And no, I’m not going to argue that if you’re too nice, you’ll become a doormat. We’ve all heard that before, so it’s not unconventional wisdom. Going beyond the doormat argument, I’ve found several reasons why making a distinct effort to be a nicer person towards someone can have negative side effects:
I decided a while back to be nicer to a housemate. She could be quite sensitive about comments to do with her house, so I decided to stop making any. Easier said than done, of course, as I was living with her and really could have done with a few adaptations here and there. But I made a huge effort and resisted mentioning all sorts of things. She, however, mentioned something about me and the house on an almost daily basis, from food in the plughole to forgetting to turn things off. If I hadn’t made my pledge, all would’ve been pretty equal but, as it was, I got sicker and sicker of receiving comments while having to hold all mine in. I’d end up blurting them out during a disagreement, which was hardly the best time. In future I’ll be entering into these kinds of resolutions with a heavy dose of caution!
This goes hand in hand with increased inequality. It can easily arise when you’re making a big effort for someone but that person appears to be making zero effort towards you. Sometimes it can even be quite illogical. You can think: here I am, trying to think the best of this person, and yet they’re still mean to me. Well, maybe that person has no idea you’re trying to think the best of them. Resentment is such a difficult emotion to soothe away, I find. It’s hard to give freely and expect nothing (or worse than nothing) in return.
There’s a practice in Buddhist-inspired mindfulness where you wish people well, starting with yourself, then a near-stranger, then someone ‘difficult’, then a larger group of people. An unexpected side-effect of this practice for me was forgetting about people’s darker sides. Let’s say my difficult person one day was a chap called Damien. I spend time thinking about what could have led to Damien’s unpleasant behaviour. I remind myself he’s a human being with hopes and fears like the rest of us. I wish him well. Then, later in the day, or even the next day, I meet Damien and he’s a complete arse towards me. I found myself feeling more shocked and more wounded by Damien’s behaviour as if, subconsciously, I’d expected him to be more likeable, more kind, simply as a result of my meditation.
I still do this meditation but with more awareness of what might happen.
This links in with ‘unpleasant surprise’. It’s more of a deeper loss of awareness of people’s motives. It can be beneficial to think the best of people and not assume their motives are bad. They might not have called you for ages because of a rough patch at work. They might have been rude because they had a bad day. But if you take this too far, you risk slipping into delusion. I’ve observed it, and I’ve been there myself. For about a week I convinced myself that someone wasn’t being rude to me because of anything I’d done. Only when he stopped talking to me altogether did I get the message, when it was really too late. Kindness = good; naivete not so much.
But don’t turn into ****head!
I’m not suggesting anyone stop trying to be nice to people. Even ‘difficult’ people. I just wanted to share some of the surprising after-effects of my attempts to be a nicer person. I’m not sure what the answers are here, but I feel like being aware of the issues is always a good first step! I guess my takeaway is to still try to be a nice person but:
still listen to my gut if someone is acting in a mean way, rather than assuming I’m reading too much into things or being too sensitive
not take this too far by doing too much for someone who’s not reciprocating or appreciating it
reminding myself that even if I’m thinking kindly of someone, they might not have a similar focus and may have no idea I’m doing it either!
Have you got any advice on avoiding these pitfalls, while still trying to be a better person? Or just got some tales of your own on the topic? If so, please share below! And if you want to be kept in the loop in case I find the perfect solution, or just to hear more of my ponderings in future, please subscribe.
For me, whenever I consider any religion, two big questions arise: 1. Is it plausible? and 2. Is it helpful? I think the law of attraction is a new religion that is steadily growing, largely unnoticed, and it’s about time we all had a good look at it. This post will cover ‘Is it plausible?’ and in a future post I will look at the second question.
What is the law of attraction?
The basic principle of the law of attraction is that you tell ‘the universe’ what you want in a specific way, and it will be delivered to you. In their words:
‘Visualize your message as a letter with ‘The Universe‘ printed on its envelope as an address… If you were waiting for new shoes, perhaps you would make space in your shoe rack. Likewise, make space in your life for the order that you have placed with the universe….Speak, walk, talk and breathe as if your reality has already changed for the better, and your original message will be delivered.’ 
It falls in a category involving a host of other beliefs such as belief in chakras and ‘energy therapies’.
