How to Talk About Your Pain Without Whining


By Maureen DeGarmo

You’re in pain all the time. Many of your friends are not, and they don’t understand. How do you open up to them without sounding like you’re complaining?

This is a difficult question and one that I have personally struggled to answer. I want to be sure that I don’t alienate my friends by monopolizing their time discussing nothing but my illness. Asking about their life certainly helps balance the conversation, but that does not help me decide what to share about myself.

A recent column by Carolyn Hax, a columnist with the Washington Post, provides some very clear guidelines. She recommends:

  1. For casual friends, start by sharing “surface information, not the depth of your grief.” Share something truthful, but generic, such as whether you’re having a bad day or a good day. Carolyn’s sample phrase is, “I’m muddling through. Thanks so much for asking.”
  2. For close friends, it’s OK to guide them, by explaining what is helpful for you, and what is not. If you feel like a complainer sharing your pain, then tell them that, too. Then, listen to their response.

There can be a fine line between a casual question and true interest in your life, and sometimes it is difficult to determine on which side of the line your friends fall. Carolyn offers the following advice:

“The extent of someone’s interest isn’t always easy to read in the moment, especially when you’re in chronic and preoccupying pain, but follow-up questions are the universal sign of concern. Answer questions minimally, and then wait to be prompted for more.”

Follow-up questions are the universal sign of concern. I call this a “thought tool” and I keep it in my back pocket. This guideline is worth committing to memory so that I can apply it when I need to, without having to think about it too much.

Where, then, can a person who is struggling with a Traumatic Illness truly unburden themselves? The answer is to find a support group. This is where you will find people who truly understand your struggles, your symptoms, and your journey. That way, outside of this circle, you can concentrate on your friends without the need to dump on them.

Read Carolyn’s entire column here.



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