chronic pain hurting

In Sickness and Health, Part 2: Friendship When We're Hurting

While this blog post is the second in a series devoted to friendship with those who live with chronic pain and illness (nearly 1 in every 2 of us!), the principles are such that we'd all be wise to keep them in mind for when any of us are facing pain, loss, or suffering, in any form (all of us, at different times!). We all have to keep practicing friendship even in the midst of our imperfect conditions. Lucy Smith, who has been diagnosed with a debilitating neurological condition, reached out to me several months ago asking for my friend-making advice for those, like her, who live with pain and illness. Because I don't know what it's like to live with chronic pain, suffer from depression, or feel that my body or health places limitations on me, I asked her if she'd be willing to weigh in, too.  She wrote the first post in this series about what she wishes her friends understood about how that pain impacts their friendshipship, and I'll give her the last word in an upcoming post where she offers up friend-making tips to those who suffer from chronic conditions.  But I also wanted to honor her original request and weigh in with what I know about making friends when we're in pain.

May these tips be received in the spirit they are given: with hope for what we can develop and practice, and a gentleness for what's beyond our control.

hurting friend

4 Tips to Creating Healthy Relationship Even In Pain

  1. Give the Signal for How Much You Want to Talk About Your Condition/Circumstances:  Make it as easy on your friends as possible by either stating your comfort level with talking about your health ("By the way, I'm an open book on this subject-- you always have my permission to ask any question you want that might help you better understand my condition.") or by affirming the behaviors you appreciate ("Thank you for always asking me how I'm feeling-- it means a lot."). Or if you feel like your whole life is your health and that when you go out with friends you want an occasional break from it, then say that, too!  ("It's very thoughtful of you to ask, but I'm honestly just tired of talking about that and would love a night off from it.  Is that okay with you?") Assume that you are way more comfortable talking about these things than your friends are and they're probably worried about asking a dumb question, hurting your feelings, giving advice where it's not wanted, or bringing it up too much or not enough. Your ability to give us permission and make it a safe subject (as opposed to everyone feeling like there's an elephant in the room) will help create a safer relationship. In short: teach and guide us how to best interact with you on this subject, we will fail repeatedly if left to our own best guesses.
  2. Remember the Positivity Ratio:  Research is showing us that our relationships have to maintain a ratio of positivity and negativity that stays above 5:1 in order to stay healthy.  Period. This isn't negotiable for a friendship. No matter how much our lives hurt, we have to figure out how to keep our friendships titled toward joy. In other words, for every withdrawal we make on a friendship, we have to make 5 deposits to not go in the red. Positivity can include such things as saying thank you, affirming who they are, cheering for their successes, smiling, laughing, doing something for them, letting them know we are thinking of them, or giving a small gift. When our lives are full of pain (of any kind), it is perhaps even more important that we stay mindful that our friends still need to leave our presence feeling better about themselves and their lives for having been with us if we want the friendship to stay healthy. We're allowed to complain and express hurt, but it's our job to also bulk up our time together with gratitude and love. This is a tall ask, but to ignore it will kill a friendship with even the best of friends.
  3. Practice the Verb Most Challenging to You: Give, Take, or Receive.  Both giving and receiving are crucial to the health of every relationship, but I've also recently learned about how crucial it is that we also learn to take what we need, which is different from receiving that which is offered, right? All three are important for each of us to practice. My guess is that it would be easy to either be so very aware of your needs that you feel as though you're insatiable and need more than most people can give, or that you so badly don't want to be a "burden" or inconvenience on anyone that you might be at risk of turning down acts of love when you need it.
    • If you're saying no to help because you're embarrassed or scared-- practice saying yes, reminding yourself that your friends will feel more bonded to you and your journey if they can be involved.
    • But if you find yourself asking, demanding, or begging for more-- instead practice figuring out how you can give to your friends, making sure the relationships don't center around your needs. I heard someone say the other night, "When we can say 'I don't need you,' others trust us more when we then say 'I want you.'" Your friends don't want to be "needed" as much as they want to be "wanted."
    • Or if you find yourself resentful or hurt that your friends aren't stepping up, inviting you to things that they "should" know you can't do, or exhausting you with their expectations-- sometimes we need to learn to "take" what we need.  Take the time to stand up to stretch when needed, to go rest when you feel the headache coming on, to ask for what you need. Taking is a skill that can be the most loving verb for your own health and for the health of your friendships.
  4. Prove Repeatedly that Their Pains/Joys Still Matter: When I went through a devastating divorce years ago, multiple friends stopped sharing their lives with me, brushing it off with statements like "Nothing compares to what you're going through." They worried that everything sounded like complaining over nothing or bragging about what I didn't have, whether they wanted to complain about their spouses or be excited about their upcoming wedding plans or family vacations. When we're in pain--any kind-- we have to be the ones who keep giving permission to others to have their lives still matter. We have to stop talking and say, "now tell me all about you" and assure them that they still have the right to be happy and to complain. If they don't feel like they can complain about gaining ten pounds or having a headache-- just because we have it worse-- then we can't be a safe place for them in the long-term.  We have to cheer for them, waving off any of their guilt or concern for our feelings, and mourn with them, even when it seems to pale in comparison. Just because we lost a big part of our lives doesn't mean they should too. We will tap into the feeling they are expressing, instead of judging the circumstances.

Blessings on all of us as we continue to develop healthy relationships even in the midst of unhealthy bodies or circumstances....