The unconscious biases and assumptions around illness, injury, recovery, disability and health you hold tend to become more visible when you have to deal with these issues. They can test the ‘in sickness and in health’ vow in a committed relationship. To the point the relationship can break down.
Most times that is what you don’t want, a relationship breakdown. But how do you know what unconscious biases and assumptions around illness you hold and are helpful or potentially harmful to your relationship? Is there a way to identify them even if you aren’t dealing with a live issue at the moment?
To give you a flavour of them, I’ll share real-life examples that demonstrate some of the common unconscious biases and assumptions around illness that have an impact on relationships.
The unconscious biases and assumptions around #seriousillness #seriousinjury, #recovery #disability and #health you hold tend to become more visible when you have to deal with these issues. Read some of the common ones here. tell a friend
What are the common unconscious biases and assumptions around illness?
I’ll start by sharing a personal example.
The recovery process from the neurological illness I had was a long one, two plus years. Two months after onset family were visiting and they decided to go for a walk. By the time I walked up the hill behind our flat, I was knackered. I doubted whether I could physically go further and said that. At that time in the illness I had fatigue and it impacted how much I could do.
My husband said I would be fine and encouraged me to do the walk. I doubted it, said nothing and pushed through. When we got back, I slept for the rest of the day and was doubly fatigued the next day.
The thing is, I looked fine. Fatigue is not visible. When we see someone who looks ok, we assume they are ok and can do things like us with no problem. And that is what happened. Now my husband didn’t encourage me out of malice. Not at all. It was ignorance.
But also, he was being well-meaning, trying to ensure I was included in the activity. Also, I didn’t speak up loud enough to make my needs known – to say, ‘Actually, this walk is way too long, I’ll go back now.’ Or, ‘I’ll walk as far as X and then will turn back. You can continue if you want.’
The unconscious bias: If you look fine, you are fine.
This often links to another unconscious bias: So an illness is only valid if it is visible.
Hence why it can be so hard for those of us with invisible symptoms to be believed when we say we are not well.
There’s the unconscious bias: If you look fine, you are fine. So an illness is only valid if it is visible. That’s why it can be so hard for those of us with invisible symptoms to be believed when we say we are not well… tell a friend
The negative impact unconscious biases and assumptions around illness can have
Sometimes though, a person’s unconscious biases and assumptions around illness will become known through frustration or ignorance but the impact can be more negative. Here are some examples.
The parent who doesn’t believe the child who has had a serious illness and complains of not feeling well, and repeatedly tells the child to get on with it and stop lying.
This can be based on the assumption that ‘children are to be seen and not heard’ or that a child is trying it on, or trying to get out of doing something like going to school. Or it can be due to lack of knowledge around how an illness can affect a child.
But here’s an important point. A child’s cognitive abilities are not where an adult’s abilities are at. Therefore, their ability to explain how they are feeling is different from ours. Children won’t always be able to articulate how they feel as adults do. And by the time we are adults, we may have forgotten what it was like to be a child trying to explain something to our parents.
Here’s another example.
The partner or your parent who tells you to get on with it – whether that be with cooking the meals, looking after the kids, getting back to work, whatever – but your arms are so weak it’s hard to lift and do things. Or the fatigue is so bad that just cooking a family meal is an effort. But you are repeatedly told, ‘We all get tired.’
This example doesn’t allow for the person to be ill or injured. You have to get on with life regardless. The unconscious bias is one that doesn’t allow for illness or injury to exist.
Or if it does, you have to recover and get back to your pre-illness self as soon as possible. The British sayings of, ‘Keep calm and carry on,’ and ‘stiff upper lip’ come to mind here. The unconscious bias is ‘recovery means you go back to how you were pre-illness or injury’. But that often does not happen with many serious illnesses, injuries and chronic illnesses.
The impact is it discounts the very real issues the person has as a result of the illness or injury. Their experience of their illness is disregarded.
Imagine being on the receiving end of that! It’s hard when you’ve had a life-changing difficult experience with your health and your loved one(s) don’t seem to care or believe you.
It is no wonder you can end up hiding how you really feel and become very lonely and isolated as a result. As a person you can feel disregarded.
And another example:
Sometimes, the person with the illness or injury is denying what has happened to them. Their partner has had to take on their responsibilities in addition to what they normally do. The partner in the caring role says the person with the illness ‘just won’t do what they need to do to get better’.
Denial is a normal response to a life-changing illness or injury. And there can be many reasons for denial. A common one is ‘illness or injury can’t happen to me’. It also comes about due to not wanting to admit the loss of your previous life, which you very much valued. Denial can have negative consequences depending on its severity and how long it lasts.
There may also potentially be an assumption on the part of the carer that ‘if you do what you need to, you will get better’. With some illnesses and injuries, you can do what you need to, but you don’t necessarily ‘recover’ or ‘get better’. As the person with the illness, knowing you won’t ‘get better’ and you’ve got to deal with this health issue for possibly the rest of your life can be a hard thing to face.
The lessons I learned about dealing with unconscious biases and assumptions around illness
Moderate how much emotional energy you expend when people behave in a way you wish they hadn’t, i.e. they are operating on their unconscious biases and assumptions around illness. Ensure sure any emotional energy you expend is in relation to the infraction. If we get really upset for every perceived slight against us, that’s a lot of energy.
If the person is being an absolute twat, by all means, tell them what you need to. And talk to someone afterwards and/or write about it to get it out of your system.
Many times, their intention may be well-meaning and their actions may happen out of ignorance. They don’t have the goal to hurt us. I am thinking of the ‘tumeric/apricot kernals/just be positive will heal you’ brigade. When it’s this kind of infraction, it’s about learning to let it go as quickly as possible with little invested emotional energy on your part.
Because your energy levels are important and you have to reserve them for the people and activities who matter in your life.
As in the example I gave above regarding my husband, he wasn’t frustrated or taking it out on me. He wasn’t showing he was fed up with me or my behaviours. There was no bad intent. All it took was for me to educate him about fatigue and what I was capable and not capable of.
I think that is key – how we let those close to us know what we need and want. You HAVE to find a way to look after yourself – to know your needs and be able to do what you need to do to meet them. No one else is going to do it for you.
Even our other halves won’t always look after us in the way we want them to. I think sometimes we can expect our loved ones to read our minds. But they are not mind readers. So we have to take the lead and let them know our needs.
Our partners won’t always look after us in the way we want them to. We expect them to read our minds. But they are not mind readers. So we have to take the lead and let them know our needs. #seriousillness #chronicillness… tell a friend
The points I also made last week about communicating with your partner are also relevant here so I recommend reading that blog. How you communicate your needs can make all the difference.
If communicating together is difficult, it’s ok to get help. An objective third-party professional can help you learn new ways to communicate with each other where you both start to feel more seen, recognised and understood by the other.
Come back next week when I will share an exercise on how you can uncover the unconscious biases and assumptions around illness which you may hold.
What’s it like for you?
What unconscious biases and assumptions around illness have you come across in your relationships? Which ones were helpful and which ones hurtful? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments below or alternatively email them to me (form below).
If you are living with a serious health issue, which may be a serious illness or injury or chronic illness, or are caring for someone who is, and would like support to deal with issues in your relationship, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.
Help with research on acceptance
If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more. And in exchange, I offer you a free 1 hour coaching session.
Pass it forward
Although I wrote this blog in the context of living with a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are applicable to everyone. If you think someone you know would benefit from reading this blog, or you just want to spread the ideas, click on the icons to share.
© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2018