This article aims to help you better understand how to talk to someone suffering from chronic pain in your life. I commend you for taking the time to read this article. It will support their healing journey and strengthen your relationship more than ever.
The following are some common phrases people with chronic pain hear. My goal is to help you see from the point of view of a person in pain. I believe that by doing so, you will be better able to sympathize with their condition, improving your relationship with them.
Phrase #1: ” I know how you feel.”
This one is incredibly common, and I understand why. The speaker is trying to help the listener not feel so alone. It is said with the best of intentions, and I am sure that your only goal was to try and bring comfort to your loved one.
But the reality is that unless you have also suffered from chronic pain, you just do not know how they feel. Even if you have struggled with chronic pain, each person’s experience is so different that I would say that, as a rule, it is best just to steer clear of this one.
A good alternative is to make sure they know they are heard and that you acknowledge that they are indeed in pain. Sadly, validation is a rare commodity for those who suffer from chronic pain. This leads us to #2.
Phrase #2: “It’s all in your head.”
I am just going to give it to you straight: when you say this to a person with chronic pain, they hear, “You are crazy.” Or even worse, “You are making it up.”
This is a very tricky subject to address because pain actually does all take place in our brains. One of the primary jobs of our brain is to keep us safe. Pain is the brain’s way of saying, “Hey! Something is wrong!”. Usually, the brain stops sending pain signals when the danger has passed. But for a person with chronic pain, it keeps sending that signal because it still thinks that that person is in danger.
The vital thing to take away from this is that the person is still in pain. At the end of the day, regardless of the science, they are experiencing pain, and that pain is negatively impacting their life. If you can remember this, you will do more for your loved one than you will ever know. Validating their struggles will help them feel loved and heard as almost nothing else can.
Phrase #3: “Just relax! You’re fine!”
Stop for a moment and think about the most challenging thing you have ever had to experience in your life. Maybe it was a demanding academic program, training in the military, a divorce, or the death of a loved one. Try to remember how you felt during that time. Now imagine that someone that you greatly admire sat down with you during that time and told you that your ordeal was “No big deal”. How would you have responded? How would that have made you feel?
Trying to make a person’s problems seem smaller than they are is called minimizing. While I think it often is done in an effort to distract the person who is suffering from their problems. But it doesn’t make the pain problem go away.
When a person with chronic pain is told to “Just relax” or that “Everything is fine,” they hear, “Your problems are not that big of a deal.” After hearing that for a while, it might even turn into, “I don’t really care that you are in pain.”
It can also leave the person thinking that they are even more broken because they can’t handle what is apparently “no big deal.”
Instead of minimizing, try to listen and understand what they are experiencing. Once again, validation is key. Help them to know that you believe that their problem is real.
Phrase #4: “It could be worse.”
The goal of this phrase, whether intentional or not, is to use the apparently greater suffering of one person to minimize the suffering of another. The thought is that by placing these two situations side by side, the listener will see that their problems are small by comparison, which will then distract them from their own problems.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. True, it may have temporary success, but ultimately, the person still has the same problems.
Instead of comparing, try and understand how their condition impacts them specifically. Ask them what parts of their life are the most difficult and offer to help where you can. This will help them feel supported and understood.
Phrase #5: “If you do more of…, you’ll feel better.”
Advice is usually given with the best intentions. We want to help those we love, and it hurts for us to see those around us suffering. The issue comes when the advice is unsolicited.
People with chronic pain, especially those who have been dealing with it for a long time, have heard it all. They have visited countless doctors who have all told them the same things over and over again about their diet, exercise habits, and weight.
While all of these are good suggestions and typically yield good results, it is my opinion that these suggestions are best made by the person that your loved one seeks out. When these suggestions are given by family members and friends, it can cause the person with chronic pain to feel like they are not good enough as they are. You will make the most impact by meeting them where they are and loving them as they are.
Watching a loved one struggle and suffer pain can make you feel helpless. But there are many ways you can offer support without attempting to “fix” them.
Sometimes a little extra guidance is required to know the right things to say and how to support someone with chronic pain best.
In conclusion, there are two ways to really support someone with chronic pain. First with your words and second with your action..
Talking to a loved one with chronic pain can be hard, and trying to be helpful or understanding can sometimes come off as insensitive or unsupportive. It’s important to remember that it’s not always about the words but being there for your loved one and standing in their corner through thick and thin.
If you need more tips, check out a blog post on Psychecentral.
Although it’s tempting to try to fix the situation, it oftentimes is impossible. The best thing you can do is listen without judgment and without trying to “fix” anything. Being helpless in the situation, being only one of empathy, will go a long way towards creating understanding and closeness between you and your loved one. Sharing experiences, stories, and feelings, it will create an opportunity for both parties to feel understood and improve their relationship. Thus, this blog post has outlined five common phrases we recommend avoiding when talking to your loved one with chronic pain: “I know how you feel.” “It’s all in your head.” “It could be worse.” “If you do more of …., you will feel better.” Ultimately, we must remember that a little compassion goes a long way!
Jamison RN, Virts KL. The influence of family support on chronic pain. Behavior Research and Therapy. Volume 28, Issue 4, 1990. pg 283-287.