Chronic Illness & Fear of Judgement

I’ve always been a socially anxious person. At the root of social anxiety is a fear of being humiliated, scrutinised or judged. When I was younger, I think I was quite a judgemental person. I was quick to criticise and see the worst in people; other people, as well as myself. As I’m getting older, I am learning how unacceptable and unnecessary it is to judge anybody for anything. We are all just trying to do our best on our individual journeys. Yoga has helped me immensely with this. It teaches me and reminds me, every day, to accept where I am in my own journey, both on and off my yoga mat. And I think that by learning not to judge yourself, you inevitably learn not to judge anyone else.

That said, I am definitely not perfect in this regard and I still sometimes catch myself making an unfair judgement about another person or, more often, about myself. I also still have an incredible fear of being judged by others, and this creeps into almost every element of living a life with chronic illness.

As an example, I have quite a serious phobia of doctors. This stems, I know, from countless appointments with GPs where I have not been treated with the respect or dignity that all patients deserve. Like the time I was told that there was “no way” I could be experiencing the symptoms I described because they were “medically impossible”. The time I was told that I couldn’t be that ill, because I had a boyfriend (apparently really sick people can’t meet members of the opposite sex). Or the time, and this is no word of a lie, I was told to “go to Africa and see starving children if you really want to know what sick is”. These comments are rude, insensitive, unkind and extremely damaging. They are judgemental. Anyone who knows me will know that, like many people with chronic illness, I really don’t exaggerate my symptoms. In fact, I am so afraid of people thinking that I am exaggerating my symptoms, that I massively under-report them. So when I go to the doctor to discuss my illness, I am not being a hypochondriac or a drama queen, I am simply seeking help for symptoms that are having a significant impact on my quality of life.

Despite this, I have been made to feel so stupid, over-the-top and unworthy of a doctor’s time, that I have a serious and significant fear of going to the doctor. As someone with chronic illness, this is a problem. It means that I am not properly monitored. It means that there is no one person who oversees my medical care or knows what treatment I’m having. It means I avoid telling my doctor how I’m really doing. It means that, 8 months after being diagnosed with Lyme disease, and 4 months into treatment, I still haven’t had a single conversation with my GP about it. If something serious happened to me, my medical notes are so out of date that no-one would know how best to treat me. My Lyme disease specialist requires me to have regular blood tests throughout treatment to monitor my liver & kidneys, and I am so afraid of speaking to my GP about it that the thought of even making the appointment is keeping me up at night.

The fear of judgement doesn’t stop at the doctor’s office. I am very private about my health issues and there are very few people who know a lot about it. I am trying to get better at this, because keeping it a secret is very isolating and makes me feel lonely and disconnected a lot of the time. I think it is essential for humans to have connection. Even as a socially anxious person, it is important to have meaningful relationships and to not feel like you have to hide what your life is like. But yet, the thought of sharing the details of my illness and treatment with other people fills me with fear because I have no idea what people will think or say. Sometimes I get snippets of opinions or advice that give a little hint that someone is making a judgement. The sad thing is that I know these people most likely have no intention of judging me and probably don’t even realise they are doing it. They are good people; people I like and respect, but still, the subtle signs of judgement are there.

Like, for example, the person who tells me that they think people with chronic illness should learn to live with their symptoms and not let the search for a diagnosis take over their lives. Or the person who told me how they had learned to live with their own condition (a condition very different, by its nature, to mine), and that I should do the same. Or the person who told me they thought the treatment I was having was very risky and that I should find a different doctor. These may all be valid arguments, and they may be well-meaning. But they have one thing in common: they all contain a “should”.

The word “should” suggests that you are making a judgement. It suggests that you think the person at the receiving end of the “should” needs to be doing things differently, or making different choices. That, if you were in their shoes, you would be doing a better job. I frequently catch myself using the word “should” in my head, and I like to challenge it because it typically means I am judging myself (you should be better than this, you should have done xyz by now, you shouldn’t be getting so upset…). Not only is judging someone unneccessary and potentially harmful, but it is also unfair. How can we possibly say what someone else should or shouldn’t be doing, when we have not lived a single second in their shoes? How can we decide what choices someone should or shouldn’t be making, when we have no idea what life is really like for them, or the struggles they experience each day?

I know that my fear of judgement is something I still need to work on. I know that it stems from social anxiety and a few bad experiences, and I know that there is value in learning how to let go of what other people think. But I also think that we all have a responsibility to catch ourselves when we are being judgemental. To question whether we are really in a position to make that judgement, and to consider what it might be like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

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