Over the years, I’ve heard many thoughtless comments made about chronic illness and those suffering from it. (Before I was diagnosed, I was guilty of making a few of them myself.)
For example, as a teenager, I distinctly remember a friend mother’s age who suffered from chronic migraines and who wore a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses every time she left the house.
She was expressed to me her pain and rather than knowing how to empathize or ask how her symptoms affected her daily life, I defaulted to nursing student mode and asked her if she’d talked to her doctor. She looked at me with wide eyes before walking away in frustration. I had jumped to conclusions and was ready to give advice.
Less than a year after that conversation, as I was coming to terms with my own diagnosis of ulcerative colitis, I, too, was suddenly bombarded with unsolicited advice and judgments from people I never knew were so interested in my health! I was overwhelmed, to say the least, and had trouble differentiating the advice that could be helpful from the advice that left me feeling sad and confused.
People’s thoughtless comments are often just that – thoughtless reactions to another human’s vulnerability.
In many cases, people genuinely do care when they see others hurting, but they may lack the skills or experience needed to show this effectively. If they don’t have a chronic illness themselves (or haven’t cared for someone close to them who does), they simply may not understand the ongoing and daily nature of your pain and suffering.
So, they mistakenly say things like:
- “I hope you feel better soon!”
- “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
- “It must be nice to stay home all day to watch TV.”
- “I get stomachaches, too, sometimes.”
- “Well, you don’t look sick!”
Other times, people are too distracted by their own fears and anxiety, so they go into fix-it mode. They are uncomfortable with your situation and try to ease their own emotions by making you better.
When people anxiously offer advice, it may sound like this:
- “Well maybe if you didn’t eat that, you wouldn’t be sick.”
- “If you would exercise more, you would feel better.”
- “You just need to take a deep breath and manage your stress.”
Unfortunately, there may also be some people who look down on those with chronic illness and who display prejudice and abuse, whether physically, financially, socially, or psychologically. Interactions with individuals who make inflammatory statements or who blame you for your suffering are especially distressing.
So, what can you do about it?
1. Acknowledge you are triggered.
One of the biggest challenges when living with a chronic illness is feeling misunderstood or invalidated by the people we hoped would bring us comfort – whether parents, partners, friends, or doctors. Recognizing their imperfection means understanding that their thoughtless comments are a reflection of their inner selves, of their own inexperience, pain, and prejudice, and not of yours.
2. Tend to your feelings.
Sadness, irritation, annoyance, and anger are some examples of normal responses to hurt or injustice. When you feel them rise in your body, breathe through them and observe them. Try not to judge them as right or wrong, good or bad. Simply let them come and go and be gentle with yourself in the process. Release tears or a good scream if you need it. Give yourself time and space before reacting.
3. Balance your thinking.
The space between what you feel and what you do can make all the difference in how successful you are with coping long-term. After the initial shock and trauma has passed, seek out meditation, prayer, and personal study to process what you experienced. Talk with an understanding friend who gets it. The goal is to feel empowered to respond in a way that will be most beneficial for your health.
4. Choose how to respond.
Usually when we are triggered, it is because we are caught off guard in the moment. This is why taking the time to process thoughtless comments from others allows us to create tools to use in the future. Learning communication techniques, such as assertively making your needs known, offering to educate an interested person about your condition, or requesting someone’s help with a task can help you know how to respond.
5. Let it go.
No matter how well prepared you are with an eloquent response, there are times you may instead have to recognize when someone simply isn’t in a position to be helpful or just doesn’t want to understand. In those instances, it can be better to take your leave and recover rather than wasting energy on an unnecessary fight.
What are some of the comments you’ve endured that stung or caused you pain? How did you respond? How would you like to respond in the future? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
My Self-Caregiver Journal
A free digital resource with four exercises designed as a foundation for healing. Explore how your feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms are all connected.