Today we’re going to talk about pain response and how others respond to our pain.
I have a familiar face, so sometimes people struggle to remember if they have met me or not.
I am about average height, have average-ish brown hair, am fairly average to fluffy weight, and I smile quite a bit.
I generally attribute these characteristics to be the reason that people struggle to recognize me after they have met me a few times.
My ligaments have a habit of getting a little stretched out, so for the last couple of years I have had some opportunities to wear braces including: a shoulder sling, an ankle brace, and a wrist brace.
To make conversation, or in other words to make conversation and connect, I have noticed that people frequently ask ‘What is wrong?’, or ‘What happened?’
One of my favorite people might ask my husband ‘How’s Terri? Is she still still standing up?’ He says it in a caring voice, with empathy, and I know he prefers when I am not injured.
When I’m asked one of the above questions, I usually answer something pretty fast, such as ‘I slipped on the ice’, or ‘I just twisted my ankle’.
The shoulder sling was a little trickier. It is the one people usually use when they have shoulder surgery, so sometimes people will ask me if I’m the one who had shoulder surgery. Although I did not have surgery, I acknowledge that was probably me.
For the most part, I appreciate any conversation. A little dose of empathy for pain doesn’t bother me a bit.
What is harder for me is when the person I’m talking with implies that I am wearing a sling, brace etc. for attention purposes.
That reaction, even when stated in fun, tends to hurt my feelings. I have a tendency to wait too long to use an assistive device such as a sling or brace, so not only am I in a pretty high amount of pain if I am using it, but I am also frustrated about having to use it.
I usually envision myself as the 2-3 sport athlete I was in middle school and high school.(volleyball, basketball and track for middle school, volleyball and tennis in high school)
My other sport is Marching Band, which I did through college. I love to move my body, I’m competitive, and I am not very gifted athletically.
Dismissing my pain and my need for a device for various pains I have reminds me of those I have worked with in talk therapy. I think about how they talk about their own pain and when they feel dismissed.
A common theme between me and the people I have met with is their feelings of having their thoughts, feelings, or pain response dismissed.
In sessions with a client I knew some time ago, we talked about past trauma. That specific person told me that they were assaulted as a teenager and they thought it was their own fault.
They had never been able to talk through the events of the evening where the abuse occurred because of their own judgements of themself.
They thought they should not have put themself in that situation; therefore, it was their fault for being there. As we talked through the events preceding and during their trauma, they were able to put words to their feelings.
The session in which they told me about their traumatic event, they told me that they had practiced saying it over and over again to be able to tell me how the event went.
This telling of the story, to themself, helped them be able to say it in words to me. The words help put concrete thoughts to feelings and emotions.
Their comment after they reported the events to me was that preparing to tell their story had been more difficult than telling it.
As I think about those specific sessions, I think: What if the response they received about their painful, traumatic event where they blamed themself for being there had been ‘well, don’t you think you are partially at fault?’ ‘If you had not been there it would not have happened’.
What if the response given to them, whether it was by a therapist, a friend, or a parent, had been to blame them for the traumatic event which had occurred?
During therapy sessions, what I consider to be the appropriate response to a pain experience is empathy (sounds like that has been painful), as well as working through through feelings of self-blame.
To help reduce self blame, we work on increasing positive self-talk and reducing negative self-talk.
In addition, I strive to help people recognize the perpetrators of crimes are the people responsible for consequences to it.
The client I mentioned above has had consequences since the event happened. The consequences include self blame, struggling with intimacy, and a whole lot of fear.
Discussing their anger toward the perpetrators of the assault, as well as helping with coping skills to work through those anger responses is an additional step in the process.
What I do not consider to be helpful in this situation is minimizing the pain response of the person talking about their trauma.
Telling someone they are not experiencing the pain that they are interpreting as painful is really hard on the one in pain.
I usually remember that the person who is minimizing my injuries is probably uncomfortable with my pain and is not sure how to respond. Another option is that they have had their own pain minimized, and feel that response is appropriate.
A third option is that they say something funny when they are uncomfortable. I like funny, so I get it.
The next example of minimizing pain is this: a child told me about pain she experienced at the hands of her mother.
She told me that she didn’t like it when her mom spanked her. This statement occurred during a home-based therapy session.
Her mom yelled from the other room ‘oh come on! It couldn’t have actually hurt!’
The child looked at me with scared eyes. Families who I visited in their homes were either at risk of substantiated abuse or neglect or there had been abuse or neglect in their family.
A child complaining about a spanking from her mom is a red flag that abuse could be occurring in the family again, although it does not mean that definitively.
For the child, being told she didn’t experience pain when she was in the process of telling me that she was, dismissed her pain. Whether the pain she experienced was physical, hurt feelings, or abuse, it was still painful to her.
Something I encourage you to think about is how you react when someone reports a painful experience to you.
One idea is to state “I’m sorry you’re in pain’ as a first response.
Asking how it happened, telling a story related to your own pain, and even an empathetic look can be very helpful to a person experiencing any type of pain.
Often we speak to ourselves in a way that isn’t kind or uplifting.
We say things, whether out loud or to ourselves like ‘I’m so stupid’. ‘I’m so clumsy’, or ‘I’m fat’.
While these words can be motivating to ourselves, they can also be hurtful and dismissive.
Additionally, when a child hears a parent call themself stupid, fat, or lazy, they are likely to internalize that the parent is also calling them stupid, fat or lazy. Children, especially toddlers and teenagers, tend to be fairly self centered. A statement you make about yourself is likely to be internalized by the child or teen as something about themself.
In order to be helpful, I encourage you to think about the ‘unsaid’. Often the unsaid, whether it is a helpful glance, a pointed stare, or harsh ‘harrumph’ is the clearest communicator.
I hope you get an empathetic glance today. I hope, if you express pain to yourself, someone else, or to a child , that you get a response that is helpful to you in reducing your pain.