Give Yourself Credit for Everything You Do With RA

A little self-love goes a long way in seeing your accomplishments for what they are: enough.

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

When looking back at your day, your week, and maybe even your year, does a list of all the things you couldn’t or didn’t do roll in front of your mind’s eye like the end credits of a movie? You had plans and dreams and then rheumatoid arthritis (RA) got in the way and now, as you’re floundering in the molasses-slow pace of life with chronic illness, everyone else is zooming forward in their beautiful, accomplished lives. Sometimes, this is how life with RA feels, but what if what’s actually happening is something entirely different? What if you gave yourself more credit for everything you’ve actually done?

Sometimes, my life feels like a constant fight to dismantle my internalized idea of normal. You know the one—the part of you that has opinions, inevitably negative, about not measuring up to what you’re “supposed” to do, whether that’s career trajectory, marriage, home décor, perfecting sourdough bread in a pandemic, all while looking effortlessly beautiful. That inner voice is also certain that if it wasn’t for your RA, you would do it all. I know I’m not alone in wanting to tear my hair out in frustration (except because of my RA, I can’t reach my head and my nasty inner voice berates me about that, too).

But here’s the thing: It’s all a lie—there is no singular normal. There are millions of different versions of normal for millions of different people and the only normal that counts in your life is what you decide it should be. And here’s another thing: Your version of normal changes throughout your life, ever evolving and shifting, responding to the changes in your world. Just think of who you were 10 years ago or even 20—what you thought was “normal” then is so far from where you are now and that has nothing to do with RA. Obviously, chronic illness is another trigger for change, but it doesn’t make your RA-induced change less worthy or rewarding. In fact, it just might be the key to (finally) realizing how awesome you really are.

One of my previous columns talked about learning how to love yourself and your body, but clicking into your “awesomeness” needs another element: giving yourself credit when credit is due. After years of seeing only when I wasn’t good enough, I am learning to change my point of view. These are some of the techniques that have been most helpful for me:

Become the tortoise. Our world moves so fast and most people try to run just as quickly, but when you have RA that leads to the cycle of doing too much on a good day and then crashing in a flare, only to repeat and repeat when the pain and inflammation have simmered down again.

Break that habit, right now. I’ve learned that doing less than I am able every day skips the flare and enables me to do more the next day and the day after. As the tortoise learned in Aesop’s fable, consistent smaller and slower steps get you much further than a sprint that burns through your limits.

Track what you do. My to-do list is famous (at least in my own mind), so much so that it gets capitalized and discussed as The List. Its near-mythic status is partly because I am never able to cross off everything, and sometimes on bad days (weeks/months) hardly anything at all. It’s frustrating and demoralizing and makes me feel like a failure.

That is, until I started tracking what I actually do. Turns out that life happens, that urgent or even simple things get in the way, and my day veers off into the weeds to a bunch of stuff that wasn’t on The List. Grocery shopping takes longer than I’d planned, untangling insurance issues becomes a priority, or the cat isn’t feeling well and needs to sit on my lap for hours. My list has now lost its mythic status, becoming instead something that helps me remember tasks and deadlines, but the true List (with a capital L) is now the spreadsheet that shows just how much it takes to run my life. It also validates why I feel so tired all the time.

Embrace “good enough.” There is a theory in the RA community that this condition affects mostly type-A people (driven, competitive, perfectionist). Research has nothing to say on the topic, but I think having RA (and other types of chronic illness) actually turns you into a type-A person. After all, we’re constantly trying to prove to the world that our condition doesn’t stop us.

There’s a saying that “perfection is the enemy of the good” (attributed to Voltaire), but the idea was also discussed by ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Confucius. Perfection is an unattainable goal and gets in the way of forward movement. What actually makes things happen—dinner, exercising, this column, say—is embracing the concept of ”good enough.” Good enough doesn’t mean the result is substandard crap or a failure, it simply means you know where the line is between good quality and wasting your time and effort to reach an impossible perfection.

Give yourself a gold star. As kids, we get rewards for doing something—chores, homework, going to the dentist—but grown-ups are expected to do it all without acknowledgement. It’s probably unreasonable to expect the world to ignite fireworks every time you pay your bills, but nothing stops you from rewarding yourself. I enjoy putting pretty stickers in my calendar on the days I write—and yes, sometimes they are literal gold stars—but a square of delicious dark chocolate, an evening of reading, or goofing off with a friend are also excellent rewards. Spend some time with a pen and paper (or a note app) and include all the things that make you feel good. Be sure to include the tiny, medium-sized, and big rewards and use them as often as you need. Treating yourself as someone who deserves recognition and appreciation is another form of showing yourself love.

Shifting your perspective to recognizing how much you do and then giving yourself credit for it is a different way of living your life and it’s normal to take a while for it to become a habit. You might have to repeatedly hush that inner voice complaining that is ridiculous to give yourself a gold star for making a tuna salad, but it’ll fade eventually. The joy and delight that comes with giving yourself credit will drown it out. And that’s a new normal worth creating!

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, facebook.com/rahealthcentral. She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.