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The Pain Companion

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  • Sarah Anne Shockley
  • January 23, 2016 11:40:55 AM

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Insights, wisdom, and practical tips for living better while living with chronic pain

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Being In Pain Does Not Make You A Failure

Everyone who has been in pain for some length of time has probably asked themselves these questions: Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong to deserve this?Many of us struggle with feelings of guilt and shame for needing help, for not being able to fix ourselves, for probably asking too much of everyone around us, for causing people to feel bad for us, for needing financial assistance.To add insult to injury (literally), there is a prevalent New Age attitude that says if you...

Everyone who has been in pain for some length of time has probably asked themselves these questions: Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong to deserve this?

Many of us struggle with feelings of guilt and shame for needing help, for not being able to fix ourselves, for probably asking too much of everyone around us, for causing people to feel bad for us, for needing financial assistance.

To add insult to injury (literally), there is a prevalent New Age attitude that says if you just visualize and think positively, you can change anything you don’t like into the way you want it to be almost instantly.
The secret to the perfect life is “in our heads.” If we’re poor or unfulfilled or in pain, we just need to “think differently.”


Just Think Positively...
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for thinking positively. I practice it every day. It has made a huge difference in my life many, many times and still does. But the idea that people who can’t move out of pain have somehow failed as people has to go.

After years of working through all manner of New Age palliatives to change my beliefs, the way I speak, the way I think and how I perceive myself – resulting in very little perceptible change in my painful condition – I’m here to say that sometimes, when you’re in pain and you can’t get out, it’s not because you’re not thinking positively enough.

Some pain comes in and won’t leave. There may not be a tidy explanation, but it doesn’t mean we are off our center, or lacking in some fundamental way, or not good people, or not in alignment with God or the Universe, or haven’t prayed or fasted or meditated enough, or burnt off our karma yet.
Being in pain does not automatically put you at fault.

The fact that you don’t have an off switch for your pain does not mean you aren’t trying hard enough or that in some insidious way you must want to be in pain. It does not mean you have failed, or must have been a terrible person in a past life.


Asking Different Questions

Being in pain doesn’t prove anything negative about you at all. An estimated one in three Americans are in pain right this moment. That’s a lot of people.

So, the questions we might want to begin to ask about all this pain may be more about ourselves as a culture rather than ourselves as individuals.

Yes, we may want to ask ourselves, What can I do differently in my life to relieve this pain?, but we also may need to ask, How are we, as a people, creating so much unrelenting pain? Then the answers become less of a private struggle and more of a community effort toward greater harmony and balance at all levels of our lives.

And if this epidemic of pain is as much of a collective as a private experience, then maybe part of the solution is to understand that we are, somehow, all in this together.

That the healing needed may not be only along a solitary path, but something we need to address as a society. We have somehow created a culture where violence and alienation is the norm and, perhaps, our painful bodies go hand in hand with that. Isn’t it even remotely possible that some of us may be feeling this collective alienation as illness and pain in our bodies?


And This Helps Me How?
And you might well ask, how does speculating about this help me with my pain today?

For me, as much as I would not want to wish this experience of pain on anyone, it eases my mind to know that I’m not alone in it, that there seems to be something bigger at work here than my own private path through it, and that, while the answer may not be easy, it may also not be entirely up to me to figure it out all on my own.

And, right now, today, that is something of a comfort.


7 Ways Chronic Pain Taught Me to Honor Myself

After having been in pain for so many years, I am convinced that pain brings many unforeseen and unacknowledged gifts with it. Most of these gifts were unwelcome at the time, but looking back, I can see the value of what I’ve learned from my experience of living with pain. Following are seven ways that pain taught me how to honor myself and thus enhance my life, even in the midst of the challenges.​1. Slowing Way DownI had to learn to slow way, way down and move only at the...

After having been in pain for so many years, I am convinced that pain brings many unforeseen and unacknowledged gifts with it. Most of these gifts were unwelcome at the time, but looking back, I can see the value of what I’ve learned from my experience of living with pain. Following are seven ways that pain taught me how to honor myself and thus enhance my life, even in the midst of the challenges.

1. Slowing Way Down
I had to learn to slow way, way down and move only at the speed that worked for my body, not at the speed that worked for my former life ­style. 

Pain forced me to operate in a completely different rhythm than I was used to. Life became simple, minimalist, quiet, and slow. This was a pace I normally found boring and unproductive, but slowing down taught me how to tune in to my body and its natural rhythms. I found that there is a richness to life when you slow down and take each thing as it comes.

2. Honoring the Present Path
Whether I like what is happening in the pres­ent moment or not, pain forces me to be present while I am feeling it. In that way, it is a very difficult teacher.

