Last week I talked about cultivating yourself: rediscovering and building the parts of yourself that you value. This week I want to talk about cultivating friendship. Chronic pain can really get in the way of friendship.

Whether you have fibromyalgia, headaches, back pain, arthritis, or other type of chronic pain, you may have noticed that pain puts a strain on friendship. You may have found that you see friends less or that you feel disconnected when you do get together. You may have lost touch with some friends who you feel are too active – you may believe you just can’t keep up.  You may feel that some of your friends just don’t understand what you are experiencing and that some are even downright insensitive. Chronic pain can be lonely.

But, you need not give up on friendship! As a first step, it is important to realize that while it is not possible to change other people, you are in charge your own behavior. Start by thinking of what you can do to begin the process of improving your relationships. Here are some ways to improve and repair friendships that may have been negatively impacted by your chronic pain.

Take the initiative to arrange social activities and events that you can do, rather than simply turning down those that seem difficult. Make a list of social activities and events that you are capable of doing even though you have chronic pain. Sometimes it is just a matter of reducing the amount of time or the time of day to make something doable. Keep an open mind about trying new things.  Schedule time with friends ahead of time.

Don’t expect your friends to “know what you are going through”.  If they don’t have chronic pain, they can’t “know”.   Explain a little at a time. And, ask yourself whether it  is really essential  that your friends know what you are feeling.

To decrease the sense of isolation that sometimes comes with chronic pain, each day make small but regular connections with others. Use email, text, the phone, Facebook, and any other methods to just stay in touch and involved.

Sometimes pain interferes with the ability to be a friend.  As much as you need support from others, you may have gotten out of the habit of providing support. It feels just as good to give as to receive. Make a list of the important people in your life and list the ways in which you can support them.

Look for opportunities to meet new people and create new relationships. When you are around others, make every effort to focus away from yourself and onto others.

Understand that your friends may feel uncomfortable because they may want to help, but may not know how.  Be direct in conversations about how they can help.

Learn to pace yourself in social activities. Doing too much on one day may only reduce how much you can do the next day.

When we are in pain, it is natural to want to tell others about it. We have all heard someone say “I have a headache” or “My back hurts”.  Before sharing in this way, think about whether there is anything the other person can say or do that will change the fact of your pain. If not, then sharing may only make both of you feel worse. Your friend may feel inadequate and you may feel even more helpless and alone.

Sometimes people with chronic pain find themselves focusing on what their pain has taken away.  After you have spent time with friends, try to focus on what you enjoyed, on what felt good, and on what went right.

DISCLAIMER: This blog is provided as an educational and informational resource only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional psychological or medical advice.

The founder of Goalistics, Dr. Ruehlman is a social and health psychologist. She and co-founder, Dr. Paul Karoly, created the online “Chronic Pain Management Program” and the “Think Clearly About Depression Program”.  Dr. Ruehlman’s research efforts over the past 20 years include basic questions about how people pursue goals, how one’s social network supports as well as hinders goal activity, and alternative methods, such as computer-assisted assessment and training to assist in the goal attainment process. Over the past 20 years, she has studied people’s pursuit of pain management, fitness, health, social, and work goals. Dr. Ruehlman has published numerous articles in scientific journals on topics ranging from chronic pain, self-control, depression, social support, assessment and much more. For more information, click here.

Photograph Courtesy of Benita VanWinkle