What Defines You?

Written by Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC

Many of us who live with chronic illness often feel defined by our conditions, whether it be by ourselves or by others. While this is a perfectly natural occurence, does it really serve us to be so defined, and how can we defend against such a process? 

Healthcare Providers Do It

Sometimes without even knowing that they're doing so, healthcare providers can define and pigeonhole us simply by the way in which they interact with us. They don't mean to do it, and perhaps it's entirely unconscious, but they can make us feel as if we're a collection of symptoms rather than a person, and this can be, well, kind of dehumanizing. 

Have you ever had the experience of being in the hospital, and while you're lying in bed, several doctors or providers are talking about you as if you weren't even there? Or perhaps they're talking about you as an object rather than as a person? This can be maddening, and it deconstructs us down to our very symptoms, lab results and condition, devoid of a name, history or family outside of the hospital. 

You can demand to be treated like a real human being, and taking that step can help you to also recognize the ways in which perhaps you yourself define yourself in unhelpful ways. 

Friends and Family Do It

If we happen to be the unlucky person with chronic illness in our family, we can, by default, become what is sometimes referred to as "the identified patient" of the family. And if our condition necessitates frequent medical visits, hospitalizations or treatments of some kind, there can be the sense that our condition is taking over our family life. 

In this situation, we can also speak up and make sure that our friends and family see us for who we are---in all of our complexity and humanity---and not just as our illness. They'll understand if you explain it gently and well, and ask that your illlnes, while important, not be the constant center of focus and attention. 

We Do It

Finally, we do it to ourselves. Maybe we have diabetes, fibrolmyalgia, congestive heart failure, multiple sclerosis or cancer, and that diagnosis with which we live can become the central focus of most---or all---of our attention. 

In such a case, we need to remain vigilant that our diagnosis (or multiple diagnoses) do not take center stage in our lives to the extent that we begin to lose our identity. Yes, you may have a chronic illness, but you are more than that. 

Remain Aware and Speak Up

If you feel that your illness or condition is defining you, that your medical providers no longer really see you for who you are, or that your family and friends are also defining you based on your condition(s) rather than the sum of your life and personality, it's up to you to set the record straight and request a new way of approaching your illness. 

Being chronically ill isn't easy, and living with a chronic illness presents many challenges. However, you deserve to define who you are, and you can remain aware and vigilant in terms of how you see yourself, how you define yourself, and how you are defined by others. 

Chronic illness is just that---chronic---meaning that, in most cases, it lasts for the sum of your days. So take charge of how you're defined, and stand up for a self-definition that's accurate, true, and takes into consideration the whole of you.