The Mighty Logo

Our Health Conditions Are Not Competitions

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

When someone with a debilitating chronic illness opens up to you about their symptoms and struggles, it can be hard to know what to say. More than that, it can be difficult to understand. In my experience, people want to hear that things are getting better, rather than getting worse.

“I am sorry,” may feel impersonal and,”I wish I could help,” seems generic and meaningless because, really, you probably can’t help. However, as someone who has struggled with rheumatoid disease, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and bouts of insomnia since early childhood, I can tell you what doesn’t help: “Me too,” and, “I feel you.”

I have always been very private about my illnesses. For most of my life, I took the invisibility aspect of my conditions as a blessing. Within the past year, I have barely begun to open up about how I’m really feeling. Things have been extra difficult lately and my conditions are getting harder to mask. I am scared and I need support. However, when I do garner up the courage to tell others what is going on and how defeated I feel, I am met frequently with the response, “Yeah, same” – or worse, “I think those symptoms are super common actually.”

Important disclaimer: It is imperative not to belittle other people’s pain. That is why I am writing this article. In no way do I mean to invalidate the feelings of those who have made these comments to me. Their pain is real, too, and I know people feel the need to show that they relate… but it’s not helpful. Therefore I simply want to bring an important matter to attention and give some possible alternative responses.

Yes, you may be tired. Maybe you didn’t sleep last night or even the two nights prior to that. Maybe you have sore muscles after a taxing workout. Perhaps you struggle with particularly painful menstrual cramps. I know it is hard for you. But you cannot compare your challenges to others – it’s not helpful and it feels as though you are minimizing my pain by not acknowledging it.

Likewise, I will not compare my insomnia to someone who has been experiencing ongoing sleep deprivation for years. I will not compare my pain to what powerlifters experience after their workouts. I do not understand their pain either.

Yes, perhaps you occasionally dislocate certain body parts. But I sometimes cannot eat at all because of how frequently I dislocate my jaw. Sometimes I’d rather pass out instead of consciously breathe because I’ve dislocated a rib and it is excruciating and there is literally nothing I can do to fix it until it pops itself back into place – which can take days.

Yes, you may have joint pain. But just because you are sore doesn’t mean you are feeling similar pain to mine. My body is attacking itself and eating away at my own tissue. I empathize with your hurts, but I’m garnering my courage and going on this fragile limb of vulnerability to tell you mine. I don’t want to compare battles. I just need to know that you hear me, that you care and that you are rooting for me. I need to feel your best wishes and know that you are still my friend.

Two photos side by side of the same woman, one where she is ill and in a hospital bed looking pale - another where she is enjoying the beach in her tan and swimsuit.

If someone opens up to you about their health condition and their pain, know that it takes a lot of moxie. The best thing to do is thank them for opening up to you and remind them they are loved and valuable.

Sometimes it even helps to say, “I don’t understand, but I am here for you. Even just to listen.” A lot of the time, that’s all you can do, but it means the world. It is much more productive than attempting to relate to something you haven’t felt. Even if you are a fellow chronically ill individual, be aware that everyone experiences pain in a different way. No two bodies are the same and it can be belittling and hurtful to put yourself in someone else’s box.

It is so hard to know what to say, but there are better ways to be there for someone.

None of us have any idea about what others are facing. There is no way to know how similar we are feeling to others. That is why making attempts to relate is not the best option.

However, all of this does not mean that you should never make remarks on your own struggles to someone who is disabled or sick. We can be there for each other. Every person on this planet has a battle. Simply be aware of your timing and the way that you frame things. If somebody opens up to you, acknowledge them. Hear them. “Me too, dude,” should not be your go-to comment.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Originally published: July 18, 2017
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home