Natalie Kelley, who received a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis (UC) in 2017, has since dedicated her lifestyle coaching practice to helping empower others living with chronic illnesses.

Confidence in the day and age of social media can feel nearly impossible. Layering a chronic illness on top of it? Maintaining confidence can begin to feel nearly impossible.

If you had asked me at age 16 all the way through my early 20s if I was confident, I would have told you, “Absolutely.” Looking back now, I realize how insecure I truly felt and how my confidence was just a facade I created to appear confident.

Throughout my teens and college years, I dealt with deep-seated insecurities, self-hatred, and intense anxiety that unfortunately manifested into an eating disorder. By the time I was diagnosed with UC at age 21, after years of searching for answers for my “mystery illness” — all while trying to find the will to recover from my eating disorder — my confidence plummeted to an all-time low.

After attempting to navigate my chronic illness along with the woes of my 20s, dating, life after college, and everything else in between while still facing the self-hatred and insecurities living inside of me, I finally realized pretending to be confident wasn’t enough.

I came to terms with the fact that confidence had to come from something deeper, a place of true confidence that would only come from learning to love myself.

The journey from self-hatred and embarrassment over my condition to self-love was a bumpy one — but also the most beautiful one.

Here’s how I finally learned that living with a chronic illness doesn’t have to mean feeling insecure, embarrassed, and ashamed forever just because you feel different.

One thing I learned? Confidence and self-esteem aren’t one and the same.

I discovered that self-esteem hinges more on your accomplishments and how well you think you’re “performing” in your life, which can obviously feel daunting with a chronic illness. However, confidence is more of an unshakable belief in and respect for yourself.

I came to understand that confidence is not a feeling, per se — even though feelings like nervousness, anxiety, apprehension, and fear are totally normal (and confident people still feel these things!). It’s not a personality trait or a belief in your ability.

It’s more the belief that no matter your ability level, you’re worthy — of love (from yourself and others), friendship, opportunities, joy, and so much more.

As I embarked on a self-love journey, I quickly realized: How could I love someone I didn’t really know? For years, my vision was so clouded by self-hatred and chronic illness symptoms that I abandoned myself in many ways, forgetting to pause and check in with my mind, my heart, and my soul.

In order to create a better relationship with myself, I started by carving out time for myself every single day. My symptoms are always the calmest in the morning, so I found that having a dedicated, nonnegotiable morning routine helped me.

Each morning, I now spend anywhere from an hour to 2 hours in my own energy. I read, I journal, I pull oracle cards, I meditate. I simply sit with myself, my feelings, my dreams, my grief — all of it.

Taking this time for myself helped me feel more confident. I was no longer running from how I was feeling and was learning to hold myself through all of my seasons. It helped me finally feel like I actually knew myself.

This helped me stand more firmly in my confidence and not feel swayed by others’ negative opinions, comments, or thoughts about my chronic illness. I had my own back, and I felt confident in that.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

We’ve all heard this quote at one time or another. While I wholeheartedly agree, what I think is even truer is that comparison with your past self is the biggest thief of joy and confidence, especially when living with a chronic illness.

For so long, I daydreamed constantly about who I was pre-UC. I would cry, wishing I was still the version of myself who could run long distances, be spontaneous, and go out to eat without fear.

I quickly realized how much this was taking me out of the present, removing me from loving who I am now. By putting my past self on a pedestal, I was sending a subconscious message to myself that who I was with a chronic illness was lesser than.

When these thoughts would emerge, I would repeat to myself, “My life and I are different, but not bad. Different, but not bad. Different, but not bad. Different, but not bad.” My life post-diagnosis was extremely different — but that didn’t mean it was bad.

I began reframing my thoughts around my “new” life. I started trying to find the joy within it, even if my life felt different than how I imagined it would be.

By staying more present and consciously working on finding how I wanted to live my new life while working with, not against, my body, I started feeling more empowered instead of simply feeling like a lesser version of who I used to be.

It was an “and” situation — “I miss my old life and old self” and “I recognize that me and my life now are still worthy of enjoyment and exploration.” Through this, I actually came to love who I am now, even better than who I was before. Chronically ill me is kinder to herself, gentler with herself, and more grateful for the small things.

Giving myself permission to embrace new versions of myself was a beautiful gift.

Connecting with people through online support groups and Instagram who made me feel less alone and more understood was a big piece of my confidence journey with UC.

Connecting with others managing a chronic illness like UC or other forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — across the country and even the world — opened my eyes to how many people feel the exact same way. I realized the ways I felt and the things I had to do for myself didn’t have to make me feel lesser than or “weird.” They brought me closer to people who get it.

Knowing I could laugh with my internet friends about my horrible doctor’s appointment or an awful first date (due to UC symptoms) turned these moments that used to knock my confidence into things that just felt normal within my chronically ill community.

Through this, I also recognized who in my life was worthy of continuing on this journey with me. If a friend or partner made me feel like a burden or acted in a way that shook my confidence, I no longer clung on out of insecurity and fear that I would never find anyone better for me. Instead, I learned to walk away from those relationships.

After creating a relationship with myself, releasing comparison to the old me, and finding an uplifting community, I became so self-assured and confident in my own opinion of myself that others’ opinions of me and my illness couldn’t shake me.

While going through this confidence journey, I read the book “The Four Agreements,” in which the author explained a concept called “truth systems.”

In a nutshell, this concept states that everyone has their own truth system or the lens through which they see the world. It’s composed of their own experiences, views, and more.

So, someone else’s opinion of you is a part of their truth system, but it doesn’t have to be a part of yours. Your opinion of yourself is what lives within your truth system. And it’s the only opinion that matters.

That’s why creating a strong, positive, confident opinion of yourself is so vital.

The journey to lasting confidence with chronic illness can feel extremely difficult, but it’s a journey worth embarking on.

Natalie Kelley, the founder of Plenty and Well, is a chronic illness mindset and lifestyle coach and the host of the Plenty and Well Podcast, based in Sacramento, California. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2017 and pivoted her health and wellness blog to discuss life with a chronic condition. After a life-altering flare-up in 2018 and a hospital stay, she realized her purpose ran deeper and obtained her holistic health coaching certification. She now offers personal coaching and a group program, The Path to Empowered Acceptance, which helps people find acceptance, confidence, and joy on their health journeys.