Are they listening? Talking about your pain

According to a thesaurus, complaining is “to express dissatisfaction, pain or resentment, usually tiresomely.” Similar words are “bellyache, fuss, gripe, and whine.” On days when your pain is high, you might feel like complaining. If you’ve had chronic pain for a long time, you know that people in your life can get tired of hearing about it and you may even get tired of talking about it.

Complain or communicate?

After reading this definition of ‘complaining,’ you probably don’t want to be around a complainer, or be one. But sometimes the pain will get the best of you, and you feel you not only have a ‘right’ to complain, you have a duty to do so. Then you want to communicate something. This article discusses ways that you prefer to communicate, why you have these preferences, and how to communicate without complaining.

What do you do?

Think of a rating scale starting with 0 and going to 10. If ‘0’ means that you never talk about your pain and ‘10’ means that you ‘always’ talk about your pain, rate where you are with most people.

If you tend to discuss how you feel with almost everyone, your ratings will be a higher number, but if you tend to more private or quiet about your pain, your ratings will be lower. Now rate how much you talk about your pain with:

  • Your spouse or partner
  • Your children
  • Your best friend
  • A casual acquaintance
  • A stranger

There are many reasons why you do or do not communicate about your pain. Your ratings are just educated guesses, but here is what they might mean.

If your numbers are mostly on the low end of the scale you may:

  • Be uncomfortable expressing your pain
  • Come from a culture that discourages talking about problems or pain
  • Make it harder for your health care providers because you don’t tell them what is really going on
  • Only share with certain people
  • Have accepted your pain and don’t feel a need to talk about it

If your numbers are mostly on the high end of the scale you may:

  • Be comfortable expressing how you feel
  • Come from a background that tends to express feelings
  • Be accused of ‘exaggerating’ your pain
  • Share with lots of people
  • Be very upset with your present situation
  • Have accepted your pain but feel a need to talk about it

How much ‘should’ you communicate?

How much you talk about your pain and other difficulties is a personal matter, affected by your personality, the situation, your culture, and the personalities and cultures of others in your life. For example, some friends might think it is not polite to ask how you are doing, while others think that not asking indicates that they don’t care.

As you decide how much communication is best for you, consider the effect this has on your treatment, your friends and your family. There is a delicate balance between sharing enough so people will understand, and knowing that talking about your pain has a negative effect on relationships.

Consider having a “script” prepared when you don’t want to say much, such as, “I don’t like to discuss the details, but thanks for your concern.” Instead of talking, some couples develop a sign or a number system to communicate when pain has increased, or is particularly difficult.

What do you really want?

Before communicating about your pain, decide what you really want. Perhaps it is to:

  • Express your emotions
  • Be understood
  • Get the attention of people
  • Receive better treatment from your doctor
  • Receive practical support, like help with chores
  • Ask for suggestions for possible solutions

How should you say it?

Then think about how you will communicate what you need. If you feel like complaining – when this means “griping” – you may be so focused on your pain, that negative thinking takes over and realistic, accurate thoughts are replaced with unrealistic, inaccurate ones, such as “I can’t handle this pain.” Although that may feel true at the time, you cope with your pain every day and know from experience that better days will come around.

When you know what you need, and it is not just “griping”, ask for it. Use ‘I” statements like:

  • I’m having a lot of pain today and I’d appreciate it if you could take charge of the children.

  • I feel that my situation is unfair. Are you willing to listen to me share my feelings for a while? Then, I’ll to listen to you.

  • I’m having a hard time standing up for very long today. Will you help me figure out a solution for this task I need to do?

Family members or friends may not always be able to give you what you need when you need it. Be prepared to ask someone else, or to deal with the difficulty as best you can yourself. On the plus side, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you confronted your negative feelings and asked for what you need in a positive manner. Complaining probably doesn’t help you or others in your life very much. However, communicating about your pain and circumstances can help.


Caudill, M.A. (2002). Managing pain before it manages you (Revised Version). New York: The Gilford Press.

Turk, D.C. & Frits, W. (2005). The Pain Survival Guide: How to Reclaim Your Life. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.