Tuesday, 16 September 2014


I never know quite what to say when people say "oh you're so brave!" It usually follows something like "I couldn't have done that" or "well done for getting through it." What does that mean? Congratulations, you have not spontaneously combusted from fear during your experience. Surely that's the minimum requirement for getting through surgery - that you get through it. Time passes, no matter how much distress you're in and from my point of view all I did was let time pass. 

I know I'm not alone here. Most people with chronic illnesses or people who have gone through a huge trauma feel confused by the term. It can tend to feel like people have set a standard of emotional wellbeing that you then have to try to maintain. You can't cry all over someone when they've just told you how brave you are. Like most people in my position, I don't feel brave. This is normal for me, and I don't have a choice. If you're a fireman and you find that the stress of the job is too much, you can quit. But I can't choose to stop being ill. Sure, I can punch my surgeon in the face and walk out and refuse to come back but I will either bleed to death if he's already started or once my pacemaker stops working, die from heart failure. So really, I don't have a choice. In the moment, it really does feel like you're just existing so I don't see why a phrase like "you got through it" is supposed to be a compliment. You don't die just because something is awful. 

Okay so I probably sound like I'm being grumpy and not appreciating a simple word of kindness but not at all. I understand that people are being kind and I feel like my whole thought process on this subject has helped me to feel less awkward and confused when someone says "you're so brave". The thing is, that's not actually what they're saying. They're not trying to evaluate how well you've coped with the trauma. What they're really saying is that they understand and empathise with the awfulness of what you've been through and they want to assure you that you're doing well and even if you're not, that's okay because actually that experience was really awful. 

So my conclusion is this. To well wishers, be aware that people who've suffered a trauma may feel a sense of pressure to be mentally okay when you tell them that they're brave. It can feel like you're setting a standard or trying to avoid any situation where they're telling you how upset they are. But to those who've been through a trauma, try not to over think this. They're trying to be nice. They're trying to let you know that you're doing well and that they understand the awfulness of what you've been through. And understanding and empathy is something you always need, however much you might hate to be pitied, don't block people out. Of course they're concerned and they want to feel like they're helping a little bit. Try to think of it as a small act of empathy and you'll feel a lot more comfortable with being called brave. 

I'm not one of those people who hate to be pitied. Because I don't hear pity, I hear empathy and empathy is one of the best things about being human. Take it as a small piece of kindness. Don't let illness or trauma turn you into someone who gets offended by every little bit of kindness someone tries to show you. No, they don't understand what it's like to be you, but they're trying and that means everything. 

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