Recovery Messages & News

Shame in Invisible Chronic Pain

Shame in Invisible Chronic Pain

By Alicia Saunders
Administrative Assistant at HUM

For those who have chronic pain; you know that it is not just a physical struggle but a mental one as well. If the chronic pain that is being experienced is not manifested outwardly in a way that others can recognize, it becomes an invisible illness that is only recognizable by the sufferer.

In some ways this can be seen as a helpful quality. Those suffering are not forced to announce their pain in the presence of co-workers, friends, and family. It can be shameful to admit one is suffering to those around them, but how come?

Chronic pain can present itself in many different forms, whether it is from conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis, Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, or Neuropathic pain. In the case of Neuropathic pain, the onset of pain occurs as a result of past injury or surgery. The pain nerves that send signals to the brain become overactive, even long after the injury has healed, making it completely invisible to others.

Suffering from invisible pain can leave a person mentally and emotionally exhausted. How can people understand that you are in pain when you do not look sick? Imagine telling your boss that you need to go home because you are experiencing pain in your arm from an old surgery that happened ten years ago. All the while you look fresh faced and presentable. This can lead to serious accusations of people faking their pain or being labelled as “lazy”. A common phrase those with chronic pain hear is, “you just need to try harder”. What these observers may struggle to understand is that people with chronic pain are “trying harder”. In fact, they are trying extremely hard every day to function at their peak capacity. Just because someone is not bedridden or wearing a cast does not mean that they are not experiencing symptoms that can be quite debilitating.

Friends and loved ones can often become more distant due to a lack of understanding and not knowing how to adequately support their loved one. They may make comments that are offensive and shaming without meaning to be. This exacerbates the internal shame that someone with chronic pain may be carrying. The vulnerability to this shame is heightened if the person also has Addiction, which generates a lot of shame, mental distortions, and other symptoms. The lack of validation and acknowledgement of illness can lead to feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and depression. This shame and other uncomfortable feelings can add more distress which can further exacerbate physical pain.

There are, however, things that people with chronic pain can do to improve coping, as well as to help others around them have a better awareness of their challenges:

-First and foremost, don’t be afraid to talk with a professional. Psychologists and counsellors are there to listen. Having an objective party to talk to can allow you to get your emotions out without judgement or shame.
-Provide your loved ones with information. A lot of external shaming often comes from a lack of understanding. Print out a few pages of information on your illness for them to read over. If you are both willing, you can take them to meet with your doctor who can explain more thoroughly what is happening in your mind and body. Hearing this information from a professional can help shed some light on your chronic pain. It is important to not be attached to the outcome with loved ones, however, as they may not be able or willing to engage. You can offer the information but need to step back from controlling what they do or do not do with it.
-Be patient with yourself.
-Engage in recommended self-care activities that promote physical, emotional, relational and spiritual well-being.