Chronic Pain and Friendships – Boundaries, Consequences, and Resolutions

Chronic pain does mean things to people.  It often makes establishing and maintaining friendships and family relationships extremely difficult, even with close friends.  Sometimes the most gracious way to handle friendships when we hit a snag is to recognize that we are weakened by our chronic pain and we have decreased coping resources.  Then we can help friends understand how to help us.  I’d rather preemptively explain to a friend how they can help and what NOT to do as opposed to snapping or “going off” on them when, from their perspective, they didn’t see the storm much less hear the thunder to predict the LIGHTNING BOLT JOLT of my sudden emotional outburst.

Yes, better to give a warning than to lose or deeply damage a friendship.  

A friend of mine had a similar thing to say on Facebook today: “My medical challenges are no secret so this post should not come as a surprise but I’m going to make it anyway. If you cause me unnecessary stress, I will delete you. My fuse is short and it is lit. I hope to resolve this quickly, but right now, in this moment, I MUST take care of ME. Stress stirs up the autonomic nervous system and that plays a role in all of this, so I must remain calm. I don’t mean or want to be selfish. I want to support all my people. But, for the time being, I have to try to find my happy place and go hide out. I really hope you understand.”

Facebook friendshipsShe took responsibility for her short fuse and her responsibility to resolve it as best and expediently as possible, and I respect that.  She made it clear how “people stress” negatively impacts her and what the consequences were for being a “problem friend”.  (For those of you who take Facebook too seriously….”deleting” a friend on Facebook doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily cut them off forever in REAL LIFE so….  I’m not knocking FB friends, but if you’re physically/emotionally capable, GET OUT and get some REAL friends (it starts often by doing something sweet for someone else)!  So many with chronic pain wish they COULD “GET OUT” because it does all of humanity a world of good!)

The next step my Facebook friend could take is to explain what it means for another person to “cause me unnecessary stress,” so that her well-meaning friends won’t think they are in hot water or avoid the friendship because they aren’t sure if what they are about to say or do will “cause unnecessary stress”.

Just yesterday I had to say to a friend,

“Please don’t joke around right now. My sense of humor is BROKEN and I’m too exhausted to take it well. I love you, A LOT, but I can’t take the teasing right now; it doesn’t help me, it stresses me. I also don’t want to hear gossip about who is doing what if it’s bad. I have enough pain and stress in my life daily, and that’s why I avoid watching the News at almost all cost these days. It’s not that I don’t care about people, but I need to care for me first so that I CAN care for others, and then I put my caring into ACTIONS for those who are closest to me, where I really CAN make a difference, including our friendship, because I care about you.

(So many people watch the news as if to justify that they care about people in society when in fact it’s just an excuse to partake in gossip without being willing to LIFT A FINGER to help the people brutalized, endangered, slandered, and/or possibly even misrepresented by the news.)

But if you’re going to talk about other people, tell me something NICE that they did today, something good about life. If it’s bad, it just sucks the energy out of me (and I doubt it makes you feel any better to talk about it either), and I don’t have extra energy for that these days.”

Since this had been an ongoing problem and I had mentioned this before, in not quite as many words, I decided to lay down a clear boundary for friend’s health and my own by explaining what needed to change in the relationship.  My friend needed to know specifically what their action was that was leading to increased stress in my own life.

There are consequences in friendships when we don’t respect one another’s boundaries.  Many times these consequences are unnoticed because an offended friend may choose not to tell the offending friend that “You’ve hurt me and I am not going to share with you the more personal areas of my life for a while now until we can build back that trust we had before,” but it’s obvious that this is STILL an example of a negative, if unspoken, consequence.

I have another friend who is dear to me, but with whom I’ve somewhat limited my contact because she often sends off those vibes that tell me either I’ve done something wrong or she thinks I’m upset with her and she is therefore avoiding me.  I’ve often asked if anything is wrong and I’ve attempted to fix the situation where possible, but my friend won’t open up to give me either an explanation of the offense and reason for the consequences nor a means of reconciliation.  So the friendship isn’t really going anywhere – it’s stuck – and I do not emotionally have the energy to worry about whether she considers what I’m doing as right, wrong, or indifferent given that I am not receiving clear feedback from this friend regarding the source of the offense.  I suspect this friend often just “doesn’t want to bother people” but requiring that others read our minds often DOES bother people.  I’m not a mind-reader (which I’ve already graciously expressed to this dear friend), and neither should I expect my friends to be!  Perhaps it’s because I grew up more in the North than in the South, but IMO, mind-reader friendships misrepresent good Southern Hospitality.