A new religion
The United Kingdom has, of late, very much become the land of atheists or, at least, those who identify as having no religion (48.5% in 2014, outnumbering the 43.8% who define themselves as Christian). And yet I have become increasingly aware of a new religion, one that many might not call a religion but which I suggest should be seen as one: the law of attraction. It requires faith and something similar to prayer. It offers to its followers rich rewards. And it has a community of followers with their own online and real-life groups where they meet up and talk about using the principles of this ‘law’ in their lives (at the time of writing, on Meetup alone, law of attraction groups have over 1 million members!).
‘The Secret’ by Rhonda Byrne is a book on the Law of attraction that is, according to the book’s website, a worldwide best seller available in 50 languages with over 20 million copies in print. 
Its followers may well disagree with me and say ‘a religion? Oh no, it’s just another law of the universe like gravity’. But this is not very different to how followers of other religions will also tell you that God is real, a fact. The only difference is that churches don’t necessarily try to convince you God is real by reference to quantum physics (though a few probably do).
I had a message once from someone renting out rooms who thought I might like to live there. Based on me having said meditation is one of my interests, this home-owner told me that he and other persons in the house were law of attraction believers and another person there was a ‘heretic’. A jokey remark, of course, but, I think, hinting at a deeper, and more disturbing, reality.
While most religious people nowadays are aware that others may not believe in God and are usually quite discreet about their beliefs, the same can’t always be said about law of attraction followers. Those who believe that the law of attraction is a real phenomenon can say things such as “I know a great person who can really help with blocked energies”. They don’t realise that the existence of personal energies has not been proven or they assume that for some reason you will share their beliefs (e.g. because you both like meditation). I am constantly coming across law of attraction believers, and it’s time to speak out.
The essence of the law of attraction is as follows: ‘Whether we are doing it knowingly or unknowingly, every second of our existence, we are acting as human magnets sending out our thoughts and emotions and attracting back more of what we have put out.’  ‘When we fill ourselves with negative energies and emotions such as fear, anger, sadness or general pessimism, our frequency is lowered and the universe can only expand on this, promoting greater negativity in our lives.’
As with all religions, no hint of doubt in the phrasing there. But is this real science?
I have been unable to find any genuine, qualified scientist supporting the proposition that we send out different vibrations according to how we feel. And, even were that the case, it would need to be proven that such vibrations attract things to us such as new jobs, new partners, money, illness, etc.
Some refer to experiments on water: however, these are by no means accepted by the scientific community, may not have followed scientific methods, and the ‘scientist’ who carried them out is not well qualified or widely respected . It is also unclear how these ‘experiments’ (where people acted in various ways towards water: really!) could prove the idea that we can send out ‘positive vibrations’ to bring us what we want.
While most of us rely on Google as our main signpost to sources of knowledge, this is not necessarily wise. The top links resulting from a Google search are, presumably, usually companies who have hired a search engine optimisation firm to get them there. Life coaches and energy medicine practitioners need you to find them in a Google search and, as a result, if you search for ‘human energies’ or such, you will find material from those who rely on such pseudoscience to make money.
Really the only major balance to all of them is https://sciencebasedmedicine.org, which clearly states ‘Scientists can detect and measure minute energies down to the subatomic level, but they have never detected a “human energy field.”’  This website contains articles written by qualified scientists who expose the pseudoscience so commonly used by practitioners of ‘energy medicine’ such as reiki. While believers of the law of attraction may not also believe in ‘energy medicine’ and vice versa, there is often an overlap and ultimately both rely on similar claims (e.g. that energy can be purposely sent out from our body to do things like order us new shoes or heal someone’s bad back).
Writers at the New York Times, Psychology Today and some other sources have also refuted the law of attraction .
But what about anecdotes where it has ‘worked’?
The law of attraction and the philosophy around it share some similarities with common sense psychology, and so may sometimes appear to work. Psychological studies have long acknowledged the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ whereby, for example, someone who is always told they are bad at maths may indeed do badly in maths exams due to their poor self-confidence . Likewise those with good self-confidence will probably achieve most in life due to their willingness to try new things and their belief that their endeavours are worthwhile and will pay off. There is nothing radical about this. Believing goals are attainable is crucial to keep us motivated and determined, and believers of the law of attraction are likely to have such a belief.
