Restoring purpose and meaning in your life when living with a limiting illness or injury can feel nigh on impossible at times. Particularly if the illness or injury means your symptoms fluctuate unpredictably, or you don’t get support you need, and/or you have to spend a large amount of your time resting and indoors on your own.

You may feel like so much has been taken from you – your independence; social life, job/career; financial stability; ability to do favourite activities; enjoyment from those activities; roles you value in life like being a parent, son, daughter, sibling, friend. So of course you may feel that there isn’t purpose and meaning in your life.

Picture of person who is sitting in an armchair and is very sad because purpose and meaning are hiding from their life

When purpose and meaning are hiding from your life

And yet, it is so important to have purpose and meaning

It is healthy food for your psychological and emotional health, your self-esteem and sense of self-worth. I say this based on previous clients reporting that when they have resolved an issue, or found a new way to approach situations they previously found stressful or co-exist more peacefully with their illness, they felt better in themselves and that their life was more than their illness.

When living with a #serioushealthissue #chronicillness #seriousillness #seriousinjury it’s important to have purpose & meaning in your life. It's the food for your psychological & emotional health, your self-esteem &… tell a friend

So how do you go about restoring purpose and meaning in your life? Using one person’s story which was recently available on the internet, I’m going to share key elements of it and how that can help in restoring purpose and meaning.

In some ways, I feel uncomfortable writing about someone I have never met. Yet his story resonated with me. It feels affirming. That even in circumstances you would never have chosen, it is possible to restore purpose and meaning. I’m not saying it’s an easy thing to do, something like this is a journey. Just that it’s possible. It also reminded me of the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.

My thinking is you don’t get a how-to-have-a-good-life manual when you get a life-changing serious illness or injury. By sharing what I think this person is doing, my intentions are to write part of the manual in a sense and hopefully help others.

The story

Michael van Huffel has Myalgic Encephalopathy/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). ME is also referred to as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. It is a neuroimmune condition which affects every person differently and it can be very debilitating.

Michael’s story was profiled by the BBC. Here is a summary of it, which was taken from that article and here and here.

Michael had to stop working in his career as an artist, animator, Creative Director and musician, has expensive medical bills, and lives in in a one room apartment. Due to his illness, he doesn’t often get to go outside and socialising primarily takes place online.

He was given a phone on a family plan. A friend suggested they do a photo-a-day project. He started to do that using what is available to him – scraps of things, flowers, a jar, water. His range for collecting these items isn’t far, they are found close to his apartment and on short walks.

Michael takes photos, something which he can do, and makes the subject of them appear like something which they aren’t. The photos can represent the emotional state he’s in when he is taking them. Or sometimes he just takes a picture of something because he wants to. He takes the photos at night when he tends to feel better.

He mentions about working within the restrictions he lives with, how creating art allows him to feel productive, and how that is giving him hope and a purpose.

A guide to restoring purpose and meaning in your life

These are the key elements I identified in Michael’s story which help in restoring purpose and meaning in your life. Anything mentioned here about him is factual and taken from the sources referred to above. It’s not the whole picture of the man or his life. Where I don’t know something in relation to his story, you will see I use words like ‘possibly’, ‘probably’ or ‘suspect’ for example.

Along with the key elements, I offer some questions or pointers from a psychological and practical perspective with the aim of helping you apply these to your life. Anything in bold are the key points. They are in no particular order.

I am not saying that the following is any kind of cure for your illness or injury. It is also not a “tick box 1-2-3, do this, do that and you are sorted”. Nothing like that at all. Restoring purpose and meaning in your life is a journey, and like many journeys, it can take time.

Tap into your support network

A family member gave him a phone. A friend suggested the photo-a-day project. Sometimes the stimulus to make a change can come from external sources. It can also come from within you. Asking for and accepting support and help can be a hard thing to do. You can feel guilty, dependant, etc. There are reasons for that which I wrote about here. Sometimes help, when timely and appropriately given, can be the gateway to really good things for you and the person supporting you.

