Talking Pain: The Conversation Equation
My first symptom of Psoriatic Arthritis (PsA) was a case of swollen knuckles that resulted in bulbous disfigurement at each finger’s bend. I woke in tears each morning afraid to touch, well, anything.
For me, the physical result was the easiest to explain. I had visual evidence that made people cringe. That’s not the case with the invisible physical and emotional pain of PsA. So how do we best communicate our experience?
The conversation equation
I’d love to say I’ve discovered the perfect formula to share so that others can fully understand, but I haven’t. What I can tell you is that carefully blending 3 conversational elements seems to accomplish this near-impossible task.
Physical Descriptor + Emotional Descriptor + Compassionate Listener = Connection & Comfort
Real talk about physical limits
Our first of act of communication requires checking in with ourselves. Pain often leaves us feeling vulnerable and weak with the desire to mask our true feelings. Or we can feel outwardly angry and defeated.
When asked how we are, I can promise you that “I’m fine” is a conversation stopper, as is a long-winded list of every doctor’s visit and medication that has failed us. The ultimate act of bravery is to be real in the face of our most vulnerable moments. Try finding an honest, yet brief response.
“My hands ache a great deal today, so please forgive me if I’m not my usual self.”
This is far more honest and creates an open invitation. If the person I’m talking with wants to know more, they’ll ask. If they do, I keep the follow-up answers equally honest while allowing my person to engage with questions as much as listen.
The emotional toll of talking emotion
It’s difficult to discuss physical pain without the emotional effects bubbling up. Before practicing the conversation equation, I often grew tired of hearing my own complaints. I’d think, “If I’m tired of my miserable self, others must be too.”
To avoid the perception that I was the most miserable person on the planet, I’d avoid the pain conversation altogether – until I finally broke down on an unsuspecting acquaintance about how horrible my life had become. Two things happened with this pattern. I was betraying my true self and my “reality just hit” breakdowns were unfair to those who happened upon me.
When I began to attach a brief physical pain description to an emotional result, this kept my integrity intact without being overbearing.
“For weeks, it has hurt to hold my husband’s hand or physically care for those I love. I feel so disconnected.”
What I learned by doing this is that pain is a uniter, something that we can all understand and connect through, regardless of our source. Your listener might well relate to the feeling of disconnect, if not the reason for it, and inquire deeper, allowing you each to move through your pain together.
Find a compassionate listener
It’s difficult to discuss marital disconnect due to pain, the heartbreak of disappointing your children, or feeling neglectful of your pet with a person who hasn’t responded well to the first mention of your discomfort. If you need to talk, first find someone you trust and then be clear about your desires.
You could say, “Please, I need your advice,” or, “I need to process what I’m feeling right now. Please, can you listen without trying to fix me?”
Choose your audience carefully. Not all people deserve the honor of hearing your inner truth. They may be ill-equipped to empathize or, worse, merely offer pity or a betrayal of your confidence. If you encounter these things, don’t carry angst for those who haven’t developed good listening skill yet. You’ll only damage yourself further. Let the frustration go and find somebody who can better serve your desire for connection.
The practice of communication
Authentic communication is an art. It takes constant practice under the best of circumstances, but physical pain presents us with an extra challenge. Pain can rob us of patience and kindness, making if difficult to connect with our capabilities. Yet we must.
It is so important that we cherish our trusted listeners and offer the same patience and kindness we wish to receive. Those special people who can take on another’s pain with grace and interest are truly a gift, and our greatest gift in return is to offer ourselves to them as well.
While this conversation equation may not work for everyone in all circumstances, the reward is well worth the effort when you find the right person to practice with. The human condition brings about pain of all kinds, and many a deep friendship has been forged over talking about what ails us.
I wish you well in finding comfort and connection.