Elements of the law of attraction are backed up by fact or simply obvious, such as this statement taken from thelawofattraction.com home page:
‘A key part of the Law of Attraction is understanding that where you place your focus can have an intense impact on what happens to you. If you spend your days wallowing in regrets about the past or fears of the future, you’ll likely see more negativity appearing, but if you look for the silver lining in every experience then you’ll soon start to see positivity surrounding you every day.’
People who want to see positive change in their lives don’t need to consult the law of attraction website, books or groups. There are plenty of other sources that can help people and which don’t rely on fake science. Not only that, but there are sources of help that have been tested by eminent psychologists (such as Martin Seligman, Rick Hanson and others), unlike the law of attraction. The law of attraction can actually lead people to worse mental health, as will be discussed in my next post.
As for ‘energy medicine’, it can work by causing relaxation and stress relief and due to the placebo effect. So, yes, it may help but it may also cost people a lot of money and cause them to fail to pursue more useful (and more scientific) remedies.
Left unchallenged, these beliefs will spread. After centuries of truth-seeking and moving away from believing the earth is flat and lightning is God’s wrath, we are at risk of slipping back into superstition and investing great time and money in such beliefs. Google isn’t helping. The internet is awash with support for this theory and proper analysis is hard to find. The same is true for energy medicine. Next time you meet someone who assumes you are a believer, please show you aren’t. Please share this post, or one in the related links below, and help us keep on the path of truth and wisdom.
This is not another of those articles urging you to take up a ‘digital detox’. But nor is it a biased post with a commercial ulterior motive. These are my reflections on the social media age that we woke up to one morning. At least, that’s how it seems to me. I’m old enough to remember the pre-digital era, but only just. Like most of us, I slipped into using Facebook without a second thought. It went from a niche network of university friends to an online network with an astounding 1.94 billion active monthly users, according to Statista . Rarely has anything so suddenly infiltrated so many parts of our lives, with Facebook messaging often replacing email or text, with photos often being shared in the network, political viewpoints announced to the world, objects bought and sold, jobs advertised, groups formed… the list goes on. But how many of us have really stopped to think about how we use it and how well it serves us? It took me a while to do so, but I’m mighty glad I did. Here are some of the things I thought about social media use (especially Facebook, but also other network.
Something that often comes up when you talk to people about Facebook is the green-eyed-monster that rises up in us as we scroll down the news feed. Instagram feeds can provoke similar issues. For many, the feed is composed of people showing what a great time they’re having, and, in many cases, how many friends they supposedly have (in the form of likes). No matter how much we tell ourselves we know it’s just a facade and that the number of likes is pretty meaningless, do we believe it? According to new research by disability charity Scope, 62% of Facebook and Twitter users felt their own achievements were inadequate when compared to the posts of others, and 60% said that the sites had made them jealous of other users . The test, I think, is to observe how you feel as you scroll down. Do you feel happy for the people there? Bored? Envious? Competitive? Depressed? Then let your feelings dictate what you do next, be it continuing as you are, limiting how long you spend on Facebook, stopping viewing the news feed or leaving Facebook altogether. For me, this reflection led me to stop viewing the news feed and I chose a photography page I like to be listed first so that generally when I log in I see its latest post. I find that now I more often message friends directly to see what they’re doing, which leads me on to the next point…
Another issue I’ve heard discussed is the unsatisfying nature of relationships that don’t exist beyond Facebook. Much as it’s nice when someone likes something you post, it’s not a conversation. I do sometimes wonder if actual one-to-one communication has diminished because people spend idle moments scrolling through the news feed rather than sending a text or giving someone a call. Ever since I stopped using the news feed, I’ve definitely been interacting more with people one-to-one, which I find so much more satisfying.
Of course, it is possible to get into discussions on Facebook, but it’s not something I see a lot of. WordPress is much better for in-depth discussion I find, while Twitter is rather worse, due to the character limits.
That said, apparently finding out you’ve received a ‘like’ literally gives you a mini high , so on one level it is quite satisfying.
