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Living with Pain: Helpful versus Unhelpful Social Support

Living with Severe Pain - Support that Helps

All of us need social support. Your chronic pain may make you feel more needy. You may believe that you need more than your share of support… or more than your family, friends, or co-workers have to offer. At the same time, you may feel that the support that you receive isn’t always what you need, or that it makes you feel worse.

Today, I’d like to talk about the different forms of social support and to consider the ways in which support can be helpful and, at times, not helpful. There are two basic categories of support: emotion-focused support and problem-focused support. First, let’s talk about each type of support; then we can explore how you can identify what helps and what doesn’t.

Emotion-Focused Support

Effective emotion-focused support should have a positive emotional impact. It might make you feel loved, appreciated, understood, validated, safe, included, or needed. As a result of emotion-focused support, you may feel stronger, more solid, renewed, confident, able to move forward, ready to take on your life. – even though you have chronic pain.  Examples are listening, showing concern and interest, providing a hug or a kiss, following up on a previous conversation, showing an understanding of your emotional state or needs. Emotional support should help you to feel stronger and in better emotional control.

Problem-Focused Support

Problem-focused support is geared toward helping you solve some problem by providing information or resources. Examples of providing information are teaching you how to do something, telling you how he or she solved a similar problem, referring you to a friend or expert who can help, suggesting a book or website, brainstorming with you to generate possible solutions. Resources might include lending you a book, showing you an exercise, helping you carry a heavy load if you have a back problem, providing childcare, or picking up a prescription if you are unable to drive. As a result of problem-focused support, you should be closer to managing or solving a problem. You should be more able to manage in the future.

“Support” That Isn’t Supportive

Despite the best of intentions, friends, family, and co-workers may sometimes do things that are not actually helpful. Sometimes even well-intentioned support can have a negative impact. For example:

    • Sympathy may make you feel sorry for yourself
    • Pity may make you feel ashamed
    • Too much help may make you feel weak and powerless
    • Giving in to your demands may make you feel bossy
    • Taking over most or all of your responsibilities, even those you can still do, may make you feel irresponsible.
    • Overlooking or tolerating crabby or nasty behavior on your part may encourage you to be crabby or nasty

How to tell the Difference Between Helpful and Unhelpful Support?

So, as the list above suggests, the key to recognizing unhelpful support is to look at its effects on you. To be helpful, support should feel like a partnership that will assist you in moving forward, in having as much control and power as you are capable of, and in enhancing your sense of confidence and optimism. To look at the impact of support in your own life, you can do a self-monitoring activity. Over a period of 2 days, download and complete the Goalistics Support Self-Monitoring Form. The activity will help you to identify helpful and unhelpful support. If you find that some support is not helpful, sit down with the person who has been providing it and talk about what you really need. You can even start by asking the person to read this blog. When you identify support that is helpful, tell the people who are giving it how much it means to you!


About the Author. Dr. Linda Ruehlman is a social/health psychologist and researcher, co-founder of Goalistics, and director of the Chronic Pain Management Program, an interactive site that helps people with chronic pain to manage their pain and live richer, more effective lives as well as Think Clearly about Depression, a self-management program for depression.
DISCLAIMER: This blog is provided as an educational and informational resource only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional psychological or medical advice.


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