Why Some Stay Silent about their Medical Illness & Pain

Experiencing life when you have chronic pain and illness can be difficult when it comes to maintaining relationships.

If you developed your illness as an adult for instance, adjusting to your new normal also means having to make big life adjustments.  Making adjustments due to medical illness was something I did, and it was hard.  Some of what I share here is based on my own experiences and the experiences of friends with medical illness.

Those with health challenges learn that life adjustments need to happen to make room for self care.

So those going through this may ask themselves, how can I balance out these life changes?

How can I do this while still keeping my lifestyle and relationships intact?

This is different for everyone mostly because it depends on each person’s health condition.  The time needed to work on getting better varies from person to person.  However in some cases, there will never be a full recovery.

For those who are unable to have complete remission, there will be an adjusting period.  This means coming to terms with where their health is now.  However, getting to this place takes time.

Coming to terms with your diagnosis and what it means in how it may impact your life is the first and biggest step in moving forward.

The reality is that having a chronic medical condition creates changes you may not anticipate.  It might also be hard to keep others from noticing these changes too.  You may not have control over how your health symptoms impact you, but you can make some decisions.  For instance, you can decide early on how much you want to share.  You also get to decide who you feel comfortable speaking to about your diagnosis.

Preserving Relationships

Sometimes people with chronic pain and illness keep their health concerns private.  The goal can be to only share it with a handful of people.  It is a decision they come to because they find it easier to manage with everything else going on in their life.  In addition, it may help them keep up with a ‘normal life’ when fewer people know about their medical condition.

With fewer people knowing, it can be easier to maintain normal conversations with friends and colleagues.  Discussions about other topics are the focus, instead of the focus being on your medical condition.  Maintaining social interactions like this keeps conversations familiar and comfortable.  The person with the health condition also gets a chance to take a mental break from what is worrying them most about their health.  In these normal conversations, they get to escape for a short while.  They get a break from thinking about their health all the time.

Initially, when first diagnosed with a medical condition, it is common to experience a variety of emotions surrounding the illness and what it means for you and your family.  This means it is only natural to go through some shock, fear and worry when symptoms first strike.  These sudden life and health changes become the main focus of concern.  Thinking about it frequently is to be expected, so try not to be too hard on yourself if this happens.

It might make sense for you to not share this information with certain people.  By doing so, you can have a better chance in finding greater life balance.  I often hear that it is a welcome experience to be involved in other conversations that have nothing to do with health problems.

Fear of Mistreatment and Limited Opportunities

Another reason people may stay quiet about their medical conditions is out of fear.  A fear of being treated differently by others.  In the work setting, there is a common concern that if their employer finds out about their health condition, that their work situation will change.  The person with a medical diagnosis might worry that their job stability and growth potential are now at risk.

In other words, a common concern is to be seen and treated differently by their employer.

Stigma at Work

There can be a lot of stigma at work if colleagues learn of your condition.  Being labeled as someone with chronic pain and illness can also lead to others passing judgement.  For example, they may assume that because of your condition, that you are not able to perform well, and need to work as often.  As a result of these possibilities, many people do their best to keep their health diagnoses private.  The person with health difficulties is already probably feeling vulnerable with what is going on right now in their life.  As they navigate this time of transition, they are doing their best to get through it with as few work challenges as possible.

Medical Illness Does Not Define Me

Often times, those with chronic pain and illness find that they are being defined by others based on their diagnosis.

This is the last thing they want to happen because those with medical health conditions are more than their disease.

They are living, breathing, vibrant individuals and their life is not over.  No one wants to be spoken of, or thought of as being the person with a particular condition.

Those with medical illness and chronic pain prefer to be seen as individuals whose conditions are separate from who they are.

They have a separate identity away from this part of their life and keeping that separation can be crucial in maintaining a sense of self while going through medical treatment.

This concern, about being labeled by others, is why many with medical health conditions keep it a secret.  They stay quiet about their aches, pains, and worries related to their health because of how it may impact relationships and how others may view them.

