Pain Companion: Talking About Pain

By Sarah Anne Shockley, Columnist

A lot of us don’t like to talk about our pain, understandably. It often seems easier just to live with it in silence than to discuss it with anyone. Ever.

If others have never experienced long-term pain or are pain-avoidant, it can be nearly impossible for them to understand what we’re talking about. We may be answered with blank stares or outright disbelief.

Or, what often happens is that others feel they must try to fix us. We are offered all kinds of medical advice, given the business card of a favorite massage therapist, or web address for the latest miracle supplement. Or we’re told exactly what we don't need to hear: buck up, carry on, be more positive, grin and bear it. Fending off the well-meaning fixers can be exhausting, so we just keep quiet.

And, when we do talk honestly and openly about our pain, sometimes it feels like we’re walking right into the center of it. We become very present to it, and if it also feels like we’re not really heard or validated, we’ve added another level of emotional pain and disappointment to our physical pain. So why bother?

These are all perfectly understandable reasons for not talking about pain.

So why would we talk about it?

Because the alternative - never fully expressing to anyone what we are going through at the deepest levels - is much harder in the long run.  As you probably know quite well, living with pain can be extremely isolating. We are alone in our unique and deeply intimate experience of pain.

While we have very good reasons not to talk about our pain with everyone, if we never talk about it we can feel increasingly disconnected from others, from life, and from ourselves. And I know from personal experience that this can be a very difficult way to live.

For eight years, the only person who understood the full extent of the pain I was in was my neurologist. For all of the reasons listed above, I simply never told anyone else how bad it really was. And I can say at this point that living with pain doesn't get easier and life doesn’t get better by not talking about it. That choice only increases the feelings of invisibility, isolation, and disconnection.

However, talking openly about pain is a tricky business. Finding someone who can be with us and just listen is challenging because so many think they are being helpful by trying to distract us from our pain, or help us overcome, avoid, or downplay it.

People are so geared toward ending pain that they are not always prepared to just be with us and be a compassionate witness. And some people are living with their own unexpressed pain, whether physical or emotional, and they just don’t have the capacity to hear about ours.

So, I would not advocate talking about your pain to just anyone.  It requires a somewhat selective process. There are friends and family that you would like to be able to share with who will not be willing or able. Think about the people in your life that you consider good listeners and who you can trust to truly have your best interests at heart.

Even if there is no one you know who has experienced physical pain in the way that you have, there will most likely be someone who has experienced a deep loss or had to face very trying circumstances that will give them a deeper sense of compassion for what you are going through. They may have been dealing with their own private pains and you may be surprised to find out that they understand about hiding, isolation and loneliness. If you feel there is no one like that in your life, then a trained therapist can be a good choice.

Once you’ve ascertained that this person is an appropriate choice and they are agreeable, then help them understand that what you need is a pair of receptive ears and a receptive heart, and that talking about your pain won’t make it worse, but will actually help you.

Tell them that what you are going to share may be difficult for them to hear, but that you really need them to just be there and hear it without offering anything back for now. Ask them to please hear you out without trying to change anything, fix anything, offer advice, or console you.

Before you have your talk, see if they are willing to agree to the following ground rules:

  • Listen to your story without interrupting
  • Be present with you in your pain without pity and without fixing
  • To not offer advice, just witness

Let them know that the most supportive thing they can do for you right now is not to try to make it all better or make it all go away, but to just be present with you and let you have your pain and not try to change anything for now.

You may want to tell several people, but you may also find that one trusted person who can see you, hear you, and be with you in it is enough. Then, of course, express your gratitude in whatever way you feel is appropriate and let them know what a great gift they have given to you.

And, perhaps when you are done telling your story to this person, on another day, you can offer receptive ears and a receptive heart to them.

Sarah Anne Shockley suffers from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a painful condition that affects the nerves and arteries in the upper chest. Sarah is the author of The Pain Companion: Everyday Wisdom for Living With and Moving Beyond Chronic Pain.

 Sarah also writes for her blog, The Pain Companion.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.