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Wellness

I Can't Stay Body Positive When My Body Is In Pain

Chronic illness can wreck your self-esteem. Here's how to make it just a little better.

There are some mornings when I just cannot get out of bed. Literally. I cannot get out of bed no matter how much I may need or want to.

I’ve been dealing with chronic pain and intestinal illness for a few years. Some days, I wake up ready to take on the world. Other days, I wake up with blurred vision, stomach pains, headaches and muscle soreness that’s as unpredictable as it is painful, and all I can manage to do is stay in my sheets and feel sorry for myself.

On those days, I loathe my body. I hate it for holding me back, causing me pain and essentially keeping me from doing what I want it to do. And on those days when I am angry with my body, I get mad at myself. Because I know I shouldn’t feel that way.

In a world where hourglass figures and Instagram likes create standards of self-worth, there is a growing counterculture of body positivity that reminds us to always love ourselves as we are. Through positive messaging, personal testimonies from influencers and campaigning to change the way bodies are presented in media, many of us have come to know that true beauty and self-worth are way more than skin-deep and it’s what’s inside that counts.

But what do you do when your insides feel like they’re falling apart?

“There's a lot of focus on loving how our bodies look and not enough focus on how our bodies feel.”

Keah Brown, a 27-year-old journalist and writer from western New York, is no stranger to these kinds of bad days. She was born with cerebral palsy, which affects her motor skills on the right side of her body. In 2017, she started the hashtag #DisabledAndCute to show her own journey toward self-love and to make space for other people with chronic pain, illness and disability in the movement toward body positivity.

But while Brown is on a solid journey to body positivity now, it wasn’t always that way. She had to grow into loving her ever-changing body and feeling less lonely in it, and even now some days are easier than others.

“Just because I love myself now, I still have bad days,” Brown said. “You’re going to be frustrated, angry and sad, and it’s going to hurt and suck and it’s going to feel like you’re the only person in the world with your chronic illness or disability.”

“A lot of disability and chronic pain is adjusting to the world because it wasn’t created with body parts like mine in mind,” she continued. “True body positivity is about honesty. Some days you’re not going to feel good about your body. But you have to try your best to be kind to yourself on those days.”

And part of being compassionate with yourself is knowing and accepting that it’s OK if you don’t always feel your best, added Ashlee Bennett, also known as “The Body Image Therapist,” an online counselor based in Melbourne, Australia.

“It’s almost like the [body positive] movement has turned on the people through social discourse who need it the most. It’s lost some of its meaning,” Bennett said. “It’s viewed as, ‘Just feel positive in your body, happy sunshine rainbows!’ But the roots of this movement for body positivity is actually for people who don’t fit into the ideal of beauty or the ideal of health.”

While there’s no right or wrong way to be body positive, there’s a lot of focus on loving how our bodies look and not enough focus on how our bodies feel. So how do you stay body positive when your body is sick, hurt or failing you? Here are some tips:

Be flexible with your routine.

Some days when you’re not feeling your best, you just have to do things differently than you planned, and it’s OK to do things differently.

“I know that even though I’m a writer, I can’t write everyday. Sometimes my hands will cramp and I’m just out of commission,” Brown said. “So I’ll just brainstorm in my head and try to do something like that instead of trying to push my body past its limit.”

Also, don’t underestimate the power of doing nothing.

“Sometimes keeping it moving means putting on Netflix and giving yourself the room to just be,” Brown added. “We’re taught so much that we gotta keep moving. Sometimes you just gotta relax.”

Learn your limits.

When you’re feeling really negative in your body, I think it can be really helpful to use the Spoon Theory,” Bennett said. “Let’s say we all have 12 spoons in the day. Getting up in the morning takes one spoon, maybe cleaning the house takes five spoons ... and you notice your spoons deplete pretty quickly. You have to be more realistic about what you can actually produce in a day and do in a day so you’re not adding to harmful self-critique.”

In other words, know your limits and stick to them. That’ll help make it so you’re not so critical of your body when it physically can’t do any more.

“A lot of times we tell people to push past pain like it’s not there, but that’s not possible,” Brown added. “I think those messages are dangerous. I don’t think that we should have to hurt ourselves to prove our worth.”

Mute guidance that makes you feel bad.

“People who offer unsolicited advice in general are exhausting,” Brown said. I feel like people only offer essential oils or yoga or eating differently. I’m like, I’m still going to wake up with cerebral palsy!”

While advice (like even this article) is often given with good intentions, not everything is going to work for everybody. If ever you find yourself overwhelmed by all the positive messaging ― whether on Instagram or IRL ― it might be best to just put everything and everyone on mute for a while and just let yourself be.

“Let your body be a body, and to be a body means that you’re going to experience illness. Everyone does, and it doesn’t matter how much kale you eat,” Bennett said.

Find what makes you feel good in your own skin.

“If I can be in the right pair of jeans, a nice shirt, a red lipstick and put a pair of false eyelashes on me, it’s over. I’m ready to go.” Brown said. “Every morning and every night, I say four things that I like about myself and that’s helped me mentally. What makes me feel beautiful is just the knowledge that I’m trying every day.”

If you still don’t feel good, know that it’s OK.

Bennett sums it up best: “It’s OK to not feel positive in your body. I think sometimes when we force ourselves to feel positive and just gloss over it, it can make us feel worse,” she said. “If you’re in pain, if you’re feeling really frustrated, if you’re angry, if you’re crying, let yourself feel those emotions. That’s actually the most positive thing you can do for your body in those moments.”

“Some days you’re not going to love your body, you’re going to hate it,” Brown added. “But trying every day to get to the other side of that frustration. Take your time getting out of it. Try your best. Don’t ever think you’re taking too long.”

Nobody’s perfect and no body is perfect. There are some days in which our outlook is going to be bleak ― and that includes how we may look at ourselves. The cure isn’t always going to be pushing through the pain or scrolling through Instagram for inspiration. Healing happens when we are kind and compassionate toward ourselves.