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What to do when self-help fails you, according to a chronic illness advocate


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Photo: Laurel Creative

When I meet chronic illness advocate and self-love guru Nitika Chopra for the first time, in a Manhattan coffeeshop, I’m immediately drawn in by her warmth and positivity. If anyone can literally radiate good vibes, she’s doing it. But over oat milk lattes, this woman—the picture of vitality—tells me how she spent years in pain, barely able to move. And even now, she struggles with flare-ups of her psoriatic arthritis. Here, Chopra shares how she redefined “self-care” in a way that worked for her *and* her chronic illness (not in spite of it).

Back in 2001, I was at one of the lowest points of my life. We, as a country, were dealing with the fallout of one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in history; and as the world seemed to be crumbling, so was my body.

After dealing with intense psoriasis for the past nine years, I had just developed a severe case of psoriatic arthritis that would send shooting pains through my bones whenever I walked. It brought me to the edge of darkness in a way that I didn’t even know was possible and I was desperate for a saving grace. That’s when I discovered “self-help.” Cue the birds chirping, the flowers blooming, and me jumping for joy.

It brought me to the edge of darkness in a way that I didn’t even know was possible and I was desperate for a saving grace.

With a long and inspiring reading list—which included cult-favorite The Secret and dozens of books by Deepak Chopra—and new community, I felt as if I had found my happy place. Finally all of the pain, suffering, and sadness that I was experiencing on such a tremendous level was going to be okay—even Oprah told me so! Actually, according to all of these resources, it wasn’t just going to be okay, it was going to be incredible. I was going to have a healing. Life was meant to be perfect and easy and flow with the Universe. That’s if I was able to do things right.

I embarked on a self-help journey that was so dedicated and committed it didn’t leave much room for anything else. I recited the mantras, I did the meditations, and I bought all of the crystals (including an amethyst I kept in my bra to help me better connect to my spirit). I became incredibly mindful of the words I spoke, and wore a rubber band on my wrist that I would snap against my skin every time I had a negative thought. I even started disconnecting from people in my life who weren’t down with this new lifestyle. After all, if I was going to heal myself, I had to cut all negativity from my life—and that included negative people.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized I had been beating myself up with self-help. And, ultimately, I was doing way more harm than good to my sensitive system.

Most of the self-help books I was reading preached that everything begins with your mind. So if there is something that isn’t working in your life, it’s because something is not right with your thoughts. When you’re hoping a crush will text you back or are trying to manifest a new gig, this can be a cool experiment in positive thinking. But when you’re waking up in pain every morning or someone you love is killed in a mass shooting, this concept can feel cruel.

If my pain was all caused by negative thinking, how could I be so horrible to have created something this traumatizing?

I will never forget the day I was sitting at brunch with some of my dearest girlfriends in the wellness industry, close to tears as I finally began to open up and be vulnerable about the tremendous pain I was in, only to have one friend stop me mid-sentence. “Wait a second,” she said. “You are not sick. Your illness is here because you keep saying that you have an illness. What would life be like if you just declared that you were healthy right now?”

She thought she was helping me, and she felt good about that. I felt shocked to my core. The pain and suffering I was feeling was so real—my body was bleeding from cracked skin and my bones were literally starting to deform before my eyes. If this was all caused by negative thinking, how could I be so horrible to have created something this traumatizing?

In the time that has passed since that moment—during which I became a writer, talk show host, and deeply ingrained in the wellness industry—I have seen that I am not alone in this experience. I have witnessed thousands of people from all different parts of the world who thought that they had found peace in self-help only to realize that it isn’t the whole story. Where do you go from there?

Self-care for chronic illness
Photo: Laurel Creative

It would be inauthentic for me to pretend that the concepts I’ve learned from the self-help industry were categorically unhelpful. Now that I’ve figured out (mostly) how to balance it all, the tools I’ve kept empower me more than they hurt me. I love a good sound bath healing, I still find peace when I am surrounded by the energy of crystals, and I meditate regularly to stay in the present moment. I have also learned to let go of control and trust the good in the Universe more than I ever thought I’d be able to. I am physically healthier today than I have ever been and I know without a shadow of doubt that this is primarily because of all of the deep emotional work I have done with many teachers, healers, and soul sisters throughout my life.

But as a woman dealing with a chronic illness, these concepts have also felt extremely one-sided, especially when I was so desperately seeking relief.

Honoring exactly where you are is the kindest, most loving thing you can do for yourself in this moment.

What I have come to realize is something that I hope will offer you peace wherever you are. Whether you’re dealing with chronic pain, struggling with the loss of someone you love, or experiencing crippling depression, I want you to know that honoring exactly where you are is the kindest, most loving thing you can do for yourself in this moment. It’s easy to read articles and watch motivational videos that tell you to just be positive and everything will work out, but on the days when that doesn’t really do the trick, know that you are not failing. You are simply having a real human experience and it is completely valid.

I’m going to repeat that, because it’s so important: You are having a real human experience, and it’s completely valid.

My definition of self-love is the ability to be more committed to your happiness than to your suffering in every moment. It’s not about elaborate bath rituals and spa days (although, sometimes, those are important!).

My definition of self-love is the ability to be more committed to your happiness than to your suffering in every moment.

Our journey in this lifetime is about learning what your happiness looks like and then working towards that as often as you possibly can. No judgement. Some days, my happiness looks like jumping out of bed and having a full day of meetings followed by a night with loved ones. Other days, my happiness looks like nursing a broken heart after a breakup by spending some QT on the couch with the Queer Eye guys. And when my body is experiencing so much pain that I can’t even imagine that happiness is possible, I am kind to myself as I sit through it.

I am not suggesting that you throw all the beautiful teachings of the self-help industry out the window while you navigate this thing called life—I certainly didn’t. I am asking you to love yourself enough to figure out what you really need. To love yourself enough to be in the present moment with your own suffering so that you can walk closer and closer to your happiness on your own terms.

For me, that peace that I was craving so badly and that I had hoped would save me wasn’t going to come from repeating an affirmation aggressively in my mind or refusing to have empathy and compassion for my current experience. It’s the exact opposite of that. We don’t want to dwell in our suffering, but we must get honest about it. Only from that acknowledgment will our commitment to something more, something happier, be possible.

Don’t forget, you can also turn to your friends (your real friends) for support. And, how do you prevent self-care from becoming selfish?

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