Pain teaches me to remember my body, to tune in to time (because it moves so slowly), and to be aware right here and now. I have learned to find the pleasant and happy things that are available right now even when pain is there, too.


3. Letting Go
Pain also taught me to let go. It forced me to finally give up the fight. It simply refused to budge until I had made an inner movement in attitude from someone who insists on making things happen to someone who gives up the need to control everything.

I learned the hard way that healing comes faster when I let go of trying to run every aspect of how my journey through pain is going to unfold. I had to learn to share the driver’s seat, in that regard.


4. Saying No
I had to learn how to say no to friends often and to the things I would have liked to participate in but couldn’t. I learned to say no to requests for my time and energy that didn’t truly honor my limitations, that would have left me feeling worse, even if the person asking was disappointed in me.

I had to learn to put my body’s needs before someone else’s need to have me be there for them. Sometimes this was difficult, but it taught me a lot about how to create healthy boundaries for myself.

5. Speaking Up for Myself
I learned to ask for help. This is not something most of us want to have to learn.

When I learned to ask openly for help from others, I also learned to acknowledge the existence of all the other people who were already affecting my life and contributing to it, even if I didn’t know them.

I also came to understand that each of us has a voice, and sometimes it takes feeling like we don’t have one, and struggling with that for a while, in order to find the courage and inner strength to finally find it and speak up. Speaking up for oneself, whether to ask for help or to communicate in other ways, is the first step in rediscovering a voice in the greater world. It’s the first step to self-empowerment and, ultimately, to full healing.

6. Being Softer with Myself and Others
When you’re fine and things are moving along in a fairly normal fashion, it’s sometimes hard to have patience with either yourself or others. We expect so much of ourselves all the time, and we also place these impossible standards on others, including our mates, siblings, and children.

Being in pain, I had to learn to take care of myself differently, to have greater gentleness toward myself and what I was going through. I also began to understand what others go through when they are dealing with illness, injury, loss, or other hardships.

Having to live with less of everything — less strength, less energy, less brainpower — taught me to be kinder to myself and kinder to others. Living with pain taught me how to give myself and others more of a break.


7. Appreciating the Little Things
I remember sitting in my house, my body burning and aching, and noticing a ball of dust in the corner of the room. I realized that, in the past, I would have gotten up and cleaned it. Right then, that action was more than my body could handle. I glanced around the room and saw all the things I wasn’t cleaning or couldn’t keep up with.

I began to appreciate how much I had taken for granted in the past. Brushing my teeth, picking up a plate of food, or driving more than ten minutes used to seem like nothing, but these were now painful and laborious.

I realized how amazing life really is and how much I looked forward to regaining any capacity for doing these things with less pain and more mobility. I remembered how I may have complained in the past about having to do something minor that now seemed like a privilege to do. It was very humbling.

Being in pain, while I would prefer not to have had to go through it, nevertheless taught me a great deal about slowing down, being more present with life as it is right now, letting go of trying to completely control how my heal­ing would unfold, how to say no when I really needed to, how to find my voice to speak up for myself and ask for help when appropriate, how to be softer and more forgiving toward myself and others, and how to be appreciative of the smallest things in life, which sometimes are the most precious. 


(This post is adapted from The Pain Companion: Everyday Wisdom for Living With and Moving Beyond Chronic Pain by Sarah Anne Shockley, New World Library, 2018)


5 Things People in Chronic Pain Need More Than Advice

So many caring people are anxious to help their friends, relatives, and co-workers who are living with chronic pain that they are quick to offer recommendations and words of advice. But is more advice what people in pain really need?I would suggest, most respectfully, that it is not.Chronic pain is a complex condition that is not easily remedied by typical treatments, supplements, or exercise routines. While we appreciate everyone’s sincere desire to help, what we require...

So many caring people are anxious to help their friends, relatives, and co-workers who are living with chronic pain that they are quick to offer recommendations and words of advice. But is more advice what people in pain really need?

I would suggest, most respectfully, that it is not.

Chronic pain is a complex condition that is not easily remedied by typical treatments, supplements, or exercise routines. While we appreciate everyone’s sincere desire to help, what we require usually isn’t more advice. To support us in our healing, here’s what we would ask for:

1. Respect

Please understand that everyone in chronic pain is doing our utmost to heal. We are not malingering or making it up or exaggerating. We are not lazy, or melodramatic, or trying to get more attention by being ill. In fact, most of us understate our situation in order not to make others around us feel bad. And please respect our intelligence and tenacity. If we have been in pain for any length of time, believe me, we’ve tried most of the treatments, both alternative and traditional, that you have ever heard of. And then some.

