How RA and Chronic Illness Make Us More Empathetic

Why do those of us who live with rheumatoid arthritis and chronic illness make such good caretakers?

Well, I think it comes down to 1 thing — the "e" word. No, not electricity. Or energy, or even eeeeexcruciating pain, which we definitely have our share of. No, I’m talking about that most elusive of qualities: empathy. For some reason, almost everyone I’ve met who has lived with chronic illness long-term has developed a remarkable sense of empathy.

More worried about others than about ourselves

I like to consider empathy as the only real superpower that us humans get to have. Think about what it is — the ability to feel what someone else is feeling, sometimes by doing nothing other than simply being physically near them. It’s as close to being psychic as you can get, and even though in 2023 it seems like a rare commodity, we really are born with this innate ability to sense the feelings of others.

The real question is, though, why do a disproportionate amount of those of us who suffer for a living have so much empathy? It really is true, too. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken with others who have rheumatoid arthritis or other chronic illnesses who are more worried about the people around them than they are about themselves.

My RA superfriends

I’m talking about people who have lost the use of limbs, people who are in so much pain that it would make an MMA fighter cry, people who have to deal with so much fatigue that Rip Van Winkle is jealous – yeah, those people, the hall of fame RA players. They are almost always more worried about everyone else.

If you need further proof – I do it myself! It’s kind of the family tradition here to take in what my mom calls "lost souls" and give them a surrogate family, someone to talk to, and a home, if need be. Well, even though I've had 5 joints replaced, suffered through cancer, heart attacks, almost died twice, and got divorced (obviously that last one isn’t a medical issue... or is it?), still my first question is always, "How can I help?" and it’s no different from everyone else in my little circle of chronic illness peers who I like to call the RA superfriends. They don’t call it that.

We know suffering, and we don't want others to suffer

I think we’ve proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that people with RA and chronic illness in general have a tendency to be more empathetic and assume the role of caretakers, but why? Why is this a thing?

Is it a side effect of the medications we take? Do they come with the warning in tiny writing that says, "Medicine may cause extreme empathy and actually giving a hoot about others; see your physician if you experience these side effects for a swift kick in the...”?

Does the RA itself infect the brain and cause it to start squeezing out empathy goo like oranges at a Jamba Juice? (For those persnickety science folks out there, "empathy brain goo" is normally called oxytocin.) No, it’s so much more simple than that, my friends. Really. In this case, Occam’s Razor holds true – the most simple answer is the right one. To put it succinctly: We know what suffering is, and we don’t want anyone to ever have to. Done. Finished. End of line.

We wouldn't wish this upon any other human

Think about what people who live with rheumatoid arthritis and chronic illness go through on a daily basis. Fatigue, pain, swelling, exhaustion, medication side effects – and that’s just the physical effects!

Stress, anxiety, fear, depression, loneliness, isolation, loss of friendships and romantic relationships, loss of careers, loss of dreams – you name it, and people who live with RA and chronic illness have been through it multiple times, most likely coupled with the worst possible bad luck one could hope for. So we know what it’s like to get boned, and not in a good way, and what it’s like to — as I said before — suffer, and we wouldn’t wish that upon any other human on earth.

Featured Forum

View all responses caret icon

Seriously, if you asked me if there’s anyone who deserved to be locked into this flesh prison that I call my body, I’d have to really think long and hard if this is something worth inflicting on anyone, no matter how evil. Maybe the person who invented medical insurance.

Finding comfort in shared experiences

In addition — and this is just my own theory and not definitely true, for sure — I swear, like in the above paragraph, I think that helping others also helps us process our own... er, stuff. ("Stuff" encapsulates all of the physical and mental issues we experience with RA and chronic illness quite nicely, so we’re going with it.) In helping those around us and others who live with chronic illness, we are able to see just how similar so many of us are and how much of the suffering we think is unique to us is actually almost universally shared among those who live every day with RA and chronic illness, and it helps.

Why does it help to know others are suffering the same way you are? I don’t know, that’s a whole 'nother article, but it helps, and it helps even when we care for others who don’t have chronic illness. You don’t even need to have RA to experience some of the same feelings and shortcomings as those of us with RA do. Suffering is universal, and it can be shared by the ill and non-ill alike, and taking care of others is our way of taking just a little suffering out of the world around us. Or not. I don’t know. Like I said, it’s just a theory.

Letting our empathy shine

As you can see, those who suffer with rheumatoid arthritis let their empathy shine, and I advise you to test it yourself next time you are around someone chronically ill. Watch and see just how much of a "caretaker" they really are; my guess is you’ll be surprised just how much someone who has their own limitations can make everyone else around them feel like they have none. Talk soon.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

Please read our rules before commenting.