Chronic pain is a real pain socially

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

Dear Carolyn: I’ve gone through some health challenges. Nothing that is likely to kill me, but I’ve spent literally years in pain and my life is far from what I had wished it would be. It’s a grief process, and it blows.

However, I feel like I can’t express grief, or give a realistic (but not gross) depiction of my symptoms, without hearing that I should “stay positive!” or “be strong!” I feel brushed off or almost bullied into putting on this chipper exterior in order to make others feel better about my illness. Or, on bad days, I feel like I’m a drag, and maybe I am really just whining.

How can I diplomatically convey that sunshine and rainbows aren’t helping, and I’d rather have compassion?

Not a Game Show Host

To your closest friends, you say as much. “I realize it’s hard to know what to say to someone in my position. I respond better to (things you like to hear) than I do to (things you don’t like to hear), but I also feel whiny pointing that out.” And, most important: “Thank you for asking about me. I get discouraged sometimes, and your support really helps.”

To others who aren’t as close to you, you say as little as possible, because that’s what it means not to be close — you trade surface information, not the depth of your grief. Accordingly, people who are just trying to be polite should get just a polite answer: “I’m muddling through. Thanks so much for asking.”

At least, that’s what you do unless and until you’re invited to say more by someone who is making an effort to know you better. 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.

Or, of course, don’t wait and instead just change the subject to something you’d rather discuss.

The linchpin? Getting your unburdening needs met outside of your typical social interactions. Support groups are made for this; many are online for people who don’t have one locally, they’re typically free, and they’re populated by people who’ve lived your exact complaint. If you don’t have a named condition around which a support community has been built, then you can turn to a group based on chronic pain. Unload there so you can talk elsewhere about the weather without wanting to scream.

Email Carolyn at or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at