2. A Free Pass

Just being in pain is hugely exhausting and we are using most of our available energy and personal resources just to get by. Getting out of bed in the morning and lurching through another day may be all we can manage. The fact that we found the energy and wherewithal to make one important phone call or fill out a necessary medical form may be a major triumph for that day.

3. Understanding That We Can't Be Normal Right Now


Most of us are sleep deprived and under a great deal of stress trying to handle work and parenting and relationships and self-care and medical demands while in pain. We don’t have any reserves left over to participate in life at normal levels. We are not being selfish or acting like victims if we have to say no to a lot of things. We are not doing this to make you angry or to get attention. Just having a conversation may take all our available energy. Imagine having pain in your body and the flu and jet lag and severe sleep deprivation all at once. It can be like that most of the time for us.

4. Allowances for Our Cylinders Not Firing

People in pain simply don’t have the brainpower that we normally would. All our available stamina is going into healing and into living with pain. There doesn’t seem to be a lot left over for our noggins to draw on. We forget things easily, we can’t find the right words sometimes, and sometimes our brains go offline for a few moments and we simply blank out. We have trouble focusing and we may not be able to make sense of complicated instructions. Actually, we may not be able to follow any instructions. Just imagine finals week at college. You know, the last day, after not sleeping all week? Remember how brain dead you felt? Some of us feel that way every day.

5. Compassion and Trust

What we really need from you is compassion, understanding and trust that we are already doing our best and to refrain from asking us to hurry up and get out of pain. We need you to not be so scared of your own pain that you refuse to allow us to experience ours, or feel like we have to hide it and not speak of it. For whatever reason, we are still in it for the time being and, even if we wanted to, we can’t move out of it to make you feel better. Believe us, we certainly would if we could. We wish we could be more available to you and to our own lives, but we can’t at this time.

Instead of trying to help us by offering methods for healing, we are in need of you simply being with us, being there for us when you can, and trusting us to find our own individual path through pain. We will let you know if we need more than that. We appreciate your loving-kindness, your gentleness and your compassion most of all, and these, really, more than any words of advice, are the most healing things you can offer anyone in pain.


Moving Beyond the Grief and Isolation of Chronic Pain

All of us living with chronic pain are aware of how difficult it is on a physical level. Very aware, most of the time. But what we sometimes don’t acknowledge is the immense toll living with physical pain takes on our emotional life as well.We are usually so immersed in the demands of our body pain, that we feel we don’t have the energy or capacity for dealing with our emotional hurts at the same time. These include: sadness, frustration,...

All of us living with chronic pain are aware of how difficult it is on a physical level. Very aware, most of the time. But what we sometimes don’t acknowledge is the immense toll living with physical pain takes on our emotional life as well.

We are usually so immersed in the demands of our body pain, that we feel we don’t have the energy or capacity for dealing with our emotional hurts at the same time. These include: sadness, frustration, blame, shame, resentment, anger, hopelessness, isolation, and loneliness to name a few.

Sometimes we’re not dealing with them because we feel like acknowledging them will take us under. It’s just too much. Sometimes it’s because they seem like feelings we just have to live with while we’re living with pain. And sometimes, we simply don’t realize they’re there because they’ve become the ocean we swim in every day.

But if we don’t recognize and begin to work to relieve some of our sadness, loss, anger and shame about being in pain, we might find ourselves trapped inside the weight of our own grief and hopelessness. If ignored for too long, the emotions we don’t find a way to acknowledge and express can lead to depression, bitterness, and despair.

Let’s not go there. Let’s see what we can do to relieve the sadness and isolation of living with chronic pain and create a greater sense of ease and well being, even while we’re still living with pain.

Suggestions for overcoming the intense emotions of living with chronic pain


  1. Find someone to tell your pain story to –someone who will listen without trying to fix anything or assign blame. If there is no one you can trust to do that, talking to a pet is a surprisingly good second choice.
  2. Find creative ways to express your pain. Your physical and emotional pains can be expressed through art, writing, singing, dancing, or even howling.
  3. Find someone you can help, either through sharing your insights, becoming a companion, or being an understanding listener.
  4. Don’t isolate yourself. We all have days when we don’t want to go out. That’s understood. But human interaction is a basic need. Find ways to reach out and be with others, even if in brief amounts of time.
  5. Stay engaged with life. What did you used to love to do that you’re not doing now? How can you participate, if only for a short time or in the most minimal of ways? What new things can you learn about and participate in?
  6. Connect with the greater part of you that lives beyond this pain. This can be done through prayer, meditation, music, or other creative expressions with the intention of accessing the greater You.
  7. Re-connect with your dreams of the future. Create a dream that includes the person you are becoming through this journey with pain.
  8. Don’t stand still either on the inside or on the outside. This leads to a feeling of stagnation. Find a sense of movement, no matter how small: physical, emotional, creative, or spiritual.
  9. Be kind to yourself. Speak to yourself and to your body soothingly and with love.

