Fibromyalgia and chronic pain, in general, are extremely hard to cope with long-term. We learn some serious resiliency, often the hard way. Sort of get sick of needing to be resilient sometimes.
After that rocky road, and falling off a few cliffs there, I learned some things about happiness. Not like I am particularly wise. Or a guru of life. Just that sometimes we learn some brutal lessons.
The endless pursuit of The Happy
Valuing happiness could be self-defeating, because the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed.Can seeking happiness make people unhappy?
Basically, in that study in the quote above they noted those who put the most ’emphasis on being happy reported 50 percent less frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less satisfaction about their life, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms.’ Study
Happiness is awesome
Happiness is awesome. Obviously. But it’s just an emotion. It is fleeting. People who keep chasing it like it is an actual state of existence are going to be disappointed. It is inevitable. Happiness comes and goes. Like all emotions, it just is, in the moment.
With fibromyalgia, the ultimate pursuit of happiness is something that would inevitably lead to depression, for me. I can’t keep up the pace with other people as it is. I learned that a long time ago. And not being able to keep up with my peers in all the things they do leads to comparing your life to theirs. That is never a good thing.
If you create meaning in life with that comes more life satisfaction. That is more vital than fleeting moments of happiness. That is the vital lesson I have learned with fibromyalgia. It took me a while to learn that though, not going to lie.
But what about finding meaning in life? What does that Even Mean?
The meaning we find in life
Finding meaning in life is not an easy feat. In fact, I would say when you suffer from chronic pain it is an exceedingly difficult feat. There is meaning where we think there is none though. Or at least according to Victor Frankl who thought a great deal about the importance of people finding meaning in their lives, even through immense suffering.
- Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
- Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
- We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stance we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.
That last one is pretty important because when we can’t find meaning in all this suffering we must endure because it will not end then we have the freedom to how we respond, how we hold up to, how we endure, how we presevere, our Stance by how we face that suffering. Maybe that doesn’t seem like much but it actually is because by that stance comes everything else we create from there. And any other meaning we create in this life. All we are is how we percieve things to be. Humans are meaning making machines. We do it because we must. Consciously, sure. Unconsciously, definitely. If you do not make the meaning in your life… your brain is writing that story for you.
According to Victor Frank we can discover meaning by:
- by creating a work or doing a deed;
- by experiencing something or encountering someone; and
- by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” and that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”
“Frankl emphasized that realizing the value of suffering is meaningful only when the first two creative possibilities are not available (for example, in a concentration camp) and only when such suffering is inevitable – he was not proposing that people suffer unnecessarily.” … he believed that a person is “capable of resisting and braving even the worst conditions”. In doing such, a person can detach from situations and themselves, choose an attitude about themselves, and determine their own determinants, thus shaping their own character and becoming responsible for themselves. (source)
OMG, dude, Chronic pain has No Meaning
See, I can sometimes read minds. It’s a skill I have. Actually, it is something I have very much thought myself in the past. Pretty outraged anyone would suggest anything would come from suffering or pain. But I know pain is an experience in the brain. I know our brain has an emotional experience from pain. A mental experiene. Chronic pain more so. And I know our brain has to wrap a story around that to make some sense out of what doesn’t Make any Sense. And that is our belief system about pain. The story we tell ourselves about our pain. All the Meaning we wrap around it. Most of which we didn’t choose at all. But we can choose the meaning. As we go along and cope, adapt, edure, and gain acceptance we change perspectives on that meaning.
And when I did that, that is when my psychologist was able to help me see I did have meaning in my life Outside of pain. I just couldn’t see that because chronic pain is a beast and that beast made me severely depressed. Frankl isn’t talking meaning with a capital M here. Like the Meaning of our entire Existence. Just what motivates us to get out of bed every day. Like ‘m’s and sometimes more than one.
Viktor Frankl’s work led to therapies we use today
But here’s the thing Viktor Frankl’s work has led to therapies we use today to manage our chronic pain. There are aspects of his work in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Positive Psychology.
