“Do you endure pain in public because you worry that people might think you complain too much?”
This was a question that was asked of people with RA by Creaky Joints for one of their ArthritisPower Community Polls. I receive ArthritisPower e-mails from Creaky Joints and I happened to spot this one the other day, about pain and “complaining,” and I immediately thought, Yeah, that is a good question! Do I do that? I think I do. And I’m not alone.
According to the article, “Complaining ‘Productively’ Is Important- Here’s a Psychologist’s 5 Tips for How to Do It,” out of the 857 people who responded to the poll question, 88% answered “yes” and only 12% said “no.” The following are some reactions from the Creaky Joints Facebook community when asked how they talk about their chronic pain and illness symptoms with others. I can relate to all of them.1
1. “I always ‘wear a mask’ to hide my pain and how I’m feeling”
When I stop to think about it, yes, I do this. I think the majority of us do this, otherwise, we would be walking around all day and night with miserable, cranky faces. And maybe I do have a Resting Crank Face (RCF), I don’t know. But I try to look like a reasonably happy and “okay” person most of the time when I’m in public. If I let my face reveal what I’m truly feeling, and how constant pain affects my body and emotions and life, nobody would want to be anywhere near me. A mask is necessary to make it through the day as you walk and work and live among the able-bodied.
2. “If I didn’t downplay my pain, I’d never talk about anything else”
This is also true. If I talked about every time I was in pain I would never shut up. And who wants to listen to that? I don’t. No one else does, either. We constantly have to try to compartmentalize and corral our pain to a back corner of our minds. Otherwise, our brains and our mouths would never shut up about it. And who wants to live like that? You can’t.
3. “No one really can comprehend what you’re dealing with. For those who do care, why worry them?”
This response is a two-part thing, and both parts are challenging. Unless someone also has RA or another similarly painful chronic illness, he/she/they cannot understand what you’re going through. Ever. They just can’t, sadly. Because of this, it often feels futile and hopeless to try to talk about your pain with others who have no way of really understanding what you’re dealing with on a daily basis. It’s often easier and less exhausting to say little or nothing at all.
For those people in your life who genuinely care about you, your health, and your all-around well-being, they’re probably very kind and loving people whom you care a lot about, too. Telling someone you love that you’re struggling with severe pain and illness, a disease that never goes away can be a heavy burden to put on them. Or it feels like it is, anyway. I’m close with my family, my mom especially, yet I rarely talk about my pain and RA. I hold a lot inside because I don’t want to worry them.
4. “I put on the happy face for everyone and when I’m alone I’m the real me–I cry a lot.”
I cry alone too.
5. “Complaining won’t change anything and people get tired of hearing about it”
When I get the urge for a little complaining pity party, I often try to restrain myself from doing it because yes, complaining won’t change anything. It won’t make this disease go away, however, it might make my friends go away. People hate complainers, even if the complaints are completely understandable and legitimate. I do, too, and I don’t want to be one of them.
Despite the tendency for people with RA to want to refrain from complaining about their pain, for all of these reasons and more, the Creaky Joints article states that “bottling up your feelings is really bad for your health.” There’s a “right way” to complain about your pain, according to NYC clinical psychologist Jeffrey Wentzel, Ph.D.
“The key is to learn how to make your complaining about your pain more productive,” says Wentzel. “Don’t think of it as complaining. Think of it as being candid with the people in your life who genuinely care about you.”
Dr. Wentzel goes on to describe five tips for being a better and more productive “complainer”:
- Start with some introspection.
- Identify your core people.
- Find others with your condition.
- Accept help.
- Know when you need professional support.
Check out the article for more detailed information about the five tips listed here.
I think the main point of the article is that it’s okay to talk about your pain and illness. It’s not only okay, but it’s crucial. Bottling up all of that pain, fear, worry, sadness, loneliness, and grief isn’t healthy and it will only make your pain worse. I know this to be true personally.
I’m also always amazed (even though I probably shouldn’t be) at how much better I feel, about everything, after I’ve been able to talk and share with other people who do understand what it’s like to live with this disease. My RA friends and community are an invaluable source of support and strength in my life, and I don’t know what I’d do without them. We can vent and complain all we want to each other, in a very honest way, and there’s a sort of beauty and comfort in that.