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Best Life Possible: Defined by our Experiences

by Kathy Mann

Carl Jung said, “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” We are deeply influenced by our experiences and this can hold us back from being our best selves. But only if we let it.

A few years ago, I was diagnosed with a lifelong illness I developed from stress. It’s called chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, or Hashimoto’s disease. My immune system, designed to protect me from viruses and bacteria, started attacking my thyroid gland. The thyroid governs energy, metabolism and a range of other important functions in the body. I believe the thyroid is the unsung hero of the body: we barely notice its existence until it stops functioning optimally.

This diagnosis was a great shock to me because I was always a healthy person. I was an ultramarathon runner for the previous ten years, I lived on a very healthy diet including fresh fruit and vegetables, minimal junk food and I had no prior health complaints. Neither of my parents had any chronic illnesses. The thought of having to manage an illness for the rest of my life was terrible news.

I’m a solution-focused person and I like to understand the root cause. When a process at work breaks, I like to put in preventative measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I like to find solutions and to make sure that the future looks better than the past. When I was diagnosed, I did a great deal of research. I tried to understand how this had happened and how to address the symptoms in the healthiest way possible. I worked very hard to get to a point where I could work a full day, be a mother to my children and carry on with my everyday life.

Of course, that didn’t happen very smoothly or in a way where I could replicate it for others. Unfortunately, our bodies and minds don’t behave like software or business processes. Being diagnosed with a lifetime illness resulted in a great sense of loss. I grieved my old life and the things I would never achieve. It’s expected that I went through the five stages of grief outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. I experienced denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance, not particularly in that order of linear precision.

Recently, I’ve joined a group on social media that helps people who are newly diagnosed. It’s an outstanding resource of information and a support network that I wish I found earlier. What I noticed though, is that some people who post on the group have defined themselves by the disease. They have accepted the diagnosis and absorbed it into their identity. When I found out about my diagnosis, I remember someone telling me not to link the disease to my identity. I strive to get to a stage where I barely notice this illness and that most of the symptoms are reversed. If my identity is tightly coupled with the disease, what then? It could act as a barrier to recovery, even on a subconscious level.

The symptoms of Hashimoto’s are ideally positioned to affect one’s job performance and confidence. Among the symptoms experienced by many are brain fog (difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness), weight gain, fatigue and depression. People might feel that they can’t study any further because they won’t manage the exams or retain the material. Or they might feel that they just don’t have the energy to accept that promotion. It’s tragic to think of highly capable people leaning out of their jobs due to an illness like this. It’s one thing to be realistic about what you can take on at various points of your life, but we should not concede to being less than we can be, just because we have a disease.

The same applies to other experiences we have had, if we let them. It’s possible to let a trauma knock our confidence and affect our ability to step up to opportunities in the workplace. Or perhaps we are recovering from an addiction. If we fail at something in our personal or work lives, it becomes so hard to pick ourselves up and to put ourselves out there again.

I’d like to compare it to a project at work. If you are faced with a challenging obstacle, something that makes it very difficult to succeed, what’s your approach? Ask for help perhaps? Or, research to learn more about the solution to the problem. Lean on your team and support network. Whether we are surviving from a trauma, an addiction, a failure or a diagnosis, it is possible to contribute in a positive way to our work. It may take some time to find our footing again, but giving up is not the answer.

Life experiences help us to learn and stretch us to find answers that we didn’t previously know existed. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be a great success despite our challenges, handicaps and set-backs? I really believe that we all possess great talents and strengths that the world can benefit from. Don’t be defined by what happened to you. And don’t let experiences hold you back from delivering the gift of you, to the world.

  • Our confidence can be impacted by a diagnosis, a failure, an addiction or a trauma
  • Difficult life experiences do not define who we are
  • We shouldn’t let our past experiences hold us back from what we can achieve
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After a successful career in corporate IT, Kathy was ready for a new challenge. She succeeded her father as managing director and owner of his financial services business. She is the author of Avoiding Burnout and enjoys writing and speaking on topics such as self-preservation, the science of happiness and working in alignment with your strengths. Kathy is a wife and mother of two beautiful daughters, and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

kathymann@talenttalks.net

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