Dealing With Sympathy When You’re Chronically Ill

by Rakhee Patel

Dealing With Sympathy

Sympathy is a funny emotion. In my non-professional opinion there are three aspects to it: sympathy for others, sympathy from others, and sympathy for ourselves. As a person who was very ill for a very long time, I have experienced the latter two in abundance and sometimes still do.

I was in pain every day; I’d lost so much of my youth to disease

With regards to feeling sorry for myself, it’s easy for me to see in hindsight how this thought process was initiated, propagated and strengthened. I was in pain every day, I had lost so much of my youth to disease, I was a straight A student without a degree or a job and all the exciting experiences my twenty-something-year-old friends were having continued to elude me. My perception was that I was an unlucky individual who found herself in circumstances that were unfair to say the least.

To reinforce my already well-established viewpoint of how unjust my situation was, I listened with great focus and intent to the words of people who would look at me through sorrowful eyes and express their sympathy at my undue plight. The things that these relatives, acquaintances, healthcare professionals and strangers on social media would say, reaffirmed the way I was feeling about myself and added momentum to my feelings of self-sympathy.

An intervention dramatically altered my outlook

It was at this point, when the sense of injustice had been firmly embedded in my heart, that a handful of people within my inner circle (individually and without knowledge of the others’ actions) had a series of conversations with me that would dramatically change my relationship with sympathy. Essentially, they told me to dust myself off, get back up and simply deal with it  (emotionally, that is), and although these words initially made me feel angry, upset and misunderstood, that’s exactly what I did.

The first step was to make a fresh assessment of my situation that came from a place of acceptance rather than resistance. This wasn’t easy but once I stopped wanting things to be different, I found that my mind became more creative in finding activities I could do, things I could learn, and things I could still enjoy in my ill state of health. This shifted the way I viewed myself - from a helpless person who lacked what others had, to an individual who led a different lifestyle, but owned it.

I took ownership of the situation and stopped feeling sorry for myself

I stopped viewing my pain and symptoms as bad and acknowledged them as something I simply had to go through. Once this change in thought process came about, I no longer understood why others felt sorry for me. I wasn’t feeling sad or defeated by my situation, why were they? Even now that I experience little to no symptoms of disease, others will express their sympathy at my past experience of ill health, or at the fact that I have a stoma, and are often surprised when I ask them why they feel sorry for me.

I’d like to note that I don’t blame others for thinking/speaking/acting this way; sometimes they are simply trying to acknowledge that what I went through was difficult. For people who haven’t had a similar experience it’s difficult to know how to react so for this reason I don’t feel any resentment towards those who express sympathy towards me. To take it one step further though, I’d like to pose a few questions: Do we feel sorry for Beyoncé? For Will Smith? For Bill Gates? No, we don’t because we view them as empowered, intelligent, strong individuals who are capable of achieving whatever they want to. What if you looked at me with the same eyes you view these successful people with? What affect do you think that would have?

Conversely, there is no point in Channel 4 labelling us ‘superhumans’ if we don’t see ourselves as such. I now recognise that sympathy acts only to strip me of my power and confidence, so with that in mind, I will continue to shed it (see photo of me striking my best Wonder Woman pose)!

About the author

I'm Rakhee, I have had a loop ileostomy and now have an end ileostomy due to Crohn's disease. Happy to share my journey!

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