Talking to your family, friends or partner about chronic pain

Your family, friends and/or partner are likely the most important people in your life. It is important to be able to talk to them about your chronic pain. Some people tell everyone they know about their pain. Other people tell only their closest friends. Some people only tell their parents. Of course, it is up to you who you talk to about your pain and what you choose to share.

Since chronic pain is something that your family, partner or friends can’t fix, no matter how hard they try, it might make them feel powerless and afraid. As a result, your family and partner, in particular, can sometimes become more protective and more involved in your care and life than you would like.

Sometimes you might feel that you need to hide your feelings from your parent(s) or partner because you worry about making them more upset. In addition, you might worry how your friends are going to react, or that you’ll get emotional, when you talk about your pain. This is understandable. But know that the people closest to you need to know how you’re feeling so that they can help you. You might have some close friends with whom you want to share your experience of pain, but you do not need to tell all your friends everything about how you feel.

You can learn how to balance the need to share information with them and the need for privacy and boundaries. You can also learn how to respond to some common questions.

How can I tell my parent(s) or partner about my pain and still keep my independence?

Just as you want to share your experience of pain with your family and/or partner, you might also want to talk to them if you feel like you need more independence or you just need to be left alone sometimes. This can be tricky since you don’t want to upset them when they are trying to help and are very worried and concerned about your health. If you feel that you’re being over-protected, it is best to talk about your desire for independence before it starts to upset you. It may be more difficult to have this discussion when you really want to be left alone.

You could start by letting them know that you appreciate their care and their help, and you understand that they are worried about you. Then explain how you’re feeling. If your parents are hesitant about you doing more on your own, try making a plan ahead of time and tell them about it to show them how you’ll be responsible.

Having a plan can help you gain their trust. When you do this, it might help to use the following pattern of communication as well: “When you do (explain what they are doing), I feel (explain how it makes you feel)”. This can be a helpful starting point for a more detailed conversation of what is happening, how it affects you and what can be changed for the benefit of everyone involved. You can also look over the communication tips from earlier in this section​.

If you find it hard to talk with your parent(s) or partner about your feelings, you may be able to get some help from the members of your healthcare team, including your nurse or psychologist, to say what you need to.

How should I talk to my friends about my pain?

There is no “best” way to tell people you have chronic pain. You can only do what feels best for you. If you want to tell some of your friends about your pain you might find it easier to write them a letter or email, tell them on the phone or tell one close friend who can help you tell other friends. Even though it might take some extra effort at first, it will be worth it to stay close to your friends through the challenges of living with pain.

Remember, not all of your friends will want or be ready to hear everything about your medical situation. Ask them what would be helpful for them to know and offer to share other information if you think it’s important to tell them more. Carefully explain to them why you feel it’s important to share this information. Your healthcare team can help you find ways to talk to friends about your pain and your treatment.

How will my friends respond?

When you talk to your friends about your pain, they may not react the way you hoped or thought they would. Their reaction may make you feel angry or disappointed or make you feel like they don’t understand what you are going through. On the other hand, their reaction might be surprisingly good! You might be surprised by how much they understand and how much better you feel knowing you still have their friendship.

Here are some things your friends might be thinking when they find out you have chronic pain:

  • "I don’t know anything about chronic pain!"

  • "I am uncomfortable talking about chronic pain because I cannot give any advice."

  • "If I hang around with you, could I get pain? Is it contagious like the flu or something?"

  • "Can I still talk about my life and what’s happening at school? Will that make my friend feel more left out? My problems seem so unimportant compared to chronic pain."

  • "I don’t know what to say or do, what if I say or do the wrong thing?"

  • "Should I ask questions? Which questions are ok to ask and which aren’t?"

  • "I don’t want my friend to feel like they are different now, so I won’t treat them any differently." (This can mean your friend may not ask you often how you are coping with your pain or about your doctor’s appointments.)

It is also important to remember that even though your chronic pain can be very difficult to deal with, your friends’ own health issues or life challenges are still important. For example, if your friend has a bad headache, you might think that it cannot possibly compare to the pain that you experience, but it still feels like a big deal to your friend. Even though your pain might be more serious and longer-lasting, their own problems are still serious to them.

Telling friends about my chronic pain

It may seem unfair on top of everything else you’re dealing with right now, but you will likely need to help your friends understand your pain and how treatment is affecting you. Remember that you didn’t understand chronic pain either before you had it. Your friends might not feel as though they know what to say, or how to help you, so they will need your guidance.

Try some of these tips to help your friends understand what you’re going through and help them be the friends you need them to be.

  • Tell your friends a few facts about your pain and your treatment to help them understand what you are going through.

  • Let your friends know that you’re still the same person you always were and would like to be treated that way, but that there may be some things that are now difficult for you to do and that you may need to ask them to change plans from time to time.

  • Let them know what you can still do!

  • Give your friends ideas of what they can do to support you. Remember they are probably confused and may not know how to help you. For example, if you are not in school you should call them so that they can keep you in the loop of what is happening. Let them know that although you are may be home with pain you still would like to talk to them.

  • When you feel ready to answer friends’ questions, let them know. You can say something like, “I can tell you about my pain if you want…” And when you don’t feel like talking about pain, let them know that too.

  • Stay in contact with your friends through texts, phone calls, social media or any other way you feel comfortable. You may need to be the one to contact your friends, since they might be afraid to bother you.

  • If you find it difficult to explain chronic pain and treatment to your friends, give them a link to a website (for example, this website) to help them understand chronic pain and how to support you through it.