Why It Can Be Difficult to Talk About Chronic Pain (and Why We Should Anyway)
Apart from the actual feelings of physical and emotional discomfort, one of the most difficult things about being in chronic pain is the experience of being alone in it. Pain often isolates and separates us from others, and seems to take us out of life.
Being in pain can be extremely lonely. No matter how understanding others may wish to be, the fact is, we often feel utterly alone in our experience of pain.
This is kind of an awful realization to have: There is no one in here with me who can completely understand what I’m going through right now.
We know that one way of moving out of isolation is to connect with others – to share, to reveal, to open up. Why don’t we do it more often? Why do we so often keep the depths of our pain to ourselves?
We’ve all seen our version of Moaning Myrtle who complains and complains about the smallest ache or insult and we definitely don’t want to be her.
There is a level of shame that comes with being in pain. In the predominant culture of the United States and in many westernized cultures, children are taught that independence and strength are virtues, and showing pain is showing weakness. We are imbued with the idea that there is some sort of physical and emotional ideal person we are supposed to be. Being in pain translates into not being strong enough or good enough.
We are often taught that in order to be this strong, ideal person, we should be able to bear just about anything, to buck up, to hide our feelings and to not be a burden on others. Admitting to being in pain, physical or emotional, seems to mean we are admitting to some apparent failure (the failure of not being perfect?), and we will very often be told exactly what we don’t need to hear: buck up, carry on, be more positive, etc.
When we do try to tell others, sometimes they don’t seem to be able to hear us. We feel misunderstood – not fully seen and heard. If the person we’re speaking to has never experienced the level of pain we’re in, or they are pain-avoidant people, it may be hard for them to just be with that level of pain. We often get platitudes as a response. Naturally, we’d prefer to avoid the disappointment of feeling unheard, so we fairly quickly learn either to downplay the level of pain we’re in to something people can relate to, or to simply hide it. Both of which lead to more feelings of being alone with our pain.
More Useful Advice (Not)
When we try to tell others about our experience of pain, instead of just listening, they often quickly try to fix it all up for us. They offer advice, books to read, the telephone number of their favorite therapist or doctor or suggest some alternative therapy. At the moment we are communicating our pain to them, we don’t need more advice – we need to be heard. We need to have our pain seen and acknowledged.
Talking About Pain Hurts
When you talk about the pain you are in, it feels sometimes like walking right into the center of it. Talking about it brings it right up in your face, and sometimes it feels like it would be easier to ignore it, push it aside or just live with it instead of talking about it with anyone. Ever.
These are all understandable reasons for not talking about the pain we’re experiencing. So why would we talk about pain, then?
Why We Need to Talk About Our Pain Anyway
Unfortunately, what happens when we don’t express the physical and emotional pain we are in is that we become more and more isolated in it.
We are having a very private experience that we don’t feel anyone else can really understand, or has the capacity to just be with. Not sharing what’s really going on, we begin to feel more and more disconnected from others. Eventually, feeling disconnected from others can lead to feeling disconnected from life itself. And even from ourselves.
It’s like living in a bubble of pain. Pain has taken over the experience of life, the experience of relationships and, ultimately, the experience of ourselves.
This is a very difficult road to be on. Believe me, I know.
However, even though it is difficult to talk about pain, and very frustrating and difficult not to be heard, the alternative – never fully expressing to anyone what you are really going through – is much harder. You are not doing yourself any favors by keeping your pain entirely to yourself.
I have 10 years of experience in covering up the full extent of the pain I was in, and I can say at this point that living with pain doesn’t get easier and better through not talking about it.
Who Should I Tell?
OK, you say, I hear what you’re saying, but there’s no one I can really talk to who will understand.
That’s what I thought, too. Yes, you do need to make a wise choice about who you will tell the whole story of your pain to, absolutely. There are many people who simply won’t be able to hear it.
Try someone you trust – a close friend, family member or spouse. If you feel uncomfortable telling anyone you know, you might want to talk to a trained therapist. Whomever you speak with, ask first if they are willing to just be a pair of receptive ears. Tell them that what you are going to share may be difficult to hear, but you really need them to just be there and hear it without trying to change anything, fix anything or offer advice.
This is harder for the listener to do than it sounds, since many of us think we are being helpful by distracting, avoiding, overcoming or downplaying pain. This is why it’s really important to lay out these ground rules before you start talking. Let them know the most supportive thing they can do for you is not to try to make it all better or make it all go away, but to really be with you in it – just for that time – to see and hear you in the pain you are in.
You may be surprised by the unexpected people in your life who have been carrying their own private pains and who really do understand and can show up as a support. They may not know exactly what you are going through because they aren’t you, but they will understand pain. They will understand hiding it. They will understand the isolation.
And, maybe when you’re done telling your story to them, on another day, you can be a pair of receptive ears for them.
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Thinkstock photo via marzacz.