Guilt often accompanies a diagnosis of chronic pain. When your life changes so drastically, and you can’t do the things you used to, it’s all too easy to become consumed by guilt and other negative feelings. We may hesitate to commit to plans, or worry that our families feel overburdened with our care.
Sometimes the deep, pervasive feelings of guilt from chronic pain can be just as bad as physical pain sensations. I've been there and I can tell you that it is possible to overcome your feelings of guilt and start to enjoy your life again.
Taking care of your emotional health is an essential part of your pain management regimen when you’re living with a chronic pain condition. As a chronic pain survivor, I’ve had to come to grips with my own feelings of guilt since my diagnosis.
● Guilt from causing my family and friends to worry about me.
● Guilt about canceling events because I’m in too much pain.
● Guilt from spending a lot of time in bed.
● Guilt about doing something fun even though it caused me a lot of pain the next day.
● Guilt and worry from choosing the wrong doctor or treatment.
● Guilt about not being able to cope with it all.
Worry and guilt after a chronic pain diagnosis is a well that never runs dry. The feelings of guilt are very real. As a chronic pain patient, you’ll hear from well-meaning friends and even medical professionals that you shouldn’t let the pain control your life or prevent you from doing what you enjoy. But that’s just not possible. Holding on to your old life can sometimes worsen feelings of guilt.
No healthy, sane person wakes up one day and thinks “hey, I’d love to get me some fibromyalgia pain or a big dose of degenerative disc disease agony for the rest of my life”. Your pain isn’t your fault. Your body isn’t the same as a healthy person’s, but that doesn’t make you a lousy human. In fact, you are a warrior. You get through days that would cause many people to crawl into a fetal position and stay that way.
Nevertheless, when you have a chronic, severe pain condition like fibromyalgia, arthritis, or something similar, the pain can get the better of you no matter how strong and optimistic you are. It’s all too human to become consumed with negative, guilty feelings when your health takes a turn for the worse. Pain is there every day, reminding you of what you used to be able to do and now can’t. Ignoring it won’t make it go away, and it won’t change the facts.
The fact is, you have to accept what your life is now. Acceptance is the first step to overcoming certain feelings of guilt when you live with a severe, chronic pain condition. When you have this type of disease, your mind and body are pushed to their limits every day. Adding on unrealistic expectations is the perfect guilt trigger when you’re already in a vulnerable state.
However, acceptance of your new limitations does not mean giving up. It doesn’t mean that you have to “accept” that you’ll never have fun again, or socialize, have meaningful relationships, or play with your children. None of that is true. There is no such thing as the perfect, chronic pain patient who lives the same way they used to before they got sick.
It’s perfectly reasonable and understandable that you want your old life back and want to work tirelessly to achieve it. It's also completely normal to be angry about the situation and let that consume you too. As someone who's been on this journey for a while now, I can tell you that going back to the way things used to be isn’t obtainable but you don't have to let guilt and anger poison you and your ability to enjoy your life.
The good news is, you can reach a state of normalcy - a new baseline of contentment and happiness even while living with a chronic pain diagnosis. It all begins with letting go of the guilt and the myth of the perfect pain patient and embracing your new reality.
What Does This New Life Look Like?
It’s true that you don’t have the same energy levels as before your chronic pain diagnosis. At this stage in your life, you need to prioritize being kind to yourself. Feeling more tired than usual? It’s all right to spend the day resting, or doing a low-energy activity that makes you happy, like chatting with a friend or cooking something quick and simple that you enjoy. Read books that lift your spirits, or fiction that takes you to another time or place. If you have kids, play board games while resting. Kids want love, attention and interaction - they don't need the next Olympic gold medalist.
Feeling angry at how unfair it is to have this condition is a pretty normal response, too. I’ve been there myself, in that dark abyss that threatens to suck the joy out of every part of my life. It’s all right to spend the day at home taking care of yourself when these feelings become overwhelming. Just don’t fall into a habit of isolating yourself.
When you suffer from chronic pain, part of your pain management routine needs to include a lot of emotional self-care. Instead of blaming yourself for what you can’t do now, try to turn things around and look at it from the lens of who you are at this stage in your life, not what you used to be.
It’s a challenge to live with chronic pain. Anyone who can live with this condition deserves to be proud of what they can accomplish, even if those accomplishments are small, baby steps toward better self-care and pain management. Anytime you can do something, no matter how small despite your pain, and it means that you are still trying and moving forward to a new sense of normal.
The key to beating the guilt and anger stemming from a chronic pain diagnosis is to simplify and change your expectations. Even though you can’t do it all anymore, you can still have a great relationship with the people you love and with yourself. You can still have great experiences. Maybe you can’t play sports with your friends or your children anymore, but you can offer them support, advice, and share other, less physically demanding experiences with your loved ones.
Remember, your family and friends are with you because they want to be with you. They love and care about you, and feeling guilty that you can’t do the things you used to do with them doesn’t change how their love for you. Never believe for even a minute that you're a burden to anyone. You have value and it doesn't have to fit into a neat little mold.
Managing your chronic pain condition can cause guilt and fear. These feelings can sometimes hurt just as much as physical pain. I know what it’s like to struggle with this. Learning to let go of high, unrealistic expectations, simplify my life, and take time to take care of my body has been a process. It does get easier as you make it a habit to find different ways to have fun, to participate in life, to nurture relationships, and to make your physical and emotional health a priority.