Our journey with chronic illness is full of surprises. One of them is that we may not always feel “sick”. That’s a good thing, right? So why do we feel guilty for feeling good? And what can we do about it?
If you’re living with a chronic condition, you’re no stranger to guilt. There are many reasons why we feel guilty for being chronically ill.
The loss of our health means the loss – to some degree – of our ability to function in the way we were accustomed to.
We’re forced to downshift.
We find that we have to rely on others to bridge the gap between everything we used to do and the limitations of what we can do. It affects our sense of self, our relationships with our loved ones and friends, and our jobs.
But chronic conditions are often wildly unpredictable.
One day you feel lucky to have made it from the bed to the couch and two days later you’re feeling well enough to run errands, tidy up the house and make a dinner that didn’t involve a frozen pizza. And damn, you feel pretty good.
Now imagine that this feeling of feeling good lasted for a few months.
You’d think it’s something to happy about.
Not so fast.
This is the uncomfortable space I’ve been inhabiting for about six months now: feeling guilt for feeling good.
My myositis has been stable and I’ve been feeling pretty good, all things considered. My condition resulted in muscle loss and weakness and had severely affected my ability to breathe. Although I still have muscle weakness and shortness of breath with a lot of exertion, I’m able to do most everything that I want to do.
While I understand that this may not last forever, I am so grateful for – and happy about – this reprieve from some of the symptoms of my disease.
Do I feel as good as I felt prior to getting sick? Nope. But that’s okay. Because I finally feel like I’ve reclaimed my life.
But with a healthy serving of guilt on the side.
I’m not trying to equate happiness with good physical health.
You can be physically healthy but not happy. And vice versa.
But the truth is that the chronic illness “norm” often includes some degree of pain, fatigue, weakness, and other physical limitations, whether visible or not.
So when we do feel “good” – for however long it may last – we tend to feel happier. And in my case, guiltier.
The guilt of feeling good: Happiness Guilt and Survivor’s Guilt
Apparently I’m not alone. The guilt that I’m experiencing seems to fall somewhere between Happiness Guilt and Survivor’s Guilt.
Happiness Guilt is a phobia – cherophobia. It’s an irrational fear that being happy will result in some sort of misfortune. It’s considered an anxiety disorder, and is often associated with traits of perfectionism and introversion.
Survivor’s Guilt occurs when a person experiences feelings of guilt for having survived a life-threatening event.
My guilt of feeling good started about 16 years ago. I was fortunate enough to survive non-Hodgkins lymphoma, an aggressive blood cancer. After chemotherapy, radiation and a life-saving stem cell transplant, I survived the odds.
But so many others didn’t.
It didn’t make sense to me that people who were younger, or whose cancer had traditionally responded better to frontline treatment than mine did ultimately lost their battle. I couldn’t find any logic as to why I ended up on the right side of the odds.
Why we feel guilty for feeling good when we’re chronically ill
Before we can learn how to cope with the guilt of feeling good, it’s important to unpack why we feel this way.
Each of us may have unique reasons, but I’m guessing that we may have a few in common.
Here are a few that I can relate to:
- It seems selfish to be happy when others are suffering.
- We might “jinx” or curse ourselves and thereby cause something bad to happen.
- We don’t deserve to be happy or to feel good because (insert your reason here).
- If we allow ourselves to feel happiness or joy it will be harder to accept a downturn in our health.
- If people see us feeling well and thriving they may not believe that we’re chronically ill.
Do you recognize how irrational these are?
Great! Because that’s the first step to banishing the guilt of feeling good.
Practical ways to cope with the guilt of feeling good
If you want to dispell the myth that you shouldn’t “feel good about feeling good”, you’ll need to reorient your thinking.
Consider the following:
Remind yourself that feeling a genuine sense of happiness or well-being is good for your emotional and physical health.
This is true for everyone. But when you are living with a chronic illness, stress can make your condition worse. And feeling good or happy or at peace can improve the quality of your life.
Think about how hard you work to manage your physical health.
You’ve adapted your lifestyle because you had to. You’ve sought the best level of medical care available to you. You’ve been diligent about doctor’s appointments and medical treatments.
You’re doing your part physically.
Why not give yourself the gift of celebrating that you’ve arrived at a place where you feel good and feel happy?
Do something that you’ve been wanting to do but weren’t able to because you weren’t well enough. You deserve it.
Use the new-found sense of well-being and energy to support others.
When we feel good – when we’re happier – we’re more likely to want to provide help to others.
And no measure of help or support is too small.
Whatever your time, talent and energy allows, reach out. Whether it includes volunteer work, running errands for someone in need, or providing emotional support to others, giving of yourself benefits you as well as the recipient.
If you’re not part of a support group, consider joining one. One of the most rewarding aspects of being part of a support group is that sharing your own progress and small victories gives others hope.
Know that eveything has its season.
I believe that there’s an inherent balance in the universe; that it’s a finely-tuned instrument that will always return to a state of equilibrium.
To live fully requires that we embrace each moment, that we allow ourselves to occupy whatever emotions accompany them.
If you’re familiar with Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 in the Old Testament (or grew up in the late 1960s and listened to the Byrd’s hit song, Turn! Turn! Turn!), you understand exactly what I’m saying:
To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.Ecclesiastes 3:1
There is a time for everything. Embracing your moments of peace, happiness or joy does not mean that you are diminishing anyone else’s opportunity to experience the same sense of contentment. Because happiness, like life, is not a zero sum game.