Remember, as I often say, pain is a landscape we’re moving through. It is not the totality of who we are. We only lose our way if we sit down and give up.

As we travel along our path through chronic pain, let’s remember to be kinder and more compassionate toward our bodies and to our whole self, feeling what needs to be felt, expressing what needs to be expressed, and loving the parts of ourselves that are asking to be loved.


When Your Doctor Does Not Believe Your Pain

One of the most challenging situations for those of us in chronic pain is working with a doctor or another medical practitioner who is unable to see or understand the intensity of our pain. They may also feel that its longevity is either questionable, or somehow due to something we, as patients, are not doing right.Sometimes we are told to do things that are painful for us, and are not believed when we report that it hurts. Sometimes we are told that we simply can’t be in the pain...

One of the most challenging situations for those of us in chronic pain is working with a doctor or another medical practitioner who is unable to see or understand the intensity of our pain. They may also feel that its longevity is either questionable, or somehow due to something we, as patients, are not doing right.

Sometimes we are told to do things that are painful for us, and are not believed when we report that it hurts. Sometimes we are told that we simply can’t be in the pain we’re in. Doctors have made a career of helping people in pain, yet when they invalidate our experiences, they inadvertently cause us even more pain.

How does this happen? How do highly trained, and usually very caring, individuals end up causing more pain for the patients they are trying to cure?


4 Ways It Can Go Wrong

This can manifest in a number of ways:
1. A treatment or protocol isn’t working, or is causing more pain, but the doctor insists that we continue or try harder because they believe in the treatment more than in our feedback.

2. The doctor may have experience working with people in pain, but has never had to live with chronic pain, so he does not understand the difference between short-term pain (that usually responds readily to treatments) and long-term pain (which is a different beast altogether and multi-layered). They do not understand the side effects of chronic pain which can include loss of brain power, fatigue, spaciness, and sleep deprivation, so they simply don’t take these into account.

3. The doctor may not believe that our particular condition causes the level of pain we are in and works with us as if we have a different version of our condition, or a different condition altogether.

4. The doctor has a desire to help, but would rather believe that we are wrong than to admit they are unable to offer us a cure.

As a patient, this is very difficult to deal with. It makes us feel unheard, misunderstood, and belittled. Not to mention the fact that we may feel shamed for not healing as fast as we’re supposed to, or for not responding to treatment in the way everyone hopes we will.


This is not to say that there aren’t doctors out there who listen to their patients. There certainly are caring, compassionate, and sensitive doctors who take note of what their patients report, while adjusting their treatments and recommendations accordingly.  But, unfortunately, there are many who don’t listen, cut patients off when they’re trying to explain what’s going on, or discount what they do hear.

For doctors who fit into any of the above categories, unfortunately, the fact that the treatment they are offering isn’t working doesn’t always indicate to them that they need to find different ways of handling chronic pain. For some of them, it’s easier to blame the patient.


What Can We Do About It?

What can we, as patients, do?

It’s important to learn to speak up for ourselves. However, when we’re in pain, it can be very challenging to take a stand of any kind. We’re usually exhausted and operating on limited brainpower. Often it’s difficult to do anything more than barely stumble through a medical appointment. But I do feel that it is up to those of us who live with chronic pain to educate the medical establishment when we have the opportunity to do so.

I have written some talking points below to help you begin the conversation with your doctor, should the need arise.

You can also use my Statement for Practitioners on my website Resource Page as a basis for having a conversation or print it out and take it with you to appointments.

Here are some talking points you might use:

1. I respect you as an expert in your field. I ask you to respect me as an expert in how I am experiencing pain in my own body.

2. My direct experience is the most valid basis we have to assess how treatments are working or not working, and I ask you to be willing to listen to my feedback and take it into account.

3. When you insist that you know more about my experience of pain than I do, I feel belittled and invalidated.

4. If treatments do not work for me in the same way they do for the majority of your clients, it does not mean I am not trying hard enough. It does not give you a basis for discounting my experience. It means there is something new to learn here.

One thing that can be very helpful is to keep a pain diary, a record of the kind and level of pain you experience from day to day, to bring with you to medical appointments. A written record can go farther in validating your pain experience for you than verbal explanations and a detailed diary can seem more real and believable to your doctor. You can download a template for a pain diary from my Resource Page.

It’s too bad that those of us who are already in pain sometimes have to endure more pain, both physical and emotional, when we’re working with certain doctors. I wish it were not so. But, I believe, since some seem less well equipped to work with long-term pain, it may be up to us to educate them with our gentle, but insistent truth.


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