Why “being your own competition” is not always a helpful mindset.

I’ve come across this phrase in relation to the negative comparisons we all occasionally draw between ourselves and others. It’s often touted as the solution: past you is your only competition! The only person you can fairly compare yourself to today, is the you of yesterday!

Considered simply it seems like sound advice, but in the world of chronic illness and disability, comparing current you to past you can be a recipe for disaster.

Last week, I was admirably sensible. I avoided going out for a walk a couple of temptingly sunny days. On the face of it this may seem like an unhealthy choice, but for someone with an energy limiting condition, it is necessary to function! I only have so much energy for my day, and I was practicing healthy pacing. Today however, was the day. I decided to go for a solo winter walk.

I hadn’t done anything too physically taxing for a while, so what could go wrong? Today was wonderfully sunny and much warmer than recent weeks, so I decided to go for it. I set out with the intention of walking along the riverbank and going to see my favourite tree. (Yes, I have a favourite tree and I think the world would be a better place if everybody else did too!)

In typically British fashion, I had to wade my way through a trail of wet, sludgy mud, which wasn’t in the game plan and is not great for my knees or hips, but I was not to be deterred so early. To be honest, I felt a childish glee knowing my boots would be caked in the stuff by the time I got home. I had waited for this for weeks. I would earn my muddy boots! Eventually, I made it to the riverbank and basked in the sun and the wildlife.

I had to admit however, that at this point I was spent. I started to curse myself for having continued the journey, chiding myself as irresponsible.

I kept stopping to appreciate the long-awaited experience, absorbing the sights and sounds around me and the giddiness I tend to feel when there is no one else around. I can stop and watch the birds without people wondering why I am there without a dog and what precisely is so fascinating about what appears to be a fairly normal looking horse. I had thought that by taking my time and stopping occasionally, my body would be less affected by the exertion. In retrospect, this was foolhardy at best. As recompense for my folly, about halfway to my destination I noticed my joints becoming weary and the faintest suggestion of discomfort coming on.  Should I turn back?

No, I decided to press on, remembering how long I had been waiting for this. I was sick of being sensible. I even managed to make it to my favourite tree eventually and say hello to the ducks, feeling slightly guilty that I always forget to bring them anything to eat. I had to admit however, that at this point I was spent. The cold makes my joints more stiff and I really needed a sit down. I started to curse myself for having continued the journey, chiding myself as irresponsible, but I couldn’t be too upset with myself because I had enjoyed the experience so much up until now. As it so often seemed, what was taxing for my physical health was positive for my mental health. How was I supposed to choose between the two? 

It was quite a walk back to my house, even if I took the smoother streets back. My hips were starting to hurt and I realised that my knees might start acting up too, despite being toasty under their neoprene compression wraps. I realised that making it back would be a struggle. Abashed, I called my mum, who luckily could give me a lift home in the car, making the 30 minute walk only a minute or two’s drive. It was only when I bent down to get into the car that the full repercussions of my walk hit me. My joints were so stiff that it was tough to get inside, and I was moving much slower than usual. Should I have gone for my walk in the first place? Should I have turned back earlier? Was it worth it?   

Being physically unable to complete the walking route I was so familiar with, and used to do fairly often, brought up difficult feelings. I spent the ride home unwittingly comparing my past abilities to my current experience. Needless to say, it was an unfavourable comparison. When you feel your abilities lessening in real time, it can hit you like a truck, even if you know your condition is degenerative. It’s a loss and it needs to be grieved. Realisation can also strike: maybe you need more support in certain areas of your life? Maybe you need help from your medical team? It is never an easy experience and it’s normal to swing from acceptance to disappointment to frustration and back. The process of acceptance is not linear. 

Disability and chronic illness are changeable and in the case of some diagnoses, progressive

As I sit at home writing this, fully thawed and comfortable, I’m trying my best to be self-compassionate. It’s a tough situation to be in, especially when it’s so tempting to play the comparison game. I know that it isn’t fair to compare my current abilities to what I could do two, five or ten years ago. Disability and chronic illness are changeable and in the case of some diagnoses, progressive. Much of Western self-improvement culture is based on the idea of a constant upward trajectory. Just keep working hard, and you’ll improve! Things will get better! But this isn’t always applicable to all facets of life when you’re disabled, and chronic illnesses are renowned for their changeable nature. 

Life with a chronic illness and disability will always keep you guessing. Just when you think you’ve mastered the art of choosing the best time to do something, your body changes and suddenly you’re stranded in the park, wondering if the ducks could somehow band together and fly you home, a la Santa’s reindeer. Acceptance is the key, but it takes time, patience, and when you can grasp it, a healthy dose of humour to get there. Don’t expect yourself to adjust before you’ve had time to grieve, to waver, to feel frustrated. You will get there. If there’s one thing that all humans share, it is an incredible capacity to adapt to change, even if it feels like an impossible task in the moment.

Comparing current you to past you is often unhelpful when it comes to chronic illness. Our abilities change, and we are often forced to prioritise certain experiences over others and make difficult choices. The missing link in the self-comparison cure is choice. While able-bodied people may be able to strive towards their goals with enough self-discipline, disabled people often have certain options taken away from them.

However, I take comfort in the fact that there are things that can’t be taken from us by disability. Our ability to enjoy our hobbies in new ways when they’re less accessible, the ability to seek out new interests that work for us, and our voice, which can push to make certain things more accessible for the broadest range of people. Instead of comparing our current abilities to our old, we can consider how we can adapt our old ways of doing things into new ways that still bring us joy. Disability may take things away, but it also lends us incredible strength, ingenuity and resilience, and those can never be taken from us.