Chronic disease – the enemy within

Guest blogger Julia Culen is an internationally renowned professional coach and consultant. She chose this career to reduce the high level of mental suffering she experienced in organizations. Julia helps leaders to create structures which have a fundamentally beneficial impact on people and organizations. She shared her thoughts on chronic disease with us. 

I cannot imagine how it feels to be diagnosed with a disease that is chronic and not curable. But what I know is how it feels to deal with an inner enemy, be it a colleague at work, a hostile thought, ongoing back-pain or the nagging grief about not being able to have children.

What I know is that there are things, that we don’t have control over. The colleague, the enemy – he won’t go away. The pain is always there. The grief about not having children could be a life sentence. These things are not life-threatening, but everything reminds us of the fact of how little control we have over things, that simply happen. They just are and if we resist, they won’t become any better. On the contrary, we will feed them with the energy of our resistance. But resistance is the logic answer to something we don’t want. There is this sense of numbness, of frustration, aggression, hate, fear and powerlessness. Something I know, too – something I learned from my years of consulting & coaching people as well as organizations and from my own life is – that we always have choices. Even if we are not aware of it. No, we cannot choose what is happening to us and around us, but we can choose how we react to it. How we think about it. Our story and our interpretations. This is where freedom truly lives, according to Viktor Frankl.

Sometimes we suffer more from our stories and thoughts than from the actual physical pain. Yes, life might give us pain and treat us badly, but in addition to this we are our own worst enemies, sometimes. With our own thoughts, we hurt ourselves even more. We think the most terrible things, we create an intimidating story about the why and what. We invent a hopeless future and we add mental pain to the already existing pains.

When it comes to inner enemies we might even be the ones to invent those enemies. In organizations, people often feel they are amid enemies. Yet they never feel they are hostile to others.

What is even worse is that we forget about all the good things, the helpful and friendly people, the joy and possibilities around us. These things do a great job keeping us going and alive, fulfilling us even. However, we chose not to care. All we do is to focus our energy on the only thing that is not working, because it seems so overwhelmingly threatening to us. Worst of all: it can spread – while we might start off with 1 enemy and 99 friends we might end up in a full-scale hostile environment. Eventually we feel our inner enemy is not something that is, that we have, but what we ARE. We start to identify with our condition.

Our normal reaction is to suppress, ignore or try to get rid of the enemy, even if we know that we cannot run away. Something that is meant to stick, will stick. We will try to suppress it, ignore it, fight it, but it will come back somehow or other. A different option to deal with the inner enemy would to actively face him/her/it. Look at it. Feel it. Invite it. Risk to allow the enemy to be there and look at it, just for a few seconds. Dare to investigate how it feels if we take a short break from our resistance and grief – if we just allow it to be there: the pain, the disease, the grief, or the innermost thoughts. Yes, you can enjoy the moment of actively giving in to your fears. To get to know them -one by one.

And then, eventually, we can look at the story we have drafted for ourselves. Out self-image. Who we are. We can identify all the other stories we have. Some are full of fears, concepts, ideas, prejudice, hopes, interpretations, imaginations, projections, experiences. They are only inventions. All of them. We can examine our stories: how do they make us feel? Are these stories our friends or enemies? Are they supportive? Positive? Is this a story about slow death or one about a rich life?

In one of the blog entries about her cancer diagnosis, Teresita’s son says: “My mother is not sick, because she has a disease she can live with.” This is a helpful quote. It is as true, as valid, as any other story about chronic illness. Because we don’t know anything about what is going to happen. There are so many people who lived much longer than they were supposed to live. Some diseases are not curable yet, but who knows about future breakthroughs? There is no guarantee for a long and healthy life – not for anyone. It is written in the stars. Coping with this fundamental uncertainty is part of life.

All stories are made up. But we tend to double or triple hurt ourselves. First, we are hurt by what has happened.  Second, we hurt ourselves by what we think about it, the cruel stories we keep in our mind. And third, we hurt when we are confronted with the others – with the way they perceive us. A diagnosis does not happen when we are prepared and open minded. It happens and coincides with all our inner perceptions and pictures.  We hear “cancer” and think of dying people. In my case I would be hurt by movies about couples desperately trying to become pregnant. You can’t help it, it just activates all of what you don’t want.

What we can do:

Distinguish “what happens” from your own painful stories: distinguish what is happening from what you think about it by becoming aware of your stories. A very good way of distinguishing is through meditation. It helps you to observe your thoughts and dissociate from them bit by bit. This is a huge relief and helps you to recuperate mentally as well as physically.

Take a break from your resistance: That way, you allow everything that hurts to be there, to let it become part of you, of who you are instead of denying it.  The pain, the fears, the thoughts, everything. To practice relax the resistance, just for a moment.

Rewrite the stories: transform your destructive stories (e.g. the real enemies) into your friends.

Focus on the positive aspects: this will create better conditions, give you additional energy to fight your disease and make you more open towards the beauty of life. It helps to be grateful for those things that work out fine in your life. In the end, all you must do is take baby steps towards enjoying all the things you can in your life. You might have lung problems, but you don’t need glasses. Be thankful – there are others who are blind. Praise one part of your body which works wonderfully, like the employee of the day.

– Practice “Personal Mastery”: control the things you can really control. You will find out that these are mostly your own stories; things we invent about what is happening.

Stop being the own source of additional pain (as if it was not enough), become conscious of your mind and thoughts.

– Never forget what gives you pain is something that you suffer from, not what you ARE. We are NOT our disease. NEITHER are we our thoughts, NOR other people’s projections.

Be gentle with your body, mind and soul. To take good care of ourselves. To nurture yourself as if you were your own little baby. You would feed it, take care of it, cuddle it, kiss it, hold it. You would not tell it how sick, useless and painful it is, would you?

Enjoy every day of your life. I think, Teresita has chosen a good approach.

Guest blogger Julia Culen says about herself:

“I have a strong focus on Personal Mastery and the use of Wisdom-Traditions – my approach is unusual but effective. One of my main personal goals is to help organizations cultivate three qualities essential to the development of a human and powerful workplace: integrity, presence and kindness.  I also write regular blogs about my own learnings, insights and experiences in the field of organizational transformation and Top Leadership Coaching. 

Julia currently lives in Vienna and Upper Austria.

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