Pain Companion: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

By Sarah Anne Shockley, Columnist

Coming to grips with the fact that we’re living in chronic pain can be incredibly challenging and distressing. To help us get through, we tell ourselves stories – reasons, excuses and rationales – to cope with and explain a difficult situation.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But sometimes we get stuck in a particular story which may impede us from getting to the next step or level in healing. Getting stuck in a story can make us think there isn’t really a next anything.

I’ll describe a few of the common stories, not to make anyone feel bad, but to remind us  that there are a variety of ways we can hold our situation in our minds and our emotions, and that some stories may be more useful than others. By knowing there are different perspectives, maybe we will be less apt to get stuck in any one of them.

It’s Only a Flesh Wound

This is often the first story we tell ourselves, sometimes even when we’re in pretty dire straits. It’s extremely hard to accept a severe illness or injury as a reality, and we may feel that if we let that truth in, it’s letting the pain win.

But we can’t stay in denial forever if we want to move on in life. We have to face our situation head on, even if it means accepting the fact that moving forward means we are moving forward with pain for a time. Maybe a long time.

Keep My Seat, I’ll Be Right Back

This is another flavor of denial that we often adopt once we’ve accepted that we’re dealing with more than a flesh wound. We tell ourselves that it may look bad, but it will be over soon. Not a terrible thing to believe, if it helps us get through the day.

On the other hand, if we sit in this story overly long, we may be avoiding some things we really need to deal with: That life has changed, that we need to make some accommodations, and that we may have to look at how pain is affecting our work life and relationships.

We may also be ignoring medical or alternative approaches that could really help us. We’re choosing the story that we’re not going to be doing this for long, so why initiate a long-term pain management protocol?

The Answer is Just Around the Corner

This story is about the belief that there is one miracle cure to find and then everything will be all right. There may be, but when we tell ourselves this tale, we could be missing out on all the little, but important things we can do right now to increase our well-being: like resting, drinking a lot of water, eating healthfully, laughing more, staying as stress free as possible, and staying connected with friends.

There is No Answer

This is the story we tell ourselves when we’re discouraged. When we don’t find an answer after months and years of searching, we might decide that there really isn’t any answer at all for us, and that we are lost in our pain forever.

We might then conclude that we just have to live with the pain in a state of resignation. We lose hope and stop moving toward answers and start to dig in for the long haul.

Pain is Bigger than Me

Another common tale is that pain is bigger than we are. It is so all encompassing, so demanding, and so ever-present that it can begin to feel like it has taken over our whole world.

Yes, it may be everywhere we go right now, but it is not the totality of who we are. Pain is an unpleasant experience we’re having, but it is within our experience of life, and it is not all of life or all of us. We need to be careful not to confuse ourselves with our pain, and to remember to find ways to experience pleasures and joys alongside of it wherever we can.

Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are the only way to get up in the morning or to make it through the day. But sometimes the story is what’s keeping us stuck. I guess the question to ask is, how is my pain story serving me? Is there something I can change in it that will lead to a greater sense of hope, well-being and renewal? Then we can choose to create a different tale to tell ourselves.

Maybe it becomes the story of how healing isn’t some unknown point in the future, dependent upon one right answer, but what we do every day. It becomes the story of finding ourselves again when we thought we were lost, and the story of allowing our healing to take the time it needs while maintaining a balance between acceptance of our current limitations and positive action toward a less painful future.

It becomes a story that focuses more on where we’re headed than what’s wrong right now. And it’s a story we’re free to modify, enlarge or swap out for a new one as soon as it becomes outdated or restrictive.  

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.