That’s because in some way we have to accept our lives with chronic pain and in order to do that our brain has to create meaning in our existence.
Again, humans are meaning- making machines. We just do it.
Once we create a meaning we can tell ourselves to help us cope better with chronic pain, we can have acceptance. Rather than the meaning we created in the beginning from just experience- because for me that was Not postive at All. We have the story that makes this all make some sort of sense. And that is different for us all.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”Viktor Frankl
In that way, the meaning we create from suffering is inward focusing. We assess our values. We assess what character traits we value in ourselves. We assess what is in our control. We focus on the life-satisfaction factors we can improve. We find the value in our lives while constantly coping and adapting to the variables of pain and the symptoms of our illness. We find meaning we can have within our limitations.
We create meaning in other ways when and if we can. Meaning is just deciding on the Why of your existence (which I suppose changes all the time). But that can be 1. creating a work or doing a deed (a purpose, or contribution to society in a way we personally value) or 2. By experiencing something or encountering someone (contributing to those around us, positive social relationships). Those are actually life satisfaction factors. Both of which involve future-looking and a sense of control over the future (this is something with chronic illness we may struggle with because we are inherently aware of the unpredictability of the future and, in many ways, our lack of control).
The life satisfaction factors that we tend to focus on first when we struggle with chronic pain and illness are:
- Are we satisfied with who we are as a person? (our self-esteem- which can take quite a blow)
- Do we have a good sense of our self-identity and value who we are? (Often we learn our self-identity is malleable and have to adapt from who we were to who we are now. And to value who we are now and the character traits that are valuable to who we are now)
- Our quality of life (Our mental, physical and emotional well-being)
As you can imagine, some of those take a lot of time. A whole lot of time. And the last one we work on, well, forever… but every teeny tiny gain is massive in our lives.
These are important for our meaning in this life because this is what pain and suffering have basically made us feel we have no control over. And meaning in our lives is a lot about freedom and our sense of control we have over ourselves and our lives. We dig down to these fundamentals because the fundamentals, the very foundation of who we are, is vital.
So yeah, the meaning we create from our experience of coping with chronic pain and how this pain is unavoidable, will not end, is our attitude and stance or the acceptance we find in the face of it. Because we have defined exactly who we are. We have defined our value. Our rights. Our freedoms. And we know those are not dependent on our productivity or on ‘what we do for a living’ or society’s concept of who or what we should be or how we should act.
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What I have learned
I know the pain I have is unavoidable. I know pain causes suffering. That suffering is the emotional and mental toll of that pain that I have to constantly deal with. I will deal with it well. I will deal with it poorly. But I will deal with it. I accept it.
I think we know the value of life satisfaction. Sure, we know the value of every tiny moment of happiness too… many more so. But we know the value of working hard on every bit of life satisfaction we can gain, every inch of well-being we can gain in our lives to improve our overall quality of life. I don’t think the meaning we create is easy to gain or easy for anyone to understand. It is the meaning of a person on a boat in a hurricane screaming I AM. It is knowing our worth, our character, our value and our sense of self. I don’t have to define my life with fibromyalgia (or other illnesses) to anyone in society. I don’t have to validate it or prove it. I know what it is to live my life.
When I created this foundation of meaning with my sense of self, my self-identity, my core values and so forth it became easier to find acceptance, I became more resilient to these really craptastic unpredictable changes in my health and functionality and I started seeking unique ways to improve my well-being that worked for me. And I will continue to do so.
So maybe that dude was right about meaning. Maybe when we have unavoidable suffering we still have the freedom to choose how to Be, given those circumstances. For many people life is about avoiding suffering– for us, it is about how to live a life with suffering and that is a damn hard thing to figure out. Who else goes around thinking ‘who am I in the face of unavoidable suffering?‘ We do. We have to. I think we change that answer along the way as well as we adapt, as we cope, as we accept, as our sense of meaning and our identity change.