As many of you know, I write an occasional column for the Pain News Network. One of my compatriots there, Sarah Anne Shockley, recently published a book called The Pain Companion: Everyday Wisdom for Living With and Moving Beyond Chronic Pain that everyone who experiences pain or chronic illness should read. She was diagnosed with TOS (thoracic outlet syndrome) in 2007 and has lived with intractable nerve pain ever since.
It’s a very easy read and covers the necessary topics for a chronic pain lifestyle manual, such as anger, acceptance, relationships, self-image, and more. It’s the way Sarah writes that stands out; she is accessible, not only because she’s lived it, but also because she can relate her unique experience to other types of pain and offer constructive guidance. My pain isn’t her pain, but she showed me that we’ve been in the trenches together. This talent always stood out to me in her columns for PNN, and it’s translated very well to book form.
Since Sarah can say it better than I can, here is an excerpt from The Pain Companion about anger, blame, and chronic pain:
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While guilt and shame often stem from a belief in our own failings, anger and blame usually arise when we look outward and try to understand our situation from the standpoint of the people and circumstances that seem to have caused our problems.
When we’re not getting better, when we’re in pain and it is relentless, sooner or later we are going to get angry at someone or something.
We ask, Why me? How did this happen? Who or what is to blame for my misery? We look for the root so we can understand what happened. We think that if we can understand how it all came about, we can somehow undo it.
The trouble with this mindset is that the only way to answer these questions is to find something to blame: the job, the boss, the stresses of life, the other driver, the doctors who didn’t see it coming, air pollution, fatty foods, genetics, a traumatic childhood, our spouse, or anything else we can think of. We imagine that there is one thing, one starting point, one cause. If we can find it, we can heal.
At times, it is useful to pinpoint the onset of pain, such as when knowing exactly how an injury or illness happened can contribute to returning to wellness. But once that is found, it is no longer helpful to continually go over the history of an injury or ailment, the mistakes, or who was responsible for what.
No matter the real cause of your situation, at some point, you are also going to feel angry with yourself for having gotten into this situation, for making the choices that somehow led to this.
You can also build up resentment against yourself for not being able to get out of the fix you are in. It just seems to reflect badly on you as a person.
Of course, most people will say that they don’t think less of you because you are in pain or don’t consider you a bad person for being sick or injured. But you may.
On the inside, you feel awful about having to live in this situation and inflicting it on others. You can’t help it. It wears on you and can create a negative sense of self over time.
You will undoubtedly also feel angry at the pain because it is so insistent and so faceless, a force that can’t be bribed, cajoled, or bargained or reasoned with.
Anger is understandable, and it can be very healthy, but keeping it around because you need someone or something to blame, including yourself, only serves to keep pain in place.
Antidotes to Anger and Blame
Allow Your Anger, Then Use It for Fuel
There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling angry about what happened and what you are currently suffering. In fact, for people stuck in depression and sadness, anger can be a very liberating force.
Anger has a lot of energy in it. Rather than sitting still and feeling powerless, anger wants to move and change things, so it can be a very helpful emotion when harnessed for good. It can move people out of the doldrums and into positive action.
However, once you have gotten in touch with anger, you don’t want to stay in it. It’s not helpful to continuously feel angry and blaming, even if there is something specific to fault. It simply isn’t conducive to healing.
Anger that doesn’t move turns to bitterness. Use its energy to fuel your determination to recover, rather than let it eat away at you. Let it go and you are free to move on.
Leave the Past Where It Is
If it is important to you, spend the time you need to make a clear assessment of how your illness or injury came to be, then leave it alone. If the cause is uncertain or a complete mystery, then make the choice to leave it as a mystery for the time being.
Your energy and attention need to be on healing, not on who did or didn’t do something, or what exact circumstances were at fault. With the only exception being the times you may need to be involved in legal activities or a medical review, or if the cure lies in finding the exact cause, leave the past in the past.
The energy of blame is always looking backward, and you need to marshal your resources in the present so you can heal and have a better future.
Let Go of Resentments
I think of resentment as the quieter cousin of blame. Rather than accusing and pointing the finger, resentment seems to stem from a creeping and pervasive sense of unfairness.
I noticed that I sometimes felt resentful that I was injured through my employment, but my employer was able to carry on with life as usual. I resented his freedom and normalcy, while I had to live with pain and debilitation day in and day out as a result of working for him. I felt it was somehow unfair that he carried on relatively unscathed (except for some financial ramifications).
I resented having a doctor I had never seen before spend about thirty minutes with me and write a report that strongly influenced my disability settlement. I resented the way the workers’ compensation and disability system required me to keep re-proving my injury over and over again instead of actually supporting me to heal.
Keeping these feelings around wasn’t going to get me anywhere positive. I had to learn to notice them when they arose and then decide to just let them go. In the interests of your own well-being, I would recommend letting go of resentments against anyone involved who has hindered your healing or given you bad advice or seems to be unsupportive. You just don’t have the energy to waste on blame and resentment. Instead, use your energy for healing yourself.
Hold Everyone and Everything Blameless
As a second step to releasing resentments, decide to relieve everyone and everything of their burden of blame, including yourself, even if you feel blame is deserved.
This can be challenging because many of our legal and insurance systems can be very adversarial, bent on finding out who is to blame, and we speak of pain, illness, and injury as if they are enemies to be overcome. It is easy to fall into that pattern, but it really isn’t a useful strategy for healing.
The point isn’t whether or not you’re right and justified, which may well be the case. The point is that holding on to anger, blame, and resentment simply isn’t going to get you where you want to go.
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Sarah Anne Shockley is the author of The Pain Companion. In the Fall of 2007, she contracted Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS), which is a collapse of the area between the clavicles and first ribs, and has lived with debilitating nerve pain ever since. She has been a regular columnist for the Pain News Network and is a regular contributor to The Mighty, a 1.5 million–member online community for those living with chronic illness and pain. Visit her online at http://www.ThePainCompanion.com.
Excerpted from the book The Pain Companion. Copyright ©2018 by Sarah Anne Shockley. Printed with permission from New World Library — http://www.newworldlibrary.com.