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The Difference in Telling a Person With Chronic Pain to 'Think Positive' vs. 'Stay Positive'


I don’t know about you, but for me, there is a difference when someone tells me to “think positive” as opposed to “stay positive.” The former implies an undermining of suffering, while the latter tells me that you’re on my team. Perhaps I have a case of word oversensitivity, but I’ll go ahead and tell you more.

The Evolution of Thought When in Pain

When I’m in the grips of pain, all I want is freedom from it. When you struggle with pain over a prolonged period, the idea of freedom evolves along with it. Perhaps it began with “I need some painkillers” to “I need surgery” to finally become “I want to die.” Every action is a compromise with yourself. Another keyword difference here is “I want” versus “I wish” to die. I have no desire for death, but at this point it seems like a better option than suffering. If there’s a hell, might as well get on with it.

Encouragement to Stay on Course

When you ask me to stay positive, it almost feels like you’re a teammate who’s reminding me to stay focused. To keep my eyes on the “lifetime” destination, and to stay on course. There is a subtle acknowledgement that you believe in my pain, and that you’re encouraging me to remain positive despite it. “Stay, don’t go” versus “You’re being negative which isn’t good. Think better thoughts.”

Belief in someone else’s pain is very important; it provides them with a sense of relief because it acknowledges the reality of it. It’s not in their heads, it really is that bad. You can only go about solving a problem when you realize it exists, and isn’t a fiction of imagination.

Beyond Words

Most people don’t mean you harm when they send their regards. They may not know how to respond because they’ve never had to go through anything like it, and therefore are unable to relate. Perhaps this word difference doesn’t mean anything to you – maybe they both invoke anger or sadness, or you like using them interchangeably.

But my intention for today is simply to bring about an awareness that what you say has power; it can lift a person up, or cut pretty deep. And perhaps more than what you say, how you say it and where it’s coming from matters most at the end of the day. So if you’re trying to comfort a friend for whatever reason and don’t know what to say, you can’t go too wrong with a sprinkle of empathy and sincerity.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

This article originally appeared on A Chronic Voice.

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