It’s time to stop searching for validation from others and find it within myself.
“I had the worst migraine last week.” I’m having coffee with a friend, and I’m trying my best to accurately describe just how awful one of my recent migraine attacks was. But every time I do, it just sounds like I’m being over the top.
I’ve already exhausted my list of common migraine descriptors and thrown out phrases like “as though my head was going to explode” and “like a scene from ‘The Exorcist,'” but no matter what I say, I still don’t think my friend truly understands because she’s never experienced it for herself.
As I so often do when talking about chronic migraine, I stop trying and change the subject.
In my experience, migraine is one of those conditions that’s really hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced one. It’s often written off as “just a headache,” and it’s hard to truly articulate how all the various symptoms — throbbing pain, sensitivity to light, churning nausea — all combine and leave me incapacitated.
It’s a difficult spot to be in because talking about illness feels like something I need to do. There’s a kind of relief in being able to share what you’re going through with somebody else, but so often it feels as though my experience falls on deaf ears and I’m not being heard or validated.
As much as the people close to me care about my well-being, they can’t truly grasp how awful and debilitating an attack can be, no matter how many metaphors I throw at the conversation. So what should I do?
Navit Schechter, a U.K.-based therapist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), says that for people with chronic migraine – and other chronic conditions – not feeling heard can be a common occurrence.
When I spoke with Navit, she explained that migraine symptoms can’t easily be seen. Coupled with the fact that these symptoms can be hard to express how painful and debilitating they are, it can commonly cause sufferers to think they are exaggerating how bad they feel, concerned that others won’t believe them.
Continuing, she explained, “Over time, this can cause someone to conclude that they’re exaggerating their own symptoms, that others can cope better, and that they shouldn’t be making a fuss.”
Schechter believes that sometimes this can be a result of the messaging we receive when we’re growing up.
Giving some examples, she says maybe “you were encouraged to continue eating after you were full or to go to school when you had a tummy ache.” These instances do not teach us how to listen to our body nor trust what it is telling us. She points out that this means “it may be very hard for you to take notice of the physical symptoms of your body or believe that others would.”
Reflecting on what Schechter said, I realized all the times I’ve tried to ‘truck on’ in the middle of a migraine attack to avoid inconveniencing others and how I’ve often downplayed my symptoms in the vain hope that they might go away.
I feel constantly stuck between pretending there’s nothing wrong and feeling as though I need to shout about my symptoms to get anyone to listen. This can be a double whammy and takes its toll on me emotionally, sometimes even making me unsure of my own experiences.
“If a person feels like their experiences aren’t heard or are invalidated by others it may lead them to assume that they are overreacting, exaggerating or that others would cope better in their shoes,” says Schechter.
Continuing, she explains that this can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, low mood and could even affect a person’s self-esteem.
While feeling like no one understands what you’re dealing with may be a common occurrence for those with chronic migraine, it shouldn’t be something you simply accept as part and parcel of having a chronic condition.
If you feel like you aren’t being heard or that people treat you as though you’re exaggerating, there are ways you can manage it.
Schechter explains that we tend to think others would cope better or that they wouldn’t make such a fuss, often meaning we do not rest or take time to recover to avoid appearing lazy or weak. This can make having a migraine or other chronic conditions even more stressful.
“If you’re self-critical or chastise yourself for how you’re feeling it can also create more stress,” she adds.
Her advice is to recognize how much you are able to manage and be kind to yourself, especially when you’re unwell. You might find it beneficial to jot down some thoughts in a journal, and in time, you will find strengths in what you used to define as potential weaknesses.
Does it really matter what other people think? While having our experience validated can be freeing, how other people view you and your symptoms isn’t in your control and shouldn’t be your primary concern. Schechter believes realizing this can put things into perspective.
“It’s important to remember that just because someone may not understand your experience of having migraines or chronic illness, it doesn’t mean that they think you are exaggerating or overreacting,” she notes. “Perhaps they don’t have the insight to be able to understand your experience or are unable to express it in a way you need.”
It can be easy to look to others for validation, but Schechter recommends finding it within yourself.
“It’s really important to validate your own experience,” she says. “Many migraine sufferers or those with chronic illness can get caught up in a negative narrative around others not understanding how challenging and debilitating their symptoms are to live with. What underlies this is often a lack of self-validation.”
Her advice is to talk with and take care of yourself the way that you hope others would. This may help you feel recognized and supported.
Learning to trust your own judgment, beliefs, and opinions is key. It will make you feel more confident in yourself, even in the face of judgment from others.
Schechter says that CBT can help those who experience migraine or other chronic conditions to manage the stress associated with them.
The practice is focused on helping you recognize unhelpful behaviors and thought patterns and replacing them with more helpful ones.
“It can help to reduce the impact of symptoms and amount of suffering whilst, in some cases, improving symptoms and quality of life,” Schechter explains.
Not everyone will understand your experience, Schechter notes, and it can be freeing to recognize that.
She suggests that it’s important to seek out those who help you feel understood. There are many others experiencing migraine, and other chronic conditions, who may feel the same way as you do.
Finding support groups and communities online or locally can be a great way to start this journey of acceptance.
Migraine can be really rough. It’s ranked as the second-highest cause of disability in Brazil and affects roughly 10 percent of males and 21 percent of females in the adult U.S. population. When you feel like you’re exaggerating your symptoms, it may be helpful to keep this in mind.
It can be hard for others to relate to what you’re going through if they haven’t experienced it. That’s why finding ways to recognize your condition and validate your experience yourself can be so valuable.
Medically reviewed on May 18, 2022
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