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Empathy and Chronic Pain

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“I love when people that have been through hell walk out of the flames carrying buckets of water still consumed by the fire.”

-Stephanie Sparkles

There is a huge misconception that people with chronic pain want, thrive even off of pity.  Many believe those with chronic pain want to be coddled and treated somewhat like a baby.  I have had many people say to me: “Oh my, so young to be diagnosed with such a disease. I feel so badly for you.  Why did you have to fall off of that bike at such a young age.  Its such a sin.”  I know logically that people’s hearts are in the right places and they truly feel for me and others who have an invisible illness.  However, I never wanted pity from anyone even when I was at my lowest point with chronic pain.  I definitely do not want any pity now at a time in my life when I have been managing chronic pain so well for such a long time and have tried as hard as I possibly can to find the good in my accident and life with chronic pain.

The Oxford Dictionary defines pity as: the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others.  I do not want people to view me as a suffering thirty five year old who has had the terrible misfortune of falling off of her bike at a young age leading her to a life to chronic pain.  However, I do want encouragement and at times empathy.  The terms pity and empathy are not alike whatsoever.  The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  People always ask me what helped me the most in my journey with chronic pain.  I learned so much at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.  I learned from doctors, physical therapists, nutritionists, etc. on how to manage pain naturally and not allow pain to take over my existence.  I learned that I could live the life of my dreams despite not finding a cure to chronic pain.  However, the best part of the program was the empathy I received from the people who were also in the program.   I became friends with people of all ages, races, genders, from all over the country.  On the surface most of us looked like your average American but we had one HUGE thing in common: we all had a form of chronic pain and for most of us our pain was not visible.  For ten years no one understood how I felt inside as pain after a long time becomes not just physical but emotional as well.  I was one hundred percent alone for a third of my life.  I was a turtle who only came out of her shell when she was desperate enough to spend time with people just as not to be alone in her pain for a few minutes or hours. The Pain Rehab Center at the Mayo Clinic allowed me to come out of my very hard, broken shell for weeks.  I was no longer alone.  I was understood and able to share my feelings/emotions with others who did not pity me but empowered me to keep going despite chronic pain.

There are challenges I face now and I do not share them with many people because the last thing in the world I ever want again is pity from friends and family no matter what my difficulties may be.  I want to be encouraged and empowered.  Pity does nothing but make another person feel worse than he or she already feels.  I love knowing people believe in me and believe in my dreams.  I do not want to hear: “I am sorry you are going through this or that.”  I want to hear: “Jessica, you are so strong.  You got this.  I have every ounce of faith in you and I am here if you need anything.”  You do not always have to be in someone’s shoes to express empathy or encouragement.  The greatest thing you can say to a loved one with chronic pain is: “I have no idea how you deal with this invisible illness every day.  You are so strong and I am so proud of you.  I am always here for you.  I believe you, you are never alone.”

A quote always sticks in my head when I write about empathy and I will close this article with this: “I do not want you to save me.  I want you to stand by me as I save myself.”

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