Good for groups
In my experience, Facebook is quite good for groups. It’s easy to set one up and people don’t need to log in twice. It’s easy to share photos and videos and comment on them. Facebook groups are the reason I’m still using the network. Of course, face-to-face groups are great too, probably more so, but Facebook groups have the upper hand when it comes to convenience and reaching people from all over the world. Again, it’s no doubt well worth checking in with how you actually feel when you use online groups; if you’re just getting into arguments or using it as a distraction, it might be time to leave.
Facebook: the graveyard of friendships, if you don’t have regular ‘clear outs’
A friend once described Facebook in this way as we chatted about its negative side. It struck a chord right away. I’ve never found the time or the heart to do a ‘friend cull’ and about 80% of my Facebook ‘friends’ are people I knew long ago. Needless to say, the Facebook algorithms love to let me know that some person I once vaguely knew is happily married, or has had a baby. Facebook also likes to remind me of people I was once friends with via it’s ‘what you were doing x years ago’ feature.
Facebook can be great when you are at school or university with a big network of real-life connections, and you’re meeting new people all the time, but when it begins to look and feel like a dismal graveyard it’s time to either do that cull (hopefully if there’s been no contact for several years no-one will take offence), stop looking at the news feed or leave.
If you keep your network fairly small, maybe the news feed items will provide a genuine encouragement to stay in touch with more distant friends rather than simply informing you about people you’ve ceased to care about.
Political tools, but use with care
I have mixed feelings about politics and social media. Certainly we now have the opportunity to find likeminded people from all over the world and co-ordinate political action. But we also have the opportunity to rant and say the first thing that comes into our head. To anonymously intimidate and threaten. To be highly reactive, not reflective. And to sound off in an (often rather depressing/angry) echo chamber of people who share our views, or bombard those who will simply ‘mute’ us as soon as they see a view they don’t agree with. I’d much rather read a considered blog post, or listen to a vlog, and get into a discussion around that. And I think face-to-face discussion with people we know is probably more likely to impact on their views than a ranty post.
As for getting informed about politics and news on social media, it’s certainly more fun than newspapers but of course there is the risk of fake news when there’s no-one vetting the accuracy of the posts. Social media is also a convenient soapbox for populist characters to make all sorts of claims (you know who I mean, I’m sure…).
Social media use can make us too focused on ourselves and on selfish goals
On the whole, people are happier when they see the bigger picture in life. The more I focus on MY popularity, my likes, my photos and so on, the more self-absorbed I am. We all know someone who is constantly uploading pictures of themselves, and this intense focus on appearance can’t be good for us. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of having a ‘brand’ either. I want my friends to be my friends on good and bad days, through boredom and adventure, regardless of my popularity or attractiveness. For me, that means having real-world friends and not investing too much time in the airbrushed version of myself that social media so strongly encourages.
I’m also not really a fan of the fact that Facebook posts are so often about marriage and kids. I’m not sure if it’s their algorithms doing this or purely what gets the most likes, but, while I have nothing against marriage or starting a family, I’d rather see posts about people making the world a better place more generally. And I’d rather see creativity than the consumerism encouraged by checking in and constantly posting about restaurants etc.
I even read that the more photogenic dogs are the most popular ones to be taken from dog rescue centres. No doubt some people even get a pet purely to get more likes – pretty silly.
Thinking about these aspects has reinforced my decision to avoid the news feed, which is even easier if you have the messenger app so don’t need to log into Facebook to see your messages. I only post about myself from time to time and always try to remind myself that I’m not on a quest for likes. Another thing that’s interesting to do is to ask yourself why you are thinking of posting something, and if it’s a very shallow reason, decide not to do it.
Facebook is good for appreciation, but is it creating an environment of forced positivity?
The comments that tend to get most likes are positive ones, and I’d certainly agree that it’s wise to appreciate the good things in our lives. However, I do wonder if the fact that most comments are of the ‘I’m so happy’ type might be making it more difficult for people to talk about their struggles. Prior to the introduction of the sad face, angry face and amazed face, negative posts usually received little reaction, and maybe the introduction of those other options came too late to change the fact that most posts are of the gloating kind. In my experience, it’s only worth airing your troubles on Facebook within the context of a support group.
A few other thoughts:
– encouragement of procrastination
– distraction from work/family/relationship/social life/crossing the street safely!