I Am Tired Of Being The Spokesperson For This Medical Illness 

A common experience people with health conditions face is going through the same types of discussions with others about their health.  If people learn of your health condition, then that friend, family member or colleague, might start asking you a million and one questions.  It is like the floodgates have opened, and the question and answer exchange just won’t end.

This becomes especially true if it is a condition that friend or family member has never heard of.

I know that was the case for me and I often found myself feeling like the spokesperson for my condition.  The conversations would often be long and detailed where I did my best to explain and answer their questions; but I also found it to be really exhausting.

Now please don’t get me wrong here.  Of course it is nice to have others express an interest in your well being, and want to learn more about what you are going through.  It is just that with time, these conversations continued to take place over and over again.  Learning to move the conversation in a different direction was key.  For instance, politely directing them to reading material on a website helped us both not engage in long conversations.

No Pity Please About My Medical Illness

When you do have these conversations with others and they start to get the picture that there is no easy solution to your health situation and that it may a lifelong illness, you can start to sense them feeling sorry for you.  You get the impression they pity you and that can be such an uncomfortable feeling. Once that happens, it can also really change the dynamic of the relationship.   No one wants their friends or family feeling sorry for them.

Being treated differently and seen through the lens of pity tends to bring up feelings of sadness and disappointment that the illness is changing another thing in you life.  You are doing your best to protect your relationships, but sometimes they get affected despite all your efforts.

Keep Your Trusted Circle Small

Having close and trusting relationships can help offset many of the obstacles people with medical illness may encounter.

While those with a health conditions and pain might not feel safe in freely talking about their condition, it does not mean they have to keep their feelings to themselves.

Having those close connections and getting additional support from a therapist, doctor, support group and more can all make all the difference in the world.

If you are feeling the need for more support as you go through this major life change, please feel free to contact me for a free 30 minute consultation.  I am happy to offer assistance and resources so that you get the support you are looking for.

Daniela Paolone

Daniela Paolone is a Marriage and Family Therapist and founder of Westlake Village Counseling serving residents of California and Wyoming. She helps those working through pain, illness, depression and anxiety using a secure online counseling platform ensuring client confidentiality. Using education, helpful resources, unconditional support and understanding, she strives to help people transform their pain into power so they can live their best lives!

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 11 comments
Tim Hill - August 31, 2017

Thank you Daniela – I hadn’t really thought about these issues in depth before, and hadn’t realised that there was so much depth regarding the decision to share (and how much to share) regarding your medical conditions and pain. I now appreciate that the path to management is neither full disclosure or ‘bottling up’ but rather one of nuance in an effort to get the best outcome you can for yourself and support you in the process of living with the new normal.

Daniela Paolone - August 31, 2017

Yes that is exactly it Tim. Finding that balance where you feel it is safe to talk about it while also being selective in who you choose to share it with. You summarized it way better than I did in the article!

DAlila - September 6, 2017

Great post. So much useful information.

Naz - September 6, 2017

Thanks a lot for writing this insightful post on medical illness and chronic pain! As always I enjoyed reading your article on psychological aspects of managing chronic illness

    Daniela Paolone - September 6, 2017

    Thank you Naz for your continued support!

Chris Marrero-Howieson - September 7, 2017

Thank you for this. I wish I had it a few years ago when my father was struggling with this very thing.

    Daniela Paolone - September 7, 2017

    Oh wow so sorry to hear that Chris. But hearing this type of feedback is exactly why I keep writing about this topic so thank you for sharing.

Anna Prudovski - September 7, 2017

Thank you, Daniela. This post is truly refreshingly validating and thought-provoking. There is no single recipe for how much to disclose and to whom. This is an individual decision and it may change throughout the course of the illness and may depend on how the relationship unfolds.

    Daniela Paolone - September 7, 2017

    Thank you Anna for your kind and insightful words! I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this topic.

Elizabeth Cush, LCPC - December 12, 2017

This is such an eye opening post Daniela! Thanks for sharing this!

    Daniela Paolone - December 12, 2017

    Thank you for your feedback! I am glad you found it informative and helpful 🙂


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