Phrases and affirmations for and about the chronically ill or disabled can be healing or they can be insidiously hurtful. A recent video I watched about society’s shift in perception of the chronically ill got me thinking about just how we got here and provided some insight into those factors that have eroded empathy and created a cynical public perception of those whose illness or disability does not go away in an allotted “socially accepted” period of time. In the video The Slow Death of Compassion for the Chronically Ill a number of sociological factors are discussed which over time have affected how the general public views those who don’t “overcome” their disease or disability.
The media bombards us everyday with messages and stereotypes of people who have overcome and “beaten the odds” while the subtext beneath the surface suggests that those who don’t are somehow weak, not trying hard enough, not positive enough, or are undeserving of understanding and acceptance. The underlying message is that “if this worked for me it must work for you, and if it doesn’t then there’s something wrong with you!” This message is so woven into our culture that we may not even recognize it when we see it, and may pass it onto others without even knowing it.
Consider these phrases for a moment. When you really pay close attention how do they make you feel?
“It could be worse”
“Are you still in bed?”
“You just need to change your attitude“
“You need to change how you think about your disease”
“A pity party”
“Suck it up“
“Don’t let it bother you”
“We can’t change what happens to us but we can change our reaction to it.”
“You’re doing it to yourself.”
“Complaining is only hurting you.”
“Stop being so negative”
“You don’t look sick”
“You just need to exercise more.”
“Pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional“
“Don’t give illness your attention by repeating the story of it over and over again. Focus your attention on other positive areas and often illness will get the hint and go away.” J.J. Goldwag
I highlighted the key subtexts in red to signify that while these statements may appear on the surface to be supportive they in fact contain messages that undermine one’s sense of self-worth, leave the person feeling inadequate, wrong, or as though they brought the condition on themselves or are somehow to blame for it or are not doing their lives “right”.
These are words of judgment, not of support, and we need to recognize what’s being passed along and the messages they contain which are toxic to others who are going through legitimately hard life circumstances. Platitudes are not what people need when in pain, when symptoms are at a fever pitch, and on those days when everything’s just too much. To family, friends, and supporters; Just giving the person a hug or acknowledging the validity of their struggle goes a long way. Don’t tell them to stop, because if they could they would. This is what they’re going through in real time.
There is no such thing as a good or bad way to feel about one’s illness or disability. Feelings just are and no they’re not like a water faucet. Only sociopaths can turn them off at will. For the rest of us we get over them when we get over them…in our own time-frame, and that’s OK.
Sometimes achieving a greater sense of peace requires better medical treatment for the condition and when the pain subsides the irritability or fear subsides. Sometimes other factors are keeping the person in a state of unrest and it won’t let up until those factors are ameliorated. Things are not always as simple as they appear.
Anybody who tries to tell you that you should just make up your mind “not to feel this way or that way” and tries to imply that when and how they think you should and if you can’t do that then you’re not good enough is not being truly supportive.
Anyone who tells you that you need to change to see or do things their way in order to be acceptable is not loving you unselfishly and they’re not valuing you for who you are. Your process is exactly that; yours. People need to respect that.
The image of the impenetrable stoic ill or disabled person is a hollywood image that no real person can ever live up to.
The person who never cries, never lets them see you sweat, never shows you their down days, the days when they can’t take it anymore, who only lives and speaks in positive affirmations, never gets irritated, never asks for anything, and never gets scared, and always gets things done yesterday simply doesn’t exist. Not being that completely mythical person doesn’t make you weak, it makes you strong because you’re authentic; not hiding behind a mask just to make those around you comfortable.