We hear the phrase “you can do anything if you try,” or something similar, throughout our entire lives; starting at preschool and kindergarten and continuing throughout school. And sure, for many children this may be true; if they put their efforts into something, they may eventually master their craft and achieve all their goals.
However, this phrase completely ignores the fact that we each have our own unique strengths and weaknesses. Someone who is naturally good at maths is going to do far better in that subject than someone who is not. And that’s ok.
This phrase becomes even more illogical once you consider that it is also often applied to disabled and chronically ill youth. When experiencing a disability or chronic illness, you often can’t do certain things, no matter how hard you try. So why is it being drilled into disabled and chronically ill youth that they can? Isn’t this harmful? Wouldn’t this lead to false expectations and damaged self-esteem?
You may be reading this and be thinking that I’m just cynical. This article may even be seen as a little negative and controversial. However, for me, finally realising that I couldn’t do ‘everything if I put enough effort into it’ was freeing. I’ll explain why;
Coming to the realisation that I can’t do everything I try
After a lifetime of feeling like I haven’t been achieving enough (through my grades, sport, etc.), last year I had to give up studying the course that would have led me to my dream career due to my health. I felt so dejected because all my life I had been taught that I can do anything if I try hard enough.
The thing is, I WAS trying. I was working myself into exhaustion, but it still wasn’t enough. I felt like I wasn’t enough. I felt horrible about myself, to the point of feeling depressed. However, I got back up and found another course that I would be able to study without having as big of an impact on my health. I still felt horrible, but I did my best and found that this course was a lot better for me.
Six months in, I came to a realisation. I didn’t fail at continuing with the previous course because I wasn’t trying hard enough, I failed at continuing because my health didn’t allow it. It wasn’t apathy on my part, it was an actual, physical limitation.
Once I accepted my limitations, this led me to become a lot more accepting of myself. I wish I had come to this conclusion sooner; it would have saved me a lot of heartache.
Being told that I could do anything I wanted as a child set me up for a lot of disappointment. And despite how harmful this narrative is, I see evidence that it is still being told to children every single day. Here are some other phrases that are often directed at chronically ill and disabled youth that also fit within this narrative:
“The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”
This one especially upsets me. It wasn’t a bad attitude that caused me to experience immense chronic pain on a daily basis starting in childhood. It isn’t a bad attitude that has left me using a walking cane most of the day to get around.
This phrase takes the word “disability”, a word that has a lot of meaning to a lot of people, and tries to change the definition completely. This phrase frames disability as apathy towards carrying out tasks, rather than an actual inability to carry out these tasks.
The “What’s your excuse?” comparisons
You may have seen memes depicting disabled athletes, with phrases written across them saying things such as “what’s your excuse?” or even worse, “Your excuse is invalid.” These memes basically use disabled people to shame others (including other disabled people) into thinking they need to adopt certain habits or push themselves past their limits.
I understand wanting to come up with a viral, inspirational meme, but chronically ill and disabled people should not be exploited in the process. I know able-bodied and disabled people alike who agree that these memes are very harmful, especially in an age where social media is such a huge part of our lives, even more so for the youth.
My “excuse”, as they put it in the second quote, is certainly not “invalid”. I will never be an award-winning athlete, as the constant pain and exhaustion make exercise difficult. I will never be an award-winning mathematician because the brain fog makes remembering formulas difficult. I’m ok with that.
As I said above, everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Just because one disabled or chronically ill person achieves something, does not mean every other disabled or chronically ill person can.
You can’t judge a group of people by the actions of a few, and they certainly shouldn’t be shamed just because a member of the community has achieved something that they haven’t.
“There’s no such word as ‘can’t’”
This phrase confused me a lot as a child. Mostly because my young brain would take it literally, and I knew the word “can’t” did exist. When I was presented with this phrase, for the longest time I would go fetch the dictionary to prove them wrong.
It also confused me because I knew there were things that I, and other humans, couldn’t do. I can’t fly independent of a form of aircraft. I can’t breathe underwater without using a snorkel or oxygen tank. The word “can’t” doesn’t have to be a negative word attributed to pessimists, and knowing when to accept your limits shouldn’t be considered negative either.
“Don’t let your disability define you.”
Another phrase that is often said to chronically ill or disabled youth is that we “shouldn’t let our disabilities/chronic illnesses hold us back” or “shouldn’t let our disabilities/chronic illnesses define us”. I find this to be a very naive take.
Sure, we aren’t wholly defined by our disability/ies, but what we are able to do often is. There are ways to overcome these challenges, but only to a certain extent. There are some things that, no matter how hard you push yourself, you’ll never be able to achieve.
Accepting that isn’t letting your disability define you, it’s understanding your limits and knowing there are better areas to concentrate your energy.
I’ve even had people tell me that I shouldn’t talk about my chronic illness or disability – at all. That talking about my chronic illness or disability is letting my health control me and consume my thoughts.
My disability is a part of me. I can acknowledge my disability’s effect on my life and be proud of what I achieve despite it without letting it define me. Not to mention, it’s hard not to think about your chronic pain when you experience it every minute of the day… But that’s easy to ignore, right?
While on the surface these phrases may seem inspirational, they may do more harm than good when it comes to disabled and chronically ill youth. They can lead to false hope, which can chip away at the young person’s self-esteem when they don’t achieve everything they aim to like it did to me.
Not everyone can do everything, no matter how hard they try. Instead, we should be encouraging disabled and chronically ill youth to try their hardest to achieve goals that are realistic, yet also push and challenge them at the same time.
If there’s one thing I want disabled and chronically ill youth to take away from this article, it is that you should feel comfortable doing what you CAN. With the help of those who care about you, set your own pace in life.
Push yourself, but not so hard that your goals become unachievable. Don’t let society tell you that trying your hardest isn’t good enough, because it is. Know that you are enough.
About The Author
Amy Clements is a 20-year-old who has lived with chronic pain, the result of Fibromyalgia, since childhood. In her teens she was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in her wrist, which was the result of a netball injury. Amy lives in New Zealand and studies Business part-time at University. She enjoys reading novels and writing. She especially enjoys writing about her experience with chronic illness.