What to do when chronic illness is a source of embarrassment

Embarrassment is a feeling of awkward self-consciousness or shame. It manifests as a sense of discomfort or even foolishness around others. Feeling embarrassed is emotionally painful because it means you feel uncomfortable with yourself.

The problem with embarrassment is that it adds a layer of mental suffering to the difficulties you’re already facing with your health. Here are four reasons why those of us who are chronically ill feel embarrassed at times, along with suggestions for overcoming this painful emotion. (Chronic illness includes chronic pain and can include mental illness too.)

1. We feel embarrassed because we think we’re violating a cultural norm by being chronically ill. Most of us have unrealistic expectations about health. We’ve been bombarded with cultural messages telling us that perfect health is within our power. All we need do is eat right and exercise and reduce stress. We internalize these cultural messages. Then, when our lives don’t turn out that way, we feel embarrassed—sometimes even ashamed—as if we’ve done something wrong.

The source of this embarrassment is a distorted view of the human condition that has led us to hold ourselves to unrealistic standards when it comes to our health. To overcome this source of embarrassment, remind yourself that pain and illness are a natural part of the human life cycle. Everyone has to contend with them at some point in life—some people from the day they’re born. There’s nothing to feel embarrassed about when you’re struggling with your health.

2. We can feel embarrassed when we have to rely on others for help. This source of embarrassment is also social and cultural conditioning. We’re taught from childhood to put a high value on being self-sufficient, so we never have to rely on others. But that’s another unrealistic expectation. All people rely on others in some way, even if it’s not related to health. It may be for financial or emotional support. It may be for help with everyday tasks, such as transportation.

Yet, despite this, when struggles with our health make it necessary to ask others for help, we feel embarrassed—again because we feel as if we’re violating a cultural norm that dictates that we be 100 percent self-sufficient.

To overcome this source of embarrassment, remind yourself that everyone depends on others in life to one extent to another.

Also, recognize that your embarrassment may be misplaced because you may have made an erroneous assumption about a particular person. You may be assuming that you’re not living up to his or her expectations. But there’s no reason to assume that. Those you rely on are likely to be happy to help. In my experience, it makes them feel good because, although they can’t cure your pain or illness, helping you out in some way is one thing they can do to make your life easier. (In #4 below, I’ll address what to do when others aren’t supportive.)

3. We can feel embarrassed when we can’t “blend in” because we require special accommodations—a chair, a special diet, the need to leave an event early. When I became chronically ill, I thought I stood out like a sore thumb in every social situation. I was the one who had to leave a gathering early. If people were visiting, I was the one who had to leave and go lie down in the bedroom. This led, not just to embarrassment, but to self-recrimination—which added another layer of mental suffering, of course.

To overcome this source of embarrassment, first, realize that no one is paying as much attention to what you do you as you are. In fact, most people aren’t paying attention to you at all. We tend to be so self-conscious that we think everyone is noticing everything we do. But do you notice everything others do? No!

Second, remember that you may be wrong in your assumption that it even matters to others if you have to leave a place early or go lie down at your place. So often, our embarrassment stems from misreading what others are thinking. Try assuming the best of others instead of the worst.

Third, cultivate compassion for yourself. It’s not your fault that chronic illness requires that you make your needs known. Speak kindly to yourself about it.

4. We can feel embarrassed if we have to justify being chronically ill in the face of others’ skepticism. We’re embarrassed because, once again, due to messages from the media (and sometimes even people we’re close to), we’ve been conditioned to think we’re supposed to always be healthy. Feeling embarrassed because we’re forced to justify our pain and/or illness around others can have negative consequences for us. If someone questions the state of our health (maybe with a comment such as, “Aw, come on; it can’t be that bad”), it can lead us to question our own judgment.

To overcome this source of embarrassment, tell yourself (over and over if necessary): “I’m the one in this body” [or in the case of mental illness] “I’m the one with this mind, and so I’m the best judge of how I’m feeling. I’m going to trust my own judgment. I vow never to take sides against myself.”

I used to be embarrassed about my health because I worried that some people thought I was a malingerer—someone who feigns illness in order to avoid work or socializing. Now I don’t care if someone doesn’t believe how sick I am. I know, and I’m committed to doing whatever is necessary to accommodate my pain and illness.

***

In sum, you can overcome embarrassment by taking a more realistic view of the human condition and by recognizing the emotional pain that results when you hold yourself to unrealistically high standards.

Also, remember that you can be wrong in your assessment of what others are thinking about you—assessments that leave you feeling embarrassed unnecessarily. No one is paying as much attention to you as you are (think of how embarrassed you feel when you trip on a stair, even though those around you rarely notice).

Finally, if someone is judging you negatively, remember that it’s his or her problem, not yours. Your task is to not pay attention to how others are evaluating you but to pay attention to how you’re treating yourself—and that should be with compassion, kindness, and understanding.

I hope you’ll vow to never take sides against yourself. It may be the best gift you’ll ever receive.

Toni Bernhard is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers (Second Edition), soon to be released as a pocket guide, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. She can be reached at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard.  

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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