Have a goal

A photo-a-day, which was probably reckoned as achievable. Smalls goals are achievable and key when energy levels fluctuate and are limited. Small goals can also build on one another.

Picture of KISS keep your goal small and simple

Keep your goal small and simple

Identify the resources to help you achieve that goal

For example, Michael had the phone, support regarding the phone and for the project, finding the subject matter for the photos.

Michael is using what items he can when he can get them for his photos. This is about striving towards the goal. It requires him to pay attention to his immediate surroundings, which helps one to live in the moment. It requires thought and using one’s brain – how can I use this item? A goal and striving towards it helps to return purpose to your life.

Use your existing skills that you value

He is using existing skills – art, creativity – which I suspect he values and enjoys using. What existing skills do you have which you enjoy using? But you don’t have to use existing skills. What you choose may require you to develop new skills and that’s great too.

Be open to adapting

You may have to adapt how you use your skills – Michael now uses his creative and artistic skills via photography. This adaptation takes into account what he can physically do now. If you can’t use your skills in the way you used to, in what other ways can you channel them? A willingness to adapt is key. For some this can understandably be a difficult process. When you adapt various aspects of your life, particularly when you would not have chosen to do so, you are also acknowledging that an unwanted change has taken place. So I also advise a large dose of self-compassion and tap into available support as you do this. This can help you manage and reduce the ‘negative fight’ and its impact which can occur as you adapt.

Picture of person drinking a large does of self-compassion to help them adapt to illness or injury

Take a large does of self-compassion as you learn to adapt

Check the flexibility of your chosen activity

Michael’s chosen activity of photography is flexible. You can do it nearly anytime anywhere. Choosing an activity which is flexible in this way gives you more opportunity to indulge in it.

Choose an activity that gives you an opportunity to create, learn and achieve something

The chosen activity involves creating and learning and results in achieving something, a photo. But not all activities will involve creating a tangible thing and that’s fine. You can also get a sense of achievement by finishing a book or an online course for example. It’s finding an activity that enables you to learn and achieve something you enjoy and value.

Use the activity to connect with and express how you feel

Michael referred to his photos as being a reflection of how he was feeling when he took it. That is consciously connecting with one’s emotions and feelings. Being in touch with them, even the unpleasant ones, is a psychologically healthy thing to do. I explain more about that and how to do that here. IMPORTANT: If the emotions and feelings you experience are unexpected, very strong and feel destabilising, happen a lot, and they feel uncontrollable to the point you cannot participate in the various aspects of your life, please speak to your doctor. This is a sign that another form of help is needed (than what I am qualified to provide). A counsellor/therapist may be best placed to help you and your doctor can advise you.

Engage in your chosen activity when you can

He takes the photos at a point in the day when he feels good enough to do so. And he is regularly doing this based on the photos in his Instagram feed. You define what ‘regularly’ means for you.

Acknowledge the constraints you have to deal with

He acknowledges the various restrictions he lives with and is finding a way to work within them rather than ignoring or fighting them. When you do this, it’s not about you saying ‘yes’ to or agreeing with the restrictions you live with. Paradoxically, you end up restoring your sense of control and transcending the constraints.

Here are some key pointers on restoring purpose and meaning in your life after the onset of a #serioushealthissue #chronicillness #seriousillness #seriousinjury tell a friend

What all of this does is make room for other things you value and enjoy in your life

Your life becomes not just about the illness or injury.

Your focus turns towards these important things in your life, so you end up focusing less on the illness or injury. And while you do that, your sense of feeling productive and having a purpose is fed. This brings meaning to your life. Your self-esteem and sense of self-worth increases. This in turn helps to generates the resources within you to deal with the impact of your illness or injury.

Pie chart showing that when you have a restored purpose and meaning to your life less time is focused on the illness or injury

Restore purpose and meaning to your life through heart and soul energy giving projects, activities and people

What’s it like for you?

If you are looking to restore purpose and meaning in your life, which of the points above do you feel you can do? If you have started on this journey, what has worked or not for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you are living with a serious illness or injury, and would like support on restoring purpose and meaning in your life, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

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© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2018

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