As a pain specialist, I’ve learned that one of the most powerful things I can do when I meet a new patient is to provide a sense of validation. Many of my chronic pain patients show up for their first appointment feeling misunderstood, frowned upon, or just not taken seriously. Most feel isolated – on an island with no one else to understand or appreciate what they are going through.
This sense of feeling misunderstood is partly due to the fact that there really isn’t a test that can detect and convey the complexities and impact of a pain experience, making the patient feel like they are on their own to prove how they feel. When something like pain can’t be put into a medical box of test results and data, then patients start to feel as though their doctors aren’t able to wrap their arms around the full breadth of their situation. And if the doctor isn’t getting it, then how can they possibly explain what is going on to their spouse or best friend? Insurance companies may start to question why you are still asking for treatment and not getting better, and coworkers start to frown when you miss work, especially if you don’t look injured on the outside. As all of this builds up, the person in pain feels increasingly more isolated and more likely to shut down.
But this shut down created by an absence of validation can zap the patient’s motivation to move forward in a positive direction. That is precisely why I try make a concerted effort to let my patients know that I will do my best to better understand what it is like to walk in their shoes.
If a lack of empathy and understanding has gotten you down, here are three tips to help you work through this challenge.
- Connect with people who get it. There are millions of others out there struggling with pain problems, some that may be very similar to your own. Making connections with others who have had similar experiences can be very empowering and provide valuable social support. Whether it be in-person or online, look to build bonds that will boost you up, not bring you down.
- Remind yourself that you are not your pain. At the end of the day, you can only do so much to help doctors or important people in your life understand what you are going through, so don’t let your sense of self-worth and self-esteem get too wrapped up by how others see your pain. There is so much more to you than your challenging medical condition. Start to reconnect with your interests, passions, and hobbies again, or branch out and start new ones.
- Don’t fret about the test. When it comes to understanding pain, both patients and their doctors put way too much emphasis on test results. Diagnostic findings on x-rays, MRIs, or blood tests should not be viewed as a way to rate how much pain a person is in. Some of the worst pain problems that I treat don’t have a test that can adequately diagnosis it, let alone pinpoint a way to treat it. I often say that I treat patients, not MRIs.
I know it feels unfair to be in pain and not receive the empathy and emotional support from those closest to you, but staying fixated on what you’re not getting from others can keep you stuck. Instead of worrying about how others see you, focus on taking the steps toward the life you truly want to lead.