Turning Negatives into Positives When You're Chronically Ill

There are many ways to turn seeming negatives around when you’re sick or in pain

Posted Jun 27, 2017

Public Domain
"Looking Out the Window" by Peter Vilhelm (1908)
Source: Public Domain

I’ve written a lot about the tough challenges faced by those of us with chronic illness (chronic illness includes chronic pain). I thought it would be constructive to take what I tend to think of as negatives and see if I could turn them into positives. Sometimes I had to dig deep to turn a negative into a positive; nevertheless, here are the results of my experiment.

Negative: I don’t look sick

Positive: I don’t look sick! Okay, I admit that being told by someone “but you don’t look sick” is generally something I don’t like to hear. And, it’s the comment that people tell me upsets them the most. That said, I had an experience a few months ago that changed my thinking about it.

Five people I’d once worked closely with every day asked if I would come to a short brunch in a restaurant that’s close to where I live, so I agreed. Some of them I hadn’t seen for over ten years, some for over fifteen.

It was wonderful to see everyone, but it was also a shock. Several of them didn’t look well. We didn’t discuss health-related issues, so I didn’t know what was going on with them on the health front. I was just hoping they were okay. When we got up to leave, one of them said to me enthusiastically as part of her goodbye, “You don’t look sick!” To my astonishment, for the first time since I became chronically ill, it felt good to hear that.

I share this anecdote to encourage you to try listening to what is said to you with an open mind and new perspective. It may not always make a difference, but you might be in for the same surprise I experienced that day.


Negative: The unpredictability of how I’ll feel on any given day

Positive: It was tough to find the positive here, but I’ll say this: It has certainly made my life more interesting. It’s true that it can lead to disappointment if I had something planned and then wake up feeling particularly sick or in pain. On the other hand, mornings when I wake up feeling even a bit refreshed have become special and lead me to look forward to the day ahead. Before I got sick, I took everything that was enjoyable for granted. Now, it’s a blessing when I can do something that’s nourishing or just plain fun.


Negative: Poor sleep

Positive: It was a challenge to find the positive here. What could possibly be positive about poor sleep? Well, for those of you who, like me, are mostly housebound, the positive is that it’s okay if I didn’t sleep well because I’m going to be home all day anyway! I can do simple things and then take a nap.


Negative: Having a house that’s messy because I can’t keep it neat.

Positive: Because I can’t keep it neat, I don’t have to keep it neat. What a relief! As I wrote about in my book How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness, I’ve decided that clean is better than neat. This applies to everything from clothes, to the refrigerator, to my bedroom. “Clean is better than neat” has lifted such a burden off my back that were I to regain my health, I’d probably stick with it.


Negative: Too many doctor appointments

Positive: I still don’t look forward to the many hours I spend at medical facilities but the fact is, it’s the only reason my breast cancer was detected. It showed up, not on a mammogram, but on a CT-scan of my lungs, which I was having because of one of my chronic conditions. So, I’ve been trying not to react negatively when I see that a doctor’s appointment is coming up soon. Instead, I look upon it as a way to ensure that some new illness or condition doesn’t go undetected.


Negative: Being socially isolated from others

Positive: Now, when I do see those I care about, it’s truly special. Before I became ill, I was on autopilot a lot of the time when I visited with friends. Afterward, I couldn’t even tell you what they were wearing. Now, I’m acutely aware of everything about them when we visit: what they’re wearing (which often leads me to compliment them, something they always appreciate); whether they have a new haircut (also often worth a compliment); whether they’re feeling well physically or not; whether they seem happy or troubled. As a result, I feel as if I’m a better friend.


Negative: Being stuck in the same small house every single day

Positive: Many chronically ill people have had others tell them that they wish they could stay home all day. I’ve had it said to me at least half a dozen times. The problem is that people who say this aren’t factoring in that, although we’re at home, we’re also in pain or feeling sick. That said, recently, I realized that there were several positives that have come out of being stuck every day in the same house I’ve lived in for over 30 years.

First, I used to complain that the house was too small, but now I love that about it because it means I don’t have to exert much energy to get from the bedroom to the kitchen. It also means that if I yell something out to my husband when he's in another room, he can hear me. And it means that if I decide to clean up a room, not only is the room not that big but, when I’m done, I’ve cleaned up a major portion of the house!

Also, I’ve come to love the backyard (which I’d never appreciated before). No, I don’t have a garden growing, although I put some small lantana plants in the ground a few years ago, and they’re thriving. In truth, I love that my yard is relatively unattended to because being out in it feels as if I’m in untamed nature, and that makes the yard a good substitute for those nature walks I cannot take.

Related to my yard is that I’ve come to appreciate my bedroom. I used to complain that it was too small—it’s smaller than the so-called “master bedroom” (which my husband uses as a study). When we moved into the house, what’s now our bedroom was a small enclosed porch. We liked how three of its walls faced the backyard so, using its walls (which is why the room is small), we converted it into our bedroom and had three floor to ceiling windows put in. When the sun comes in through one of the windows, it turns the room into a mini-greenhouse. I love it and, on most days, don’t mind being “stuck” in it.***

Those are seven negatives that I’ve managed to turn into positives. If you have some to share with us, I hope you’ll do so in the comments section below.

© 2017 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I’m the author of three books:

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers (Second Edition) 2018

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015)

How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013)

All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.

Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.

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You might also like “When You’re Chronically Ill: Giving Up Versus Giving In” and “5 Tough Choices You Face When Chronically Ill or in Pain.”