– there are a lot of bots and prostitutes on some networks
– Twitter is extremely commercial: it can be hard to use it for social ends when so many users have commercial aims
– social networks are great for sharing information, and indeed I use them to share bits of ‘unconventional wisdom’ and these posts
– easy to connect with people around the world
– sometimes an enjoyable distraction during a tea break etc.
What are your thoughts? How do you use social media? Would you like to change how you use it? Share your thoughts below.
This is something that’s really been on my mind lately. Having many choices is very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s good to have options, but, on the other hand, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and over-stretched, never feeling like you have enough time for anything. I think some people are more prone to this than others.
It is often assumed that a benefit of the free market is having lots of choice. I’m sure it’s better than having no choice, but at times I do wish there was a bit less choice. I’ve often spent hours trying to find the best price or the best product, and it was tedious and exhausting. I felt, somehow, obliged to do it. If you enjoy shopping around, or, alternatively, don’t feel obliged to do it, I envy you!
A writer in the Economist seems to agree with me, saying “The explosion of available goods has only made time feel more crunched”. 
A gender thing?
Women seem to be more prone to this than men, as we find ourselves traipsing round all the shops to be sure we’re getting the absolute best deal on something, whereas men seem to find it a lot easier to just buy the first suitable item. I remember a journalist once saying the same difference applies to holiday booking. Of course, browsing and getting the best deal can be really enjoyable, if you like that kind of thing… But, if you don’t, how do you drop the habit?
Never enough time, and FOMO
And it’s not just shopping that can be plagued by choice overload. Our leisure time can often feel fraught as we struggle to juggle invites, events we want to attend, chores that need doing and hobbies we’re struggling to keep up with, not to mention exercise and spending time with friends and family. When did having lots of wonderful options turn into feeling like we never have enough time and always feeling like we’re missing out?
The vast, messy, ever-present internet
Obviously, the internet has a lot to do with choice overload. It offers almost infinite resources including blogs, vlogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and news websites. I was wondering the other day whether teenagers are allowed to have their phones at school lunchtimes. Our hour-long lunchtimes seemed to last forever and were usually very boring; I feel like I could’ve had a better time online. Most often though, I reminisce about an era when people didn’t check their phones during our lunch date, an era when I seemed to spend a great deal of time enjoying the outdoors… It comes as no surprise that 60% (or more) of British 16−24-year-olds visit a social media site several times a day.  Ultimately, I think the internet is a good thing, but how can someone who used to read magazines from cover to cover get the most out of a great resource without feeling overwhelmed?
Netflix and such
The same issue can arise with things like Netflix: in the olden days, we had a choice of 4 channels and recording something to watch later was a bit of a pain. You went to a shop to hire videos. Now, we are faced with a huge choice of material, on demand. But we simply don’t have time to watch it all so, how to choose?
The pain of prioritising
The obvious answer to the ‘too much choice’ problem is clear: prioritise. For years I somehow didn’t realise this was necessary, accepting invites in a first-come-first-served manner, planning my life with a scattergun approach, lacking any ‘white space’ to reflect on life or make decisions. At one point, I actually had to pencil in my diary a slot to make a decision on some big issue, because otherwise the time didn’t arise! Looking back on that time, I’m so glad that my life is now so much more spacious.
Prioritising has a big place in my life now: in my work and professional development, in my personal admin time and in my leisure time. I’m the kind of person who finds many things interesting, so prioritising is, frankly, often quite painful, especially when it means saying ‘no’ to something. Ultimately though, time is finite and I don’t want to be one of those people who is completely over-stretched, never really listening to anyone or having time to reflect on their relationships and lifestyle. So, I’ve chosen my key hobbies (three of them), I’ve narrowed down my areas of work, and I prioritise friends based on how much they seem to care about our friendship.
Other strategies to manage choice overload and overwhelm
I’m thinking aloud here. Feel free to help me in the comments section below! This is very much a work in progress for me.
Think about how you fill your time. Rank the activities, from ‘favourite’ to ‘not that keen on’. Can you cut anything out? I realised I don’t really enjoy eating out: now I only do it for special occasions like birthdays or when a friend suggests it. Can you increase your favourite things? Maybe you just need to suggest them more, and people will be as keen as you are.
Narrow down the apps and social media. Do you really need to be on them all? Decide which ones are of most benefit to you and your network, and bin off the rest.
