By Liza Zoellick.
Women are more likely than men to struggle with chronic pain. That is a well documented fact. Women also experience a great deal of dismissive behavior from doctors, even across gender lines, though much of the data seems to suggest it’s more prevalent in male doctors. Is this why so many women feel a need to not only explain their illness to people, but also apologize for it? I am inclined to believe that women are afraid that if we cannot explain our illness, give a cohesive, or logical explanation for its origin, that we might be seen as weak or lazy. In my opinion, this extends even in a broader sense beyond chronic illness/pain, to everyday illness and even menstrual issues.
I am focusing here on women and how it is to be a woman struggling with chronic issues and the need to apologize for being sick. In my case, I have had a few very horrible weeks. I had been on what I felt was an upward swing, but I came crashing down hard from it and spent about 80% of the last few weeks feeling horrible. Even as someone who understands that this illness is not my fault, that I did not wish this on myself, I still have trouble not apologizing for it. This need to apologize extends to my kids, and my husband who works hard to support all of us since I cannot work and am still waiting on disability. So I apologize for not being able to do the things I once could, I apologize to my kids for not being able to be as active with them and to my husband because I cannot work. I know I am not alone either. I have read blog after blog and article after article about women apologizing for being sick. I have also talked to women on various support groups on Facebook and women on Twitter who also confirm a need to say “I’m sorry.” In fact, while not a scientific poll, I did poll one of my Facebook groups and found that out of 102 women: 79% feel a need to apologize or have apologized for being ill, 10% have not or do not feel a need, and 11% have at least sometimes apologized. Again, while not scientific, I think it is a glimpse into what many of us feel. In a way it is ironic because as I have said, I know this is not my fault and I think among all of us, we know it is not our fault. And an apology, by the very nature of it, implies culpability in some way. So why, when we understand that this is not our fault, do we feel the need to apologize?
After much reading I came across something that made sense to me. According to Karina Schumann, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, much of what may cause women to apologize more in all aspects of their lives is a need to promote harmony in their relationships. This instantly made sense to me because women are more social, we are the caretakers to our family and extended family, we are seen as nurturers and even as young girls we’re often taught to keep the peace and keep the balance within our home/family and our social groups. *[https://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/no-apologies-needed-study-reveals-women-men-article-1.443567] However, even though I can see the origins of it, I still feel that women should not apologize for being sick yet, maybe there can be a balance struck. Maybe instead of saying “I’m sorry,” and implying culpability for being sick, we should instead say, “I am sorry that this affects you too?” I feel some of this originates with our own, personal loss of who we once were, because who we once were before illness/pain got hold of us is different than who we are now. I’d like to say that if you can reconcile between those two people and forgive your body for the betrayal of illness that you can move on and not feel a need to apologize. But I think of all the things I struggle with every day, forgiving myself is the hardest, so why should it be surprising that I am compelled to say “sorry,” or that other women feel the same? In an effort to help curtail the apologies, here are a few things you shouldn’t apologize for:
- Bad Days:
You are doing the best you can. Remember that even the non-ill have bad days, so why can’t you? Also, don’t sugar coat the bad days either. Chronic illness is real. Chronic pain is real. People need to see it.
- Saying No:
We want to please others and keep harmony, but you have to make yourself the priority. This is not an act of selfishness, it is an act of self love because the only one who is going to suffer because you over extended yourself, is you.
- Being Untidy:
This is a huge source of irritation for women, because as progressive as the world might be, women are still seen as the care-taker of all things inside the house. We all want our house to look like it could be photographed for the cover of Good Housekeeping, but often times we are unable to keep up with such high, personal expectations. It’s okay. No one has ever died because the breakfast dishes are still there after dinner. If you cannot enlist help from someone, accept what you can and cannot do.
- Others judging:
Unless someone lives with chronic pain/illness, they are not going to understand what it is like. However, it is one thing not to understand and still be supportive and have a desire to help someone, and to not understand and judge someone over what you think they can and can’t do. You should not apologize to someone over their lack of understanding the situation and you need to surround yourself with those people who will support you.
- Good days:
When life becomes about good days and bad days, and bad days out numbering the good, there is no logical reason at all why you should apologize for having a good day. The nature of chronic pain/illness is such that even our good days are not 100% so we need to be able to receive those good days without the added pressure of suddenly feeling like we are not allowed to live our lives. So live and laugh and don’t apologize for finding joy.
This is Liza’s second contribution to the National Pain Report. She is a delegate to the International Pain Foundation who lives in Houston.