A woman condescendingly talking to a man who is shown smaller in stature to represent him being belittled.

The Avoidable Unavoidable Ugliness of Pity & Chronic Illness

Last updated: March 2022

Pity. Ugh, I know right? It’s awful, and no one wants to be pitied, or pitiable, but even just now when I said the word, you got that feeling, didn’t you? When you are chronically ill with something like rheumatoid arthritis, pity is the last thing you want anyone to feel for you. Frankly, I’d rather have people think I was a thief, or a liar, or ugly, or a Jets fan than have them pity me.

Pity & RA don't mix

A pitiable creature, that’s what we think of when we think of pity, and it conjures up visions of a hunched-over, sad-looking man who can’t seem to find his lost puppy. It’s the same with chronic illness (if the lost puppy was a metaphor for feeling good. And also, still a puppy. Cute!). Anyway, the point is, being pitied for being disabled or chronically ill is something most of us avoid like the plague. Why? Well, there are several reasons.

Pity isn't helpful for people with RA

First, being pitied means that others have to take care of you, and there is nothing a chronically ill patient despises more than feeling like a burden to others. Yes, I know that normal people don’t particularly like it either, but feeling like a burden to others when you have RA means that you are doing such a bad job managing your illness that it's obvious to others that you need help.

Many of us who have chronic illness pride ourselves on being as self-sufficient as possible and asking for help is about as easy as getting help at the DMV. At 4:45pm. On a Friday. It’s just not going to happen unless the sky opens up and a voice from upon high tells us to ask for help. Or you just can’t get your sock on after seventeen tries. One or the other. Asking for help and pity, in our minds, go hand in hand, so we don’t do it.

Pity makes a person feel less than or not worthy

Second, being pitied means you are less than, not as good as, not worthy. You may be saying right now, “I don’t think that!” OK, ask yourself this then: when you see someone disabled or obviously infirmed, do you immediately say, “I wonder what they had for dinner last night?” or “I feel bad for that person.” If it’s 99.9% of you, it’s the latter, and if you’re the one person reading this who chose the former, then I’d really like to spend a day in your world.

The point is, when you “feel bad” for someone, you are pitying them and making the assumption that they are less than you, a normal, contributing, self-sustaining individual. I know, I know: you aren’t doing it consciously, and that gives you half credit. But, it’s still a valid reason why being pitied is so reviled.

Avoid the pity trap

So what can you do to avoid pitying someone chronically ill? Well, don’t fall into what I call the “Pity Trap.” Instead of feeling sorry for someone or feeling bad when you hear someone has RA or another chronic illness, you can instead say something like, “I wonder what it’s like to fight their fight every day.” I mean, we all have our battles that we fight every day, and chronically ill people are no different. It’s just our battles are a little more evident than most.

In addition, there’s nothing wrong with being curious about what it’s like to fight the battle of rheumatoid arthritis on a daily basis – in fact, most of us would welcome legitimate questions about our illness and welcome a chance to educate. Most times, the only comments we get from strangers are, “You don’t look handicapped”, “What’s wrong with you?”, and “Stop being so charming and attractive.” Well, maybe not so much that last one, but you get the idea.

We all have different challenges

Another pity trap is asking, “I wonder what’s wrong with them?” We all do it, even me from time to time before I catch myself. It’s human nature to spot the differences and assume something is wrong. But the truth is that most people with a disability or chronic illness don’t usually view themselves as having something “wrong.” I mean, besides our unfortunate habit of singing out of tune with the car windows open, or maybe that’s just me.

But either way, many of us simply see our illness as another obstacle in life’s rich panoply of challenges. It’s our trial, the way that someone else’s challenge may be depression, or gambling, or anxiety. So instead of asking, “What’s wrong with them?” next time you see someone physically different or meet someone with a chronic illness, ask instead, “I wonder what they’re living with?” It immediately puts you in a better frame of mind to see someone as an equal and not pity them, which is the ultimate goal.

Chronic illnesses like RA are difficult enough

Pity, ugh, I still hate hearing that word. The reason it’s even on my mind is because I was speaking with someone for a month or so and suddenly, out of nowhere, they said that I should be proud of them for “not pitying me.” Up until that point it hadn’t even occurred to me that I was pitiable. So it really threw me because I, in no way, shape or form, think I’m less than anyone else or dislike who I am.

In fact, as my friends will tell you – no one loves me more than me. I mean, you should be able to tell that by reading my writing but just in case you can’t - I’m pretty great, just FYI. Hearing that someone was even thinking about me and pity in the same sentence was appalling. So now that you know how and why being pitied makes people with chronic illness feel bad, try to do your best to avoid it. Talk soon.

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