She told me her story.  She lost her job and lives with unremitting pain.  C  (her name and most details have been changed) lives with a chronic disease that causes deep pain at unpredictable times.  Although she had completed her most recent project on time and on budget, with raves from the client,  she had been fired.  Her exit review said that she hadn’t met performance standards– “Her direct reports says she shows disruptive and unpredictable flares of temper.” and “Her colleagues say that her behavior is unpredictable.”

When her supervisor gave her this demanding project, she had just been diagnosed.   She had tried to explain that she wasn’t healthy and shouldn’t do this, but he told her not to worry.  He  valued and trusted her — she was the best at what she did and she should just keep at it.  Couldn’t she see that this project was necessary to her career?

He had been her mentor and friend and now she feels betrayed because he didn’t listen to her.   But she doesn’t know how she would do this differently in the next job.  She feels hopeless thinking about her future.

I told her that she seems to have lost her ‘resilience’, she agreed.  “How can I be resilient  when my health is getting worse?   I no longer believe in the the one thing I could count on, my strong relationships and success at work.   I don’t know how to talk about what I need.  More importantly, I don’t believe I’ll be heard.”

The sad fact is that most of us who live with invisible health problems feel misunderstood.

In this post,  How Doctors Respond to Chronic Pain,  the physician writer poignantly describes  how he was busy scribbling  notes as a patient described her extreme pain. When the patient suddenly shifted into complaining that he wasn’t listening, he felt defensive and angry.   But when he thought about the interchange after, he realized that she was right.  He hadn’t been listening  to her.   The author noted that physicians frequently ‘tune out’ their patients with chronic pain because they have few tools to offer that will actually improve the patient’s condition.  Physicians and most healthcare providers (and coaches!)  fall into the trap of feeling helpless if they can’t ‘fix’ something. And that helplessness  translates into ignoring what the patient actually wants — to listen with empathy.

How does this relate to C?  Despite my years of training and experience and even my personal experience in living with ‘unsolvable’ health conditions, when faced with someone’s emotional pain due to  life with illness, my knee jerk reaction is to run toward the fire to put it out.

Fortunately, when she told me her story in our first call, I had just read this article.  I took a breath before speaking and reminded myself I didn’t have a magic bullet to shoot down her fears.  But I could  let her know that I understand how difficult this is for her.  And that together, we would work to develop strategies that would improve the situation.

I was delighted by her  relief.  She sounded (dare I say)  hopeful?  In time she will find renewed resilience.


Do you struggle to actively listen to another’s story of pain?  Do you wonder what to say or do that will demonstrate that you have heard?

Do you struggle to feel heard?  Do you wonder what to do to make it happen?

Go ahead, tell me.  Tell us and post your comment.  We’re listening.




4 Responses to “Is anyone listening to your Pain?”  

  1. 1 Melinda Strauss, LICSW, CEAP

    Thank you for this latest message and for the wonderful work you do. This is exactly the kind of employee that Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) serve. EAPs can offer workplace based problem solving counseling and communication strategies in addition to being compassionate listeners who understand the dilemmas and rewards of working with chronic illness. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) offer a professional and confidential service that is included in many workplace benefits packages at no cost to the employee.

  2. 2 Rosalind

    Hi Melinda — It does seem that this is a valuable role EAP can play. I imagine that a challenge for an EAP is in offering strategies that are useful to an individual, particularly if they don’t have a ‘long term’ relationship with the client and don’t know the individual’s capacity for this kind of development. That said, it is absolutely a place to start. Thank you for the suggestion.

  3. 3 RD

    I have been doing a search for information about job hunting with chronic illness. I lost my job just before New Year’s after 7 years. I am an over 50 female, and haven’t been job hunting in 7 years. What I am finding, is that job search workshops and job hunting advice (including advice for those with chronic illness) are geared toward people with degrees wanting to change careers, people who have the option not to work, and young people. In my last interview workshop, the leader talked about age, she was over 50 and said it was important to be energetic in the way we “move” physically when interviewing, showing we can do the job! I had to get up and go to the bathroom and cry, because I was limping from arthritis pain.I applied for unemployment , and am waiting to find out if I qualify for it, since I was terminated. I have took a small loan out of my 401k (that I must pay back) . My biggest concern is my healthcare, which if I opt for cobra, is almost 500.00 a month, which I cannot afford. I have two subscriptions I cannot fill right now because my drug coverage just stopped. I have physical therapy once a week so that I will be able to walk without pain and stiffness. I am terrified, and definitely feel that I am at a disadvantage. I have a two year visual communication degree almost 20 years old, and most of my experience is in customer service. If my income runs out, I will lose my place to live. I have no relative to support me, and I am divorced. I scheduled a one on one job counseling session (and the job couch said we have “plenty of time!” ) Right! Why should anyone with job hunting advice, target someone like me as an audience? I’m broke! – Not only does no one listen, they do not have a clue!

  4. 4 Rosalind

    Dear Ruth – I hear you. I do have a clue, only in some part from my own life experience in living with debilitating illness, but also from working with people who have had similar experience to you. You’re right that you are not the target for those who make a living from working with unemployed or those with chronic illness. I imagine that your insurance pays for the physical therapist. Insurance does not pay for a job ‘coach’ or ‘living with illness’ coach. So what can you do to change this situation? People come to me all the time and ask me about my services. I tell them what I charge (which is only affordable if you have the money, of course) and tell them that I work on a generous sliding scale. But the one criteria is that my clients have to be motivated to do the work it requires to change their situation. Many reply they can’t afford it — and don’t even bother replying when I remind them of my sliding scale.

    Yes, you are over 50. The job market is horrible and has been for a long time in many sectors. But I don’t believe it is hopeless. You see the closed doors and I understand that. But it sounds like you would benefit, at the very least, from a few discussions that help you see options.

    Contact me if you want to consider working with someone who does target someone like you.

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