Living with an illness that few people can visible see can cause assumptions and frustrations among our relationships. How can we change this?
“You look so good! You can’t be as bad as you say. You look perfectly healthy.” “You think you have fatigue? Try working full-time plus having four children! Then you’ll know what chronic fatigue is.” “I think you’re spending too much time thinking about how you feel. You need to just get out more.” “If you really wanted to get well, you’d at least try that juice drink I gave you last week. It won’t hurt to try it.”
And the comments go on. . . and on.
And it really hurts.
You may be surprised to hear that nearly 1 in 2 Americans has a chronic illness or physical condition that impacts their daily life. They are living with an illness that may include everything from migraines to diabetes, back pain to fibromyalgia, and arthritis to cancer. One of the largest emotional obstacles for people who suffer from illness is coping with the invisibility of the pain and feeling like no one understands what they deal with on a daily basis.
And they are justified in these feelings, as about 96% of illness is invisible, meaning the person who suffers from the chronic condition show no outward signs of physical pain or disability. An assistive device is not needed like a walker or wheelchair. But the incredible pain one experiences each day can be disabling within the confines of the home.
If you have an invisible illness here are 5 tools to help let go of some of the frustrations:
 Free people from the expectations you typically have had of them.
This step will likely be a life-long process, but without taking it, you will consistently find that people will always disappoint you. No one is perfect–even you! And it’s important to remember that those living with an illness may not understand the difficulties that our friends are going through, such as a divorce, the death of a loved one, an ill child, a loss job, etc. Like these events, your illness is momentous in your life. And even though people do care, they still will have significant things going on in their own lives. Don’t hold that against them.
 Find supportive, caring friends for your journey of living with an illness.
If there is someone in your circle of friendships who is constantly belittling you or distrustful about your illness, this should be a relationship to end. If it’s a relative, distance yourself as much as you can. Illness gives us an opportunity to help us prioritize our friendships. With limited energies we should surround ourselves with those who at least can give us the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge our illness exists.
 Search for the joy in your blessings–despite living with an illness.
Instead of dwelling on thinking about how badly you feel, find ways to bring more joy into your life, even if it’s just appreciating the small things. Explore what makes you happy and what you are doing when a natural adrenaline takes over and you have extra energy. That’s likely where your passions are! Focus on bringing more of this into your life. And don’t let your limitations stop you.
For example, maybe you once loved to garden. Now you could grow a few potted flowers or hire a neighborhood teenager to plant some vegetables and set up an automatic sprinkler system for them. You could even start a garden consulting business.
 Use your aptitude and talent for things you have a personal interest in.
Too often, when we are living with an illness we begin to feel like the skills we learned in the workplace are no longer valuable. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to write children’s books or be a business consultant. Get involved in your community and do some volunteer or part-time work to continue to grow professionally. Rather than focusing on what others aren’t doing to comfort you, follow your dreams and give that gift of comfort to yourself.
 Be a mentor for someone else who is living with an illness.
You know what it is like to be living with an illness and to feel like no one understands what you are experiencing, so take time to be vulnerable with someone else who is going through this. Whether you meet someone through an online group such as National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week’s Facebook Page, or through your local support group, volunteer your time and expertise (yes, you’re an expert on living with invisible illness!) and use it to make someone else’s journey simpler.
* You’ll find your own journey is more enjoyable too. For example, if you are frustrated that no one at your church thinks your invisible illness is real, rather than stop going to church, find ways to educate them, such as a column in the church newsletter or bookmarks about how to reach out to a hurting friend.
We can’t change other people–but we can educate them and give gentle advice about how many people are currently living with an illness–many of the illnesses invisible. Then we much work on ourselves. You’ll find that even when you want to change it can be difficult. It requires discipline and motivation for a better life. You owe it to yourself and finding joy in your life despite invisible chronic pain will improve both your mental and physical health.
Lisa Copen is the founder of Rest Ministries and she lives in San Diego with her husband and son. She is gradually learning how to balance motherhood, family, illness, and ministry, but she still knows it will be a lifetime lesson. You can see the books she has written, including, Why Can’t I Make People Understand? at the Rest Ministries shop.