navigating chronic condition

It’s actually not all about the journey. The destination matters too!

Oct 18, 2021

By Anne-Marie Sylvester, Registered Clinical Counsellor & Psychotherapist


As you can probably tell by now, this is not going to be the type of blog that preaches “recovery is about the journey, not the destination.” This is for a few reasons: First, I think that phrase completely disregards the value in having a destination to work towards. Sometimes our hearts and souls simply need that. Plus, goals are important! They help motivate us, drive us, and give us something concrete to work towards, which are elements that can play a crucial part in the challenging process of recovering from an injury. The second reason is that I personally remember feeling so invalidated and infuriated when I was told this by several people during my own physical recovery from a life-changing injury. The healing and recovery process can be so hard and can suck. So, it’s easy for other people to say that we should focus on the journey when they’re not the ones having to go through it!

However, it’s worth noting why people even use this saying at all. As a therapist who has worked with individuals recovering from injuries and chronic conditions, I have noticed a theme: an expectation to be “fixed.” This is so understandable and only natural – you are suffering, this suffering is impacting your life (and potentially the life of those around you) in so many ways, and you want it to stop. I have definitely caught myself holding high and rigid expectations to be “fixed” on several occasions. However, it’s important to consider how exactly these expectations that are tied to your “destination” are serving you.

Sometimes expectations can actually hinder recovery. It’s a paradox: insisting that we achieve exactly what we want can actually be the thing that keeps us from getting there. This is because the expectation of being “fixed” or completely “pain free” can add extra hurdles that trip us up and negatively impact our experience during recovery.

For example, I remember holding onto this expectation of being completely “fixed” after a year of sustaining my own injury. It helped me in that I had a more pleasant future to hold on to and to work towards. However, the recovery and healing process is not linear. And so, when my recovery would inevitably plateau, I was left feeling so defeated. How am I ever supposed to be “fixed” and back to where I was if my recovery is going so slow? What if I don’t ever recover? What if I stay like this forever?

The issue here is that holding onto this rigid destination of being “fixed” and “completely pain free” at the end of my recovery lead to even further suffering. It distorted my thinking to the point where patterns of scary and painful stories were emerging. It narrowed my vision so it was harder for me to be able to enjoy the legitimate steps forward that I was taking. It brought about a visceral disappointment, a sense of shame, fear, and anger. It was impacting my mental health in an intense and negative way. This in turn impacted my levels of motivation, energy, and ability to regulate my emotions since I felt constant waves of fear and disappointment hitting me over and over again. As you can imagine, this then also impacted my decisions and behaviours. My adherence to my physiotherapist’s treatment plan was faltering, not just due to the fact that I was in intense physical pain, but because I was now also holding so much mental and emotional pain too.

navigating chronic condition

So, rather than disregarding the destination and only looking at the journey, what I’m going to invite you to do instead is to be curious about what your destination looks like. Paint a picture as vividly as you possibly can – what does the finish line of your recovery look like exactly? Where are you in your life? When do you expect to arrive there? Are you completely pain free once you arrive there? Are things just like they were prior to the onset of your injury or condition?

Next, I’m going to invite you to ask yourself how your particular destination is serving you. Are you experiencing disappointment after disappointment when you compare your current situation to what your destination looks like? Are you feeling defeated from this?

Constantly comparing our current situation to a far-off destination of being fully “fixed” is exhausting. It can be so painful to notice the distance between where we are now and where we want to be. And it can also sometimes lead us to discount the very legitimate victories that we experience in our recovery, if they’re not as big as we’d like them to be.

By no means am I saying to give up on the idea of a full recovery or being pain free. But I am acknowledging that how we frame our expectations can impact us on many levels and actually impact our recovery in a negative way if left unchecked. I personally found it much easier to cope and navigate my recovery once I reframed my destination from being fully “pain free” to “being in much less pain than I am in now.” Can you see the difference? Reframing our destination can help mitigate the additional suffering that we can experience, while also still allowing us to have a goal to work towards and look forward to.

Counselling can help with this process, along with the following processes that are also specific to recovery:

  • Discovering how our expectation or destination is impacting us,
  • Reframing this destination so that it serves us better,
  • Learning to decrease the impact that our thoughts about our recovery can have on us,
  • Learning to process the waves of emotions that can arise when coping with an injury, and
  • Tapping into our strengths and resiliency.

So, start off by being curious. What does your destination look like and how is it currently serving you?

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