Do You Gaslight Your Own Chronic Pain Experience?
One paradox that I have discovered in my nine years living with daily chronic pain is this — despite the fact that I am the person most intimately aware of how severe the pain is, there is also a part of me that minimizes and questions its validity much of the time.
“Gaslighting” refers to: psychological manipulation that causes a person to question or doubt their sanity, judgment, experience and memories.
Whenever I read about gaslighting, I think to myself, “wow, that’s so awful.” And yet, in some ways, it’s something I do to myself on a fairly regular basis as a result of balancing on the tightrope of living with chronic pain and trying to interact with the world.
There are times, especially when I’m experiencing high pain, where my inner critic runs wild with thoughts that fuel a gaslighting loop with seemingly endless ammunition:
Is the pain really that bad?
Am I exaggerating?
Why do others seem to handle this much better than me?
I should be able to do more than this, shouldn’t I?
If I really cared, wouldn’t I push through?
If I were really a hard worker, I wouldn’t let this pain slow me down!
What is most shocking to me about the phenomenon of gaslighting my own chronic pain experience is how persistent the habit can be. I find myself doing it much too often, and much too easily, even as I work to cultivate a healthy mindset and toolbox of coping skills.
Since my journey with chronic illness began, I’ve devoted hundreds of hours to working on improving the relationship between my mind and body, to finding a way to exist with more peace and acceptance alongside debilitating physical pain.
Today, I have a strong foundation of soul-care practices that guide my days and I feel a deep sense of self-love toward myself — a type of acceptance that I didn’t know I was capable of when my journey began. And still, there are times when the cruelest and most critical voice in the room about my experience with chronic pain and illness is the one in my own mind.
Recently, on one of my Instagram stories I shared about the fact that sometimes, when I’m around other people, I find myself “forgetting” that everyone else isn’t also masking an intense struggle with physical pain. I look around at smiling faces, friends laughing and drinking and talking with ease — and slip into thinking, “See? They’re doing it, why is it so hard for you?”
Managing pain has become such a normal part of my life, I can forget that everyone else isn’t having a similar experience. I forget that they are not busy wondering if they should take rescue medication to manage symptoms that have kicked up while they try to follow the group conversation. They are not considering whether it would seem odd to ask the host if it would be possible to lie down in a darkened room for a little while. Nor are they diligently avoiding trigger foods and alcohol, stepping outside to quickly eat the “approved” snacks packed in their purse while doing breathing exercises to try and calm their nervous system.
As I go down this spiral, at some point, it usually hits me that it feels hard for me because it is different for me.
Most of the time, the people I am with aren’t just “acting” like they’re not in physical pain; they are actually, truly, really not in physical pain.
This absurdly obvious revelation genuinely helps me soften towards myself and pump the brakes on self-gaslighting thought spirals. In this way, I can turn down the volume of my self-criticism and crank up the volume of my self-compassion. In these moments of mindfulness, it’s clear to me that I can get so swept up in using my mental and physical energy to push through pain that I forget to validate just how hard, and just how real, my experience of it is.
This awareness reminds me of the truth that if I knew any of the people around me were experiencing what I was and felt how I felt, I’d be the first one to urge them to go rest in our guest room, take medication, leave early, or do whatever they needed to do to take care of themselves. Without hesitation, I would kindly reassure them that doing so is allowed, OK and important. I wouldn’t ever put the kind of pressure on someone I love who is hurting that I so frequently berate myself with.
Part of my journey toward loving myself unconditionally has involved learning to recognize and interrupt this pattern of minimizing my experience. It’s not something I’ve been able to fix with a single moment of epiphany; rather it has taken having a consistent commitment to kindness, to “catch and release” any thoughts of gaslighting and replace them with compassion, over and over and over again.
Another way I have addressed this damaging habit has been to talk about the struggle I so often deal with in the privacy of my mind with my closest friends and family. These conversations help them to be more aware of the inner turmoil I often hide behind a smiling face and cheery conversation and help me by nudging me toward taking the steps I need to take to care of myself. Invisible illness is a tricky path to navigate, and when I do catch myself gaslighting my pain, I try to take a deep breath and release frustration. I allow the thought, “oh, how human of me” to wash through my being. I remember that with every new inhale and exhale, I have the opportunity to make a new choice about the script running through my mind and the way I would like to respond to my “now” moment.
I hope that if you live with chronic pain (or love someone living with chronic pain) these gentle tools will help you learn to reframe your thoughts too. And if it’s one of those days when you need a reminder that what you’re going through is real and true, here it is:
What you are going through is real and true.
Read the words, put your hand on your heart and take a breath.
Inhale, what I am experiencing is real and true.
Exhale, I release resistance and embrace myself with love, exactly as I am.