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Why 'You're So Strong' Isn't Always a Compliment for Those With Chronic Illness

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“You’re so strong.”

“Your strength is inspiring.”

“I wouldn’t be strong enough to live with a chronic illness like you do.”

“I’d just give up if I were you.”

Perhaps these, or similar, sentences sound familiar. And perhaps reflecting back you realize you’ve been saying things like that to your chronically ill/disabled family member or a friend or even strangers, or maybe you’ve been told them as an ill person yourself. I’ve certainly been told something of the sort more than a few times, but instead of them being flattering, they made me feel uncomfortable for few reasons that I’ve been trying to pinpoint. That’s what I am going to do here to either help if you’re searching for words as to why it bothers you to be told that or to explain why it’s not a compliment or something I appreciate being told.

I believe people mean well when they tell me something like this as a chronically ill person. And while it’s admittedly better than someone trying to say my chronic illness and my pain is no issue and acting like my chronic illness is something relatable (like when an able-bodied person says they had a flu last week so they can imagine what I’m going through), or trying to brush it off altogether, it doesn’t sit well with me nonetheless.

And for that reason, it’s way more difficult to turn around, find the words and tell the said person it’s not actually a compliment – as are not many ableist things people say and think of as being nice. And there’s always that experience of people being ableist and then being offended when you are not appreciative of their remarks, because “they were just being nice.”


I get that I might seem strong because I go through a lot of struggle daily, and it might be an automatic reaction to wonder what you’d do in someone’s situation like that, but there’s no need to share that with me, as not only does it not make me feel well, but I also have nothing to say to it without the probability of the person turning around and saying, “But I was just trying to compliment you.”

Although most of these remarks might be well-intentioned, most people seem to not be aware of what meaning their words hold and what they are actually telling me. But I myself am also aware that without me telling people what the words sound like to me, they’ll hardly know.

I am in pain every single day and have nothing to fight it with, I am left unable to do many things and there are different ways of dealing with these things for me. What people don’t know is that sometimes I lie on the floor in desperate need of a cold, soothing surface, I cry almost every single day, I feel so exhausted that breathing feels like too much work at times, that I am just doing everything I can to exist and I don’t feel strong at all.

I found that for me, the first issue with being called strong for living with a chronic illness is that it brushes away my struggle and my feelings. I rarely feel strong. Sure, there are days when I feel better and try to do as many things as possible and there are days when I feel stronger because I managed to rest for once, and sure, I do feel like my struggle and experience has given me some strength to deal with other things in the future but mostly, in the physical sense, I feel awfully weak all the time. Mentally, I went through rough times, especially because of my physical chronic illness, developed some mental health issues because of it and am still going through a rough time.

The struggle, the pain – it’s a part of my everyday life.

Just because people don’t know it – whether it’s because people actually don’t want to hear about these things, or because I have no desire to share such intimate information with strangers or acquaintances and there’s rarely a space in conversation for me to speak about it, or whether I simply present myself like that, be it on social media or in reality (because let’s be honest, I don’t need to share every detail of what my illness puts me through and if I do it’s not always acceptable by society’s measures as I end up getting called attention-seeker most of the time or am not taken seriously) – doesn’t make it disappear from my life. It’s still there. It’s my life and it’s the only option for me.

And here we come to another reason: what it all comes down to in the end is that we are all just doing the same thing here – existing. I’m just doing what I do, going through every day, to survive, to live.

Somehow, a common reaction seems to be someone saying they would just give up if they were me. There’s more than one thing wrong with that. First of all, your reaction shouldn’t be you framing yourself negatively and try to pay compliments to me through that.

Saying you couldn’t deal with being chronically ill is simply not the truth either. The truth is that anyone can be or become chronically ill. Nobody asked me if I wanted to wake up in pain every single morning. It just happened and so now, I just exist with it. And if something similar happened to you, you’d have to deal with it your own way but you would have to, because that’s just how it is. You would do what it takes to live your life and continue on however you can.

Because guess what? We do want to live our lives too. Our illnesses and disabilities are not the only parts of us – we still have dreams and feelings, we want to achieve things and make the most we can of our lives. We are still human. And so would you be, too.

So by telling me you would just give up, you are telling me you think my life as a chronically ill person is so terrible I should just give up on living it. There’s a difference between pity and empathy as well as between acknowledging the struggle of a chronic illness and making it seem like my life is unworthy because of it. But it is not; our lives are of so much worth.

Among people not knowing everything about my life and how I deal with my illness lies another thing: if I dealt with it differently, it wouldn’t make me any stronger or weaker, it would just be exactly what it is – me dealing with it differently.

Yesterday I thought I wouldn’t get out of bed but I did it and made it through the day somehow, in my own way. But if someone in my position stayed in bed, it doesn’t make them any weaker than I am.

Today I was told by a doctor that they’ve run out of options for me and I walked out of the hospital crying, feeling hopeless and shattered once again. If someone was in my shoes and didn’t cry, left the hospital with their head held high, it wouldn’t make them any stronger than I am.

I am used to high pain levels because they’ve become my normal. When I first got to the pain level that is now my normal I felt like I couldn’t make it through. I cried. It is now my normal and I know I will make it through, but it doesn’t make past me weak, just as it doesn’t make me any stronger than any other person who would cry at my normal pain levels.

Would you tell that person they’re weaker than me, because they cope with the same situation differently?

At the end of the day, what you’re telling me is I am so strong for living my life, but trust me, you’d do it too, because an illness doesn’t ask whether you want it or not. And me living with the daily struggles of chronic illness certainly shouldn’t be your reminder of how fortunate and lucky you are. It shouldn’t be your inspiration – I am not your inspiration because I chose to live.

I hope this either helps you find the words to reply to people who try to compliment you the wrong way or teaches you something, because I am aware this isn’t only a pet peeve of mine.

And one last reminder: When I tell you I do not, in fact, feel strong, don’t say: “No, you are so strong, you’re so inspiring!” You can say, “I love you and I’m here for you,” or you can say, “I’m here to listen if you need me to, or I can distract you, too,” but don’t brush away what we are trying to tell you. As always, listening to what others are trying to tell you is the most important.

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Thinkstock photo via agsandrew.

Originally published: August 18, 2017
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