One study shows that young adults use their smartphones roughly twice as much as they estimate that they do (an average of five hours a day).  Photo by Daria Nepriakhina (Unsplash)
See the bigger picture: It’s not all about you. When you prioritise, factor in the feelings of relevant people. And give yourself enough time to help a stranger on your way somewhere, or do something for a friend at the weekend. Life isn’t a hedonistic pleasure spree, even if advertisers want us to think it is.
Narrow down your hobbies to the two or three most important ones. Combine them with socialising if appropriate e.g. in art clubs, book groups, dance groups, Meetups etc.
Learn mindfulness and slow down. Give up the frantic pace and really get the most out of what you’re doing right now.
Accept that life is full of obstacles and other people’s inefficiencies. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do, so take a deep breath and let go. Don’t resent the ‘wasted time’ − it would only make you angry.
At the risk of losing email subscribers to this blog, I’m still going to say it: subscribe to only a select few things.
Set limits: decide in advance how long you’ll spend looking for the best deals (or whatever it is you’re doing), or limit yourself to looking only at a certain number of websites, for example.
Whatever you do, don’t get emails and Facebook notifications popping up on your laptop or phone screen!
In your free time, try thinking ‘what do I actually feel like doing now?’ Learn to go with your instincts instead of following a habit to go on Netflix, Facebook or whatever. Maybe you’ll actually feel more like going for a walk, painting, calling a friend, baking a cake…. Don’t know about you, but too much time online makes me feel bug-eyed, zoned out and drained.
Keep some white space in your diary.
Look for recommendations g. try the Good Garage guide if you need to choose a local garage and consider subscribing to Which?
It’s easy to dismiss these things as fairly trivial, but are they?
Sometimes when I think about low pay in the arts, I think ‘well, I guess it’s not as important as medical services, or food or electricity provision. You can go without the arts’. But can you? Does anyone? Most people watch films and listen to music, even if reading fiction, going to galleries and attending an opera are more niche. Millions watch TV talent shows. It’s easy to dismiss these things as fairly trivial, but are they?
Have you ever been feeling really sad or worried and turned to your favourite film, book or comedian to help you through? I know I have. According to the stats, 1 in 4 people will experience some sort of mental health problem in the course of a year. . And while drugs and/or therapy might be a big help, I think the arts are a lifeline we often don’t recognise until the time comes.
As a young adult, I remember thinking that, if it weren’t for music, and especially for British rock band, Feeder, I might not still be around. Music has always been massively important to me. No matter how you’re feeling, there’s bound to be a band that can sum up that feeling in a song, even if the song lyrics don’t really match your situation. And for those who prefer to listen to something jolly to cheer themselves up, there’s plenty of jolly music going around.
And the value of music isn’t just anecdotal. Studies in hospital settings have shown that listening to music reduces anxiety and depression, as well as having positive effects on blood pressure and heart rate. 
Of course, it’s not just music that can help people through a rough patch. I had to stop drinking several years ago for a medical reason. At times when in the past getting pissed might have seemed the answer, I now go to the library and get a shitload of books. It’s not glamorous, it’s not massively cool, but it works. Get lost in a book and you’re oblivious to your problems. Not only that, but some books are really uplifting in one way or another, so that by the end you do feel a bit better as well.
What’s your go-to art form? Love musicals or dance shows? Theatre, film, comedy? What helps you feel better? Has anything helped you through dark times?
And then there’s actually getting involved in art; the therapeutic value of this is a little better known. Does painting cheer you up? Playing an instrument? Writing? I should admit right now that I’m partly writing this to escape from the bloody awful week I’m having right now. But I hope you enjoyed it! Let me know your thoughts below 🙂
On the whole, talking about the chronic pain I experience tends to be greeted with a resounding silence, and/or rapid change of the subject.
If you’d asked me ten years ago to name taboos in the UK, I’d have said things like ‘female masturbation’ and ‘being transgender’. Twenty years ago, I might have said ‘being homosexual’. Particularly in some circles, these things are still somewhat taboo, but much less than they were. Now I’d include chronic pain, but only because I live with it. If you don’t, you’re probably happily oblivious of the awkwardness around the topic.
