Hi, Dr. Jaimee here! I want to talk about communication, more specifically communication around what I call “tough stuff.” That can be physical pain, emotional distress, or really anything that feels difficult to talk about.
I am going to start by speaking directly to those who are currently in pain.
There is no right way to talk about tough stuff and it is not your responsibility to manage the emotions of others. So, share your feelings and experiences however is best for you.
I want to emphasize that even if the idea of sharing your experience is uncomfortable and if there is a voice in your head that says things like: “it’s not that bad,” “other people have it worse,” or “I don’t want to seem like I’m always complaining,” your pain is valid, and you should not have to carry it alone.
Let’s get you prepped!
If you are feeling ready to share your thoughts, feelings, or experiences of pain with someone else, I always suggest getting it out there first. Then you can check-in with yourself on how it feels to talk about these topics, what judgements you might have yourself, and what parts might be more difficult to share. You can handwrite it, type it, even record yourself talking about it on your phone’s voice memo app. Once you do, reading or listening back can be quite cathartic. You can also just store it somewhere hidden, rip it up, throw it out, delete it off your phone, whatever works for you. If you want to make sure there isn’t a record of the story at all, blast some music, get in the shower, and talk about it aloud to yourself while feeling the benefits of the warm water and nice smelling soap!
Now that it’s better organized in your head, you can share what you want, how you want.
1. If you’ve finished what you’ve prepared to say and want to answer questions, let them know.
2. If you’ve finished and you want to keep talking about something different, let them know.
3. If you’ve finished and want to go, let them know.
Now, to the family, friends, and partners tuning in…
You may have someone in mind that you have been worried about, maybe someone who has given you a peek into their struggles managing pain, or maybe someone has recently opened up to you about some of their painful thoughts or feelings. The fact that someone is sharing anything with you is a great start.
Like many others in similar situations, a common question that pops up is, “Now what?”
If the person sharing appears to have finished and you are left wanting more, you can ask them if they feel comfortable with you asking them questions about their experience. If they say “yes,” remind them often that if at any point during the conversation they are feeling drained, you can talk about something else or simply end the call/text and chat again later, no problem. This is on their terms, not yours.
If you are having this conversation in person, use nonverbal cues frequently like nodding and leaning forward, say things as small as “mm hmm” or “okay,” all to show that you are engaged and following their story without projecting anything specific onto it or them. If you are a more advanced active listener, you can try and use the words (or something in the same wheelhouse) they used to describe the experience and repeat it back to them:
(Sharer): “I had to go from provider to provider and no one would take me seriously and I was hurting the whole time!”
(Listener): “Ugh, that sounds like it was really frustrating.”
Keep in mind that by asking if you can have more information, they could say “no,” and you need to be prepared to honor their feelings on the matter right then and there. If they say “no,” you can ask what might be helpful for them in the moment: a new topic, a funny distraction, listening to music together without much talking, switching from talking to texting, or maybe resuming the conversation at a later time.
I cannot stress this enough: validate them either way. If they gave you all the details, let them know that it must be so *tough, *annoying, *any feeling they mentioned to be going through X. Then, thank them for sharing what they did and let them know you are always available to support them in whatever way they need.
Beyond the scope of conversations, these are some practical options you could offer an individual in pain in an effort to be supportive:
1. Keep track of appointments. This way you can text “good luck” before and “how did it go” after. The first provides a thoughtfulness that really resonates and the second gives the individual permission to share about both the frustrations and potential good news they encountered.
2. Help prepare for upcoming appointments by role playing conversations that will likely be had with providers and filling in blanks that might have been left out but feel worth adding.
3. If allowed, accompany the individual to the appointment for emotional support and to help advocate if needed.
4. Learn their do’s and don’ts. What meds do they prefer in which situations? What foods and drinks help and hurt? Do they prefer ice or heat? What’s their favorite movie to watch, music to listen to, clothing to wear? Do they want you to hold them and tell them a story or do they want to be left alone in a silent, dark room?
My goal in encouraging communication is that by sharing, experiences of pain become less stigmatized, more normalized, and easier for people to talk about, listen to, and support. By simply taking the time to read this, you are already on your way to becoming a more effective communicator! I appreciate your effort and I know your people will too.