How to Cope With Guilt Over Chronic Illness

It’s estimated that 60% of Americans have at least one chronic disease, including heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, or diabetes. Yet, despite millions of people experiencing chronic diseases, many feel guilty or ashamed about their symptoms. If this is you, you might worry about being a burden to your loved ones. You may also feel guilty that you can’t participate in the same activities you once enjoyed. You might also experience a sense of guilt about what you might not be able to do in the future.

If you resonate with these complex feelings, you’re not alone. Here are some suggestions that may help you.

Understanding Health-Related Guilt

Health-related guilt refers to the specific guilt someone feels about their health. This is a broad term, but it can encompass everything from feeling guilty about skipping physical therapy to skipping out on a social event due to pain to disregarding medical advice.

Health-related guilt also plays into relationships. For example, you might feel this kind of guilt in the following situations:

  • You agree to attend a social event, but that morning, you’re in such intense pain, that you no longer feel comfortable going. Later, your friend says she felt hurt you didn’t attend for even just a few minutes.
  • The house needs to be cleaned, but you don’t feel well, so your spouse takes over the cleaning duties. Your spouse makes a passing comment about the chore taking longer than they anticipated.
  • You’re falling behind on work due to doctor’s appointments and managing your new limitations. Your boss is understanding, but you still feel like you’re not adequately fulfilling your obligations.
  • You planned on going on a big trip with your adult child. However, you realistically can’t keep up with the original itinerary you two planned. Your child suggests going somewhere else, but you know they feel disappointed because they were looking forward to this destination.
  • You attend a follow-up appointment with your doctor. He asks you how you’ve been feeling since taking the new medication. However, you’ve been more forgetful than usual, causing you to sometimes skip doses. You feel guilty that you’re not taking better care of yourself.

In all of these instances, some guilt may be unavoidable. However, research shows that consistently having health-related guilt coincides with higher levels of pain, poorer social functioning, and worsened functional impairment. In other words, feeling bad about your chronic illness can make your body feel physically bad in response.

Gentle Guidelines for Managing Guilt About Chronic Illness

Guilt is a common emotion that is never inherently bad or wrong. You are allowed to feel how you feel. Chronic illnesses can certainly disrupt your emotional state, physical well-being, and daily living routine. You have a right to feel upset, angry, or guilty about these experiences.

That said, it’s hard to maintain a positive self-image or enjoy your relationships when guilt feels larger than life. If left unchecked, guilt can spiral into a deep depression, and it can magnify emotional suffering.

Here are some reminders that may be helpful to you:

Make Space for Grief

It’s entirely normal to miss the life you had before your chronic illness. With that, it’s also normal to grieve a future you might not be able to have. This is especially true for chronic pain patients.

As much as possible, try to really let yourself feel all your emotions– including the complexity of grief- without constraints or judgments. It may feel scary, but holding back or pretending everything is okay can have long-term consequences on your well-being. Moving through grief can be part of the healing process, and it can break up guilt in profound and influential ways.

Express Your Gratitude to Others

It’s true that your friends or family members may take on more daily responsibilities. With that, take time to acknowledge your appreciation for their support. Let them know what their generosity means to to you. Gratitude doesn’t eliminate negative feelings, but it can help remind you of what’s good in your life.

Be Mindful Your Feelings Are Not Other People’s Feelings

We can’t control other people, but sometimes we assume that we know what others are thinking without really knowing. The guilt may speak more to the fear that someone is angry or resentful rather than the reality of their emotional state. With that, it can be helpful to honestly talk about what’s going on. You may find that other people don’t feel as burdened as you intend they might.

Guilt sometimes coincides with the perception of who you should be and what you should be doing. For example, you may assume you should be doing more around the home. But that doesn’t mean your loved ones feel the same way. They may be more understanding of your situation- and more accommodating to supporting you- than you’re giving them credit for.

Build Community

Chronic illness can feel isolating, especially when everyday life is resuming as normal, and you’re struggling. Amid this loneliness, remember that finding community matters. Whether you start attending a support group or read through an online forum devoted to gathering people with chronic conditions together, having kinship can make such a difference.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to others, don’t understate the value of just showing up and listening. There’s something to be said about simply being surrounded by like-minded people.

Focus On What You Can Control

When the guilt starts accumulating, it’s easy to slip into a dizzying spiral of despair and hopelessness. If you want to try to intervene with this cycle, consider really reflecting on what you can control. Think about any actions that might strengthen your mental health or improve your quality of life.

This will look different for everyone. For one person, it might mean looking for a competent healthcare provider who best understands your needs. For someone else, it might mean spending time ordering groceries online- instead of walking through the shop- as this might be a way to conserve necessary energy.

Be Mindful of How You Cope With Your Guilt

Guilt is a powerful emotion that can feel deeply uncomfortable. Some people try to suppress or numb their guilt. They might also turn it outward onto others.

Instead, when you notice yourself feeling guilty, take a moment and pause. Ask yourself, what is this guilt trying to tell me? Then, ask yourself, how can I treat this guilt kindly? These two questions can help you practice more self-compassion, and self-compassion can be an important part of sitting with challenging emotions.

Consider Couples Therapy to Work On Guilt

Unfortunately, some couples do struggle to adjust to the challenges associated with chronic illness. You may feel guilty because your partner is guilt-tripping you or has expressed feeling overwhelmed by the situation. You might also not know how to convey what you really need.

Couples therapy can be beneficial for couples seeking to improve their:

  • communication patterns
  • ability to listen and attune to one another’s needs
  • emotional and physical intimacy
  • sense of friendship within the relationship
  • ability to cope with difficult life changes

Therapy for Chronic Pain and Chronic Illnesses in Austin, TX

Chronic illnesses frequently coexist with other mental health concerns, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. Coping with your condition can be challenging, especially if you’re grappling with a new diagnosis or your symptoms are progressively worsening.

I specialize in treating chronic pain and chronic illness, offering a compassionate approach intended to give you the space you need to process your feelings and learn new ways of coping with stress. My goal is to help you reclaim yourself and work toward feeling more fulfilled in life.

Whether you have a chronic illness yourself- or you are a caregiver for someone who does– I would be honored to support you during this time. I welcome you to contact me today to schedule an initial consultation.

4601 Spicewood Springs Road Building 3, Suite 200
Austin, TX 78759
(512) 988-3363

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