All of Us

How Chronic Illness Taught Me to Reframe Five Major Limiting Beliefs

by Katie Critelli

Katie Critelli writes about health and wellness, with a focus on healing and re-framing the experience of chronic illness. She is also a Product Manager at BetterDoc, a company that helps patients with complex conditions find the right doctors, and is studying nutritional therapy through the NTA program. In her free time, Katie enjoys music, exercise, and exploring her new home of Berlin, Germany.

Over the past five years of healing chronic Lyme disease and arthritis, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that managing and overcoming chronic health challenges requires a massive mindset shift. It’s not possible to emerge healthy and stronger from the experience with the same beliefs and approaches to life you started with.

No one taught me more about the importance of mindset than a therapist and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) practitioner named Lisa, whom a friend introduced me to. 

As we sat down for our first session, I shared the ups and downs of the past five years while Lisa listened with a kind, open expression. When I finished, she neutrally reflected back to me what she heard: “My body is damaged…I don’t feel like myself…I haven’t been able to trust any doctors and I feel like I’m in this alone. Is that correct?”

I nodded. The statements felt like facts to me. Lisa looked at me with kind concern and said, "Why don't we see if we can find a different way of looking at things?"

From that moment on, we began to reframe the beliefs I had once considered facts. Together we not only stabilized my mental health, but improved my stress response and reduced flare-ups. Through our work, I realized that since beliefs are the framework of emotional reactions — whether joy, anger, frustration, or anxiety — shifting them paves the way for fresh responses to life. 

Of all the beliefs we addressed together, here are the ones that initially kept me stuck — and how we replaced them with beliefs that lifted me up instead.

Belief #1. “My body is damaged”

This was a subtle thought that gained momentum over time. It was repeated every time I looked in the mirror and saw gaunt skin and bags under my eyes from inflammation, or when I walked out into the cold and felt my joints stiffen. It hit me hardest when nodules appeared on my finger joints and the word “deformed” entered my mind. Even though I wouldn’t say it out loud, I felt like my body was permanently damaged and broken.

The first step in turning this belief around was adopting a trick from Neurolinguistic Programming a friend shared with me: Rather than thinking “I have arthritis” or “my body is damaged,” I shifted the belief to “Even though my joints are stiff right now (or any symptom), I’m healthy and well.”

The new belief acknowledges what is present while still holding a positive vision of health. It helps me view a chronic health challenge the way someone might view a broken bone: Though it presents a temporary limitation, I know I’m healthy and well overall and going to keep healing.

Belief #2. "I have to heal myself"

There is a fine line between taking ownership of your health and making yourself responsible for the outcome. After many disappointments with doctors and unsuccessful treatments, I developed the belief:  “I have to heal myself.” 

This belief motivated me to improve my diet, fitness, and lifestyle, but it soon became debilitating. The more responsibility I took for my health, the more weight fell on my shoulders when something took a negative turn. When symptoms worsened I questioned what I did wrong.

I ultimately learned that I can support my body and health in every way while recognizing that the power to heal rests with my body and factors outside my control. The belief I’ve learned to adapt is: “I can surrender and allow healing to occur.”

Belief #3. “Healing is going to be hard”

Managing a chronic illness can feel draining financially, emotionally, and psychologically. If I focus on the inflammation, pain, and failed treatments I’ve been through, it’s hard to rally the energy to keep trying to heal. 

But there has also been a major upside to the whole experience: healing has taught me so much. I’ve learned about nutrition, fitness, mental health, and self-love. I’m pursuing a certification in holistic nutrition and practicing strength training on a regular basis. Overall, I’ve been forced to evolve in ways that I never could have imagined to support my body and well-being. 

When I examine everything I’ve learned and how it’s changed my life, I’m amazed. I’m able to shift the belief from “healing is going to be hard” to “Healing is teaching me so much.”

So even if the healing journey lasts a bit longer, I’ll consider it a personal PhD in my physical and emotional health. And as my doctor suggested whenever a new challenge or symptom arises, I’ll greet it with the words, “How interesting. What can this teach me?”

Belief #4. “I’m not as good as I used to be”

The hardest part of having health challenges in my twenties was that they impacted not only my health, but every aspect of my life. My hobbies, relationships, lifestyle, and even personality were all affected. Even my ability to play harp — my passion of 17 years and biggest source of joy — was suddenly gone. At times, the dramatic changes in my life caused intense grief and a lost sense of identity. 

One of the most important lessons Lisa reminded me was that the source of joy is always within. All the joy, humor, love, and creativity a person ever experiences may have an external trigger, but the source is always internal. 

She reminded me that even in a period of loss, grief, and transition, I am still here. Like a caterpillar in a cocoon, I will re-emerge at some point and my joy and happiness will return, even if they are tied to new experiences and hobbies.

In the meantime, the belief I’ve found most helpful to adopt is, “I am enough for myself and everyone else as I am right now.” To practice that belief has sometimes been hard, but it’s been a major healing act of self-love.

Belief #5. "I'm limited compared to other people"

A few months ago, I hit a low point in both my physical and mental health. I was struggling with arthritis symptoms and became bitter about all the limitations I was experiencing - the foods I couldn’t eat, sports I couldn’t play, and energy I didn’t have. On top of that, I compared myself to those around me who were doing all of the things I wanted to with ease.

But a conversation with my brother one evening shifted my perspective entirely. 

As we spoke, he said, “I’m sorry to hear what you’re going through. But on a positive note, you have something every business person wants: a real problem to solve. You’ve had an experience that affects many people, you’re working through it, and it will shape your purpose in life.” 

He reminded me that though life may challenge you, it gives you gifts and wisdom for dealing with those challenges. Even the challenge itself, when viewed a certain way, can be the gift. Whenever I find myself thinking I’m limited, I remind myself the following: “I have different challenges and gifts than other people.”