skip this step, I’m minimizing my frustration or implying I don’t have a reason to feel bad. Once I sit with it, grieve for it, and assure myself I’m not weak or overreacting, I can then choose to focus on things that make me grateful. Sometimes it’s a quick shift, other times it’s a rough climb out of funk. Either way, it helps me come to a place of genuine appreciation in my life.
I think about it as winning a bronze medal. There’s an article in Scientific American, Why Bronze Medalists Are Happier Than Silver Winners, that I think we can use in our own lives to be happier. People who compete and miss winning first place exhibit less happiness than people who don’t perform as well but still make it to the podium. Silver winners focus on the one person who did better. Bronze winners compare their performance to all the people that tried and didn’t win anything.
When I’m grateful, I’m recognizing my efforts and satisfaction. I’m not seeking perfection. I’m looking at how amazing things already are. I may acknowledge what could be better, but I’m recognizing all the ways it could be worse. Some people seem to have a point of pride of noticing the error or the flaw in things. They can make you feel like you’re never good enough. Try not to judge yourself harshly and add to feeling miserable.
How we perceive our situation makes all the difference. When living with a progressively disabling chronic illness, things will stink and be sad and frustrating and feel too big to deal with at times. Sometimes the best I can do is know that how I feel right now won’t last forever.
The measure of success changes depending on my health. If I can participate in a race and come in last, I’m grateful that given my circumstances I can do it at all. If I feel bad, I know that’s a part of the condition and grateful for the abilities I still have. If I’m experiencing a permanent loss, I acknowledge that it’s sad to experience the loss and grateful for the time before the loss.
Strive to have a mindset of someone who’s coming in third. Or someone who’s in last place and may or may not finish. You’re still doing it.
*Stacie Prada was diagnosed with RRMS in 2008 at the age of 38. Her blog, “Keep Doing What You’re Doing” is a compilation of inspiration, exploration, and practical tips for living with Multiple Sclerosis while living a full, productive, and healthy life with a positive perspective. It includes musings on things that help her adapt, cope and rejoice in this adventure on earth. Please visit her at http://stacieprada.blogspot.com/