Frustrating Incongruent Optimism

"It is going to be ok and you will be fine! You'll feel better real soon. If you'd just get off the couch and get outside you'd feel so much better. My aunt had that diagnosis too and she was not sick for too long."

Do any of these comments sound familiar? Most likely they come from well intentioned people who care about you and believe that these are the types of statements that will contribute to "feeling better." Unfortunately at times they are the last thing that a person suffering from the symptoms of a chronic physical illness wants to hear. Due to the impermanent nature of sensations and states, it is likely that at some point one may feel better than what s/he feels in the moment.  However, in that moment these statements are frustratingly incongruent with the suffering person's experience.

It can be difficult for people to tolerate seeing loved ones in pain or discomfort due to illness. Despite a genuine desire to help, these optimistic comments are often the product of the commenter's anxiety rather than valid means of assistance. People do need to be reminded at times that the state s/he is in will eventually pass, and maintenance of hope is critical to healing with respects to physiology and psychology; however, an equally and at times more important need is the experience of validation. Imagine how lonely it can feel for a person with an illness who is enduring continuous pain, dizziness, fatigue, confusion, rashes, swelling, hair loss, bone loss, or any other extremely uncomfortable symptom, when they hear a loved one say, "its gonna be ok." Yes, hopefully and in many cases it will likely be ok but in that specific moment it is not ok. In that specific moment it is horrible and unbearable and acknowledging that is ok!

Sometimes the best form of help a loved one can offer is to ask the person who lives with an illness what s/he is feeling in the moment, and to let that person know that it is ok to be angry, sad, or frustrated about what s/he is going through. After all, the reality is that it does feel awful to be dizzy, to not be able to focus your eyes on reading, to experience muscle pain, to vomit profusely, to watch your hair fall out, to watch your joints deform, and to live with many other symptoms that come with living with a chronic physical illness. It can feel really good for a person living with such an illness to know s/he is not alone--someone acknowledges the validity of the experience.

Many loved ones may fear that if positive statements are not provided the person with the illness will become depressed and lose hope in healing.  There is a big difference between having a "bad health day" and clinical depression. If someone feels hopeless more days than not, it would be wise to help them get help and contact a mental health practitioner.  Many people who live with chronic physical illness do become depressed at times and it is advised that some sort of therapeutic support is sought after. However, when a person with an illness is just having a bad day, it can be extremely helpful to just be there with him/her. There is a way to keep hope alive and just be in the moment with the loved one. For example, "I am sorry you have to feel this way. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day, but I know it really stinks today. I am here to listen. What do you feel like today?" It can be very helpful to show interest in what the person with the illness is experiencing in the present moment. Sharing unpleasant emotions can really lighten the load for the person who is carrying them, while making some disconnected optimistic comment may leave the person feeling misunderstood and alone, and likely to not want to share his/her feeling's with others.

Frustrating incongruent optimistic comments may at times suggest that a person is in denial of his/her loved one's suffering. Moving past denial is critical for the person's living with the illness ability to cope, and this can be a difficult feat if the people in that person's life cannot move past the denial themselves. None of this is easy. Nothing about living with a chronic physical illness is easy. Nothing about having a loved one suffer from such an illness is easy. Everyday is a learning experience and the less one judges him/her self the smoother the process will be. Stay true to your experience and ask for help when you need it. Good luck on your journey.