The Cambridge UK dictionary defines ‘a taboo’ as ‘an action or word that is avoided for religious or social reasons’. Having suffered from chronic pain for several years now, I’ve only gradually become aware of how often I refrain from mentioning pain, and why. On the whole, talking about the chronic pain I experience tends to be greeted with a resounding silence, and/or rapid change of the subject. No doubt this is why I often avoid mentioning it, or mention it briefly and rapidly change the subject myself.
Why the awkwardness?
Are people awkward about chronic pain because they don’t know what to say, like when someone’s parent has died? Or is it because they think you shouldn’t mention it; you should be pretending everything is fine? Hard to know really. Here are my thoughts on possible reasons why people react strangely to talk of pain:
Chronic pain, like death, old age and hospitals, is something most people prefer to ignore until forced to confront it. Discussion of these topics causes a sense of unease that people want to avoid.
People want to ‘save’ those with chronic pain from talking about something that seems very personal, so strive to change the topic.
People are worried about either sounding pitying or heartless, so say nothing or change the subject.
Actually, people are only a little awkward but the chronic pain sufferer is expecting awkwardness and that magnifies it in his/her mind.
There’s always the worry that silence means something negative like ‘you need to man up’, especially after actually receiving some rude and inconsiderate comments along these lines in the past.
Then there are other reasons why people with chronic pain don’t talk about it:
Fear of sounding like you’re complaining and fishing for sympathy.
The complexity of the subject, which can only really be covered fully by a long conversation.
Fear of sounding ‘soft’.
This article sums up brilliantly the many reasons why revealing a chronic pain condition can make a person feel very vulnerable: it can feel like you are in a no-win situation. But the less you say (or are able to say, before the topic is changed!), the more likely people are to jump to the wrong conclusions. The more you can explain, the more people are likely to gain understanding.
Why we all need to help end this taboo
The trouble with any taboo is that it creates repression and shame. People feel abnormal and are unable to obtain the benefits of discussing something important to them, such as compassion, getting useful suggestions, and that feeling of carrying a lighter load. And the subject of the taboo remains poorly understood, shrouded by prejudices. Estimates of those living with chronic pain vary, but it is undoubtable that the percentage is high: about 7.9 million people in the UK experience moderately or severely limiting chronic pain (between 10.4% and 14.3%) . How many people do you know with chronic pain? Does it match these statistics? If it doesn’t, then maybe you know some people who are living in the silence of this taboo.
We Brits are well-known for a ‘grin and bear it’ attitude and for euphemisms. We say things like ‘things have been better’, when really we mean ‘things are terrible’. Is this helpful when it comes to chronic pain? Well, there’s certainly a need for much ‘patient endurance’, as chronic illness writer Toni Bernhard puts it. And sometimes we do smile, in spite of the pain, and we must. But we shouldn’t feel pressurised to pretend everything is fine if we feel unhappy. We shouldn’t feel unable to set boundaries, to pace ourselves, and to use mobility aids or other aids which ease our burden. Most importantly, we should feel ok about sharing this struggle, this massive part of who we are.
And with 69% of those with the severest level of pain experiencing anxiety or depression , improving the social conditions faced by these people should be a high priority. Feeling that pain is taboo isn’t going to lift anyone’s mood – quite the opposite.
How can we get there? If you live with chronic pain, try to start sharing when you can. And if you don’t live with chronic pain, be ready to listen, to show some sympathy, and to discuss this issue which has been pushed into the shadows for far too long.
I’ve started talking more about pain, talking about it whenever a good opportunity arises. I’ve started resisting the urge to not talk about it. And you know what? It feels good. It feels a bit revolutionary. It feels like being myself and like opening the door of understanding, even if merely by an inch.
Expand your mind. Challenge your perceptions. Discuss, discover and exchange.
Unconventional Wisdom is for the brave individuals who are ready to fully open their minds to other opinions. Research has shown that we often defend our current views and disregard anything contradicting them because that feels the safest option. We live in a world where reflection is on the decline and emotional reactions are on the increase. Opt out of the reactivity, opt into careful examination of the facts. Let’s discuss things calmly, with logical reasoning. Join us as we re-examine common assumptions and popular behaviour across a wide range of topics. Feel free to submit a post (the more logical and backed up by facts, the better) and feel free to comment on posts – respectfully, of course. Each post will remain anonymous to protect the writers from trolls.