Therefore, with my first friend I just decided to spell it out so there weren’t any surprises and the friendship would hopefully be preserved as these consequences provided clear feedback regarding what is and is not appropriate in our friendship.

I said, “Friend, I don’t mind giving a warning if the conversation is going in this direction.  I will try not to be upset about it if you tease or begin to gossip.  That’s when I will give a warning the first time that day.  But if it continues, I can’t spend time with you when you talk like that so I will limit our communication and tell you immediately that I need to go for my health’s sake.”

But there’s a bit more to it than that.  We also need to establish a means of “getting back together” or I suppose you could call it “reconciliation” or “resolution”.  We don’t want our friends feeling like they’ve been kicked out of the house permanently.  Part of the point here is that we’re not trying to make our friends feel bad or miserable for their mistakes.  We don’t need any more people singing “Whose In The Doghouse, Woof Woof Woof Woof” – ok, well maybe sometimes it comes to that! – but most of the time we want to make sure our friends remain our friends and know clearly how to improve the friendship.  After all, being too strict is ungracious and setting up too harsh a consequence is at very least unfriendly if not mean; there is a delicate balance.  Honestly, who wants to be friends with an ungracious, emotional lightning storm of consequences?  🙂  Point made.  And who wants to be friends with a person with whom they feel they can never appropriately or fully be reconciled/forgiven?  That’s rough too.

So I told my friend, “We can talk again on a day when you don’t need to let that stuff out in that way or with me.  I will be more than glad to see you then and we will have a good time and more fully appreciate each other’s company.  Even if I kick you out or tell you I need my space, it’s because I care about our friendship and I want it to be strong and healthy.”

So here are the four steps I use in keeping healthy friendships when there are potential conflicts/storms brewing while I am also surviving chronic pain:

WHY:  We need to give the reason for why we set up our boundaries.  It is common courtesy to give a friend a reason and help them understand.  Remember – it’s not all about them; it’s about US too and OUR weakness playing a role in why we need this boundary to be so tight-shipped…and OUR responsibility to resolve it as best we can when we’re capable of doing so.)

BOUNDARY:  What is it that’s happening in the friendship that needs to change?  Make it clear.  If we make it nebulous or require the friend to read our minds, this slips from being a gracious means of helping our friend help us to becoming a stressful and potentially impossible demand upon our friend.  Keep it real, keep it clear, keep it concise.  If necessary, use an example of “When you say/do ____, I feel ____.  I take responsibility for feeling ____ because nobody can force me to feel one way or another, yet your words/actions do affect me and I’m asking for your help.”  Sticks and stones will break our bones, but words do really hurt us.

CONSEQUENCE(S):  Consequences are a feedback mechanism.  They let us know when we do something good or bad.  Many times in friendships these consequences are unspoken though they may be felt.  Feeling the stress of negative consequences without knowing WHY we are receiving those consequences isn’t nice nor is it generally kind.  The point here is to set up healthy consequences for both parties involved, to remind our friend why they are experiencing this consequence so that it does function as a clear form of feedback, and to make sure these consequences aren’t too strict.

RESOLUTION/RECONCILIATION:  Since the purpose of using this method of responding to conflicts is to avoid losing friendships or blowing up at our significant others, we need to provide a method of getting back to even in the relationship.  Cold-shouldered friends who harbor unforgiveness aren’t any fun; we want our friends to realize they are good for us and they can “do right,” to be at-ease around us rather than walking on friggin’ eggshells.  Giving actionable steps to reaching that equilibrium where each person can enjoy the other’s company is gracious and removes the eggshell burden.  Hosea 14:4 The Lord says, “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them.”

friendshipMy friend appreciated the explanation because my friend didn’t realize how much such things affected me. Sometimes we just have to be extra clear because we can’t expect people to really understand what chronic pain does to us unless we spell it out. Many times it’s not necessary to spell it out, but there are those close relationships we want to preserve, and the only way to do it sometimes, without becoming hostile towards the very friends we wish to keep, is to lay down clear explanations, boundaries, consequences, and resolutions so that we can continue to enjoy each other’s company. When that doesn’t work, the next step is to limit (sometimes without telling them why if it’s already been said before, especially when manipulation is involved) contact with certain friends so that we can focus on the right things. Sad, but necessary.

And hopefully one day we’ll be able to manage our own stress a little better too!  Let me know if this post helped you if you’re a CP survivor or if you’re the friend/family member of a CP survivor.

Proverbs 15:1   A gentle/soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.


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