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​The link between chronic illness and shame

Chronic illnesses take a toll on both the body and mind. Not only is there suffering and sickness, but many people with chronic illness or pain often experience depression as well. Feelings of sadness are normal, but there’s one feeling that can be particularly debilitating: shame.

No one wants to talk about shame. Like chronic illness itself, the difficulty of shame is something we want to ignore. But it’s time we look at illness-related shame in the same light as the actual symptoms of sickness and come up with solutions.

Public perception and fear of compassion

Shame statue with bird perched on top Hiding illness-related shame can increase stress, and even worsen your overall physical health. (Photo: Grey World [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

As with any illness, you have to look at the cause before you can find a cure; the same goes for illness-related shame. Most people who experience this type of shame do so because of the way chronic sickness is perceived by others, writes Katie Willard Virant in Psychology Today.

Those who suffer from chronic illness often feel like they stand out. They may feel self-conscious about their physical appearance, special needs or having to depend on friends and family. For some, chronic illness feels like a permanent stamp on the forehead, and they may avoid social interactions altogether.

In a study published in the Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy journal, researchers at the University of Coimbra in Portugal found that fears of compassion play a large role in illness-related shame and subsequent social avoidance. Those with fears of compassion find it hard to receive help or care from others, as it makes them feel pitiful or burdensome. Because of this guilt and anxiety, they avoid talking about their illness and asking for the emotional help they need, which only further increases feelings of shame.

“Let others know what’s going on,” Alicia Aiello, president of Girls With Guts, an organization dedicated to supporting women with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, told The New York Times. “People with chronic illnesses withhold information to protect themselves or others, but this can be more hurtful.”

Not only does hiding illness-related shame from others cause further psychological duress, but letting it perpetuate can increase stress and worsen physical health as well, according to a study from the Medical Humanities journal.

Self-reflection as a healing mechanism

guy stares out at ocean on cold winter day It’s important to look inward and understand why your illness is causing you to feel shame. (Photo: Lucas Sankey [CC0]/Wikimedia Commons)

If you experience illness-related shame, you should examine your shame triggers. Virant suggests that, “As you keep track of all the ways that your illness triggers shame, reflect on the beliefs that underlie these triggers. Ask yourself: What am I afraid of?”

Once you identify your fears — whether they be centered around appearance, self-worth or dependence — it’s important to acknowledge and accept them, but not to make yourself feel bad about it to the point of humiliation.

“If you find yourself hating the limitations imposed by your illness, honor that feeling and allow yourself to grieve,” writes Virant. “But separate out grief from shame. Try to extricate yourself from that feeling, reminding yourself that you deserve better.”

While much illness-related shame is linked to public perception, it’s important to look inward and understand why. Once you understand which parts of your illness are affecting you the most, try and let your friends or loved ones know how you’re feeling; don’t let it fester to the point where the shame is suffocating and you’ve given yourself little room to breathe. As with any emotional strain, self-awareness followed by dialogue is integral in fighting stigma.

When it comes to the shame that can accompany chronic illness, remember that the knot between physical and emotional health is tied tightly. The shame needs to be addressed, recognized and talked about in order for those with chronic illness to live the best life they can.

​The link between chronic illness and shame

Like chronic illness itself, the difficulty of shame is something we want to ignore, but it’s important to look inward and reflect on these feelings.