Much of our personal happiness and sense of well being comes down to one simple thing: How we tell the story about ourselves to ourselves.

Do you tell yourself, in your inner voice (“self-talk”), “You are brave and courageous, and have survived difficult times in your life?” Or does that voice yell at you about what you “should” have done, how you “should” be, who you “should” be?

It’s time to shut down the shaming voice for good. Time to re-frame your story in a way that makes you its hero—not its victim.

From woeful tale to heroic epic

Changing your story from a tale of woe to a heroic epic can mean flipping the tables. Instead of chastising yourself for being “weak” when something happened that traumatized you, look at the same situation in a new way—through the lens of your own resilience.

Instead of telling yourself, and others, “Look at this terrible thing that happened to me,” you can say instead, “Look at how resilient I was to pull through this terrible experience.”

One is passive—bad things “happen to” you. It puts you in the role of the victim.

The other is active, focused on the actions you take to meet your challenges. It’s about standing up for yourself, refusing to let anyone or anything—not even a chronic illness—define who you are.

Claiming your resilience

How you tell your story—the words you use, the active or passive voice, whether you are the hero or victim—determines whether or not you will be resilient, able to bend but not break in the winds and rains of life.

To frame the story of your traumatic experiences in a way that promotes your resilience, it’s important to understand and accept four things:

  1. Trauma is not about something “wrong” with you; it’s about what happened to you.
  2. We can choose what our trauma “means” for us, and don’t have to accept others’ judgments.
  3. No one is born resilient. Resilience is something we develop over time as we experience traumatic events in our lives, and it’s something we can learn.
  4. Resilience isn’t automatic; it’s a choice we make.

The last point is important to emphasize: Resilience is a choice. You choose how you are going to tell your story, which version of it you will live by. You choose whether to let a person or situation or illness be “the thing” that defines you.

Once more to make it really clear: You choose. No one else can make that choice for you.

Why I choose not to be a victim—and a little history lesson

In June 1983, a group of 12 gay men with AIDS gathered together in a hotel hospitality suite in Denver, during the Second National Forum on AIDS, held in conjunction with the national gay and lesbian health conference. They crafted a document they called the “Denver Principles,” a series of rights and recommendations for medical care providers, AIDS service organizations, and those living with the illness itself.

These men were among the first ever to be diagnosed with what wasn’t yet then known to be HIV, and were already quite advanced in their illness. There was no known treatment for HIV-AIDS at the time. An HIV antibody test was still two years off.

It was a terrifying time to be a gay man in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—the U.S. cities in which AIDS cases were first reported on June 5, 1981. The only way to know you had “it” was when you developed the purple lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma on your skin or were rushed to the hospital with life-threatening Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.

Gay people had been moving to the large, diverse coastal cities in the 1970s to enjoy the “coming out” party after the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York that put American society on notice that gay citizens would not continue to tolerate being abused by police, lobotomized by psychiatrists, and condemned to hellfire by religious authorities.

The gay men with AIDS who met in Denver understood the power of words and language after lifetimes of being on the receiving end of insults, slurs, and even medical terminology that sought to dehumanize them merely for being “different.” They knew instinctively that how people describe themselves can either empower or demoralize those facing a life-challenging medical diagnosis.

“We condemn attempts to label us as ‘victims,’” the men wrote in the Denver Principles’ preamble, “a term that implies defeat, and we are only occasionally ‘patients,’ a term that implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are ‘People With AIDS.’”

They knew that no one should be reduced to, or defined by, a medical diagnosis. Today we say, for example, “people living with HIV” to emphasize that medical treatment now allows those of us who have the virus to live with a manageable chronic condition rather than face almost certain death, as HIV infection meant until effective treatment became available in 1996.

As a health reporter covering HIV-AIDS since 1986, and as a gay man living with HIV myself since my 2005 diagnosis, I have a deep and strong grounding in the history of the HIV epidemic. I have interviewed hundreds of men and women over the years, in communities across America, and I have been privileged to know true heroes—people who stepped forward and got involved, spoke out, acted up, and showed the way to live with boldness and passion even in the face of a life-challenging illness.

I claim for myself these brave Americans’ legacy of courage and resilience. I hope you will, too.

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