Use the Goldilocks Approach to Support a Loved One Living with Pain

When someone close to you is hurting, there's a good chance you are feeling the pain too. How can you provide balanced and helpful support?

Living with pain is difficult, exhausting and depressing – not only for the person in pain – but for those who love and live with them. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself "what type of support person you are?" It can be a delicate balance between being very involved and too. light a touch. Which are you?

Lots of support

It might sound odd, but it is possible to give too much support.

We are motivated by love and don’t want to see our loved ones in pain, but some people take it to the next level. Do you take over and do all the jobs you can? Although well-intentioned, this might mean that the person with pain is getting little to no incidental exercise or chores, and not participating in social activities or work life, which can be detrimental.

Another way we might “over” support someone is by identifying with their symptoms. Perhaps you rush to assist them, constantly check if they are okay or even give a (perhaps involuntary) groan of sympathy.

Research suggests that reactions like these can unwittingly make the person's pain worse because it increases the danger signals that the brain receives. It can also encourage unhelpful learned behaviors and may lead to increased disability.

Case study

Meet Peter. Peter is a 65-year-old widowed male with a 10-year history of chronic back pain.

Peter became very dependent on his adult daughter, Linda, who managed all of his household chores, financial and medical matters. But because Peter was not moving or actively participating in life, he started to lose more function.

After participating in a pain-management program, Linda started letting him participate more in his own welfare and he even began taking short walks and doing his own shopping. Peter regained mobility and increased social connection, and Linda felt confident her dad was looking after himself.

A mock up patient file case study for Peter, someone living with pain who is receiving too much support from his daughter, as explained in the text above. the image.
Case study for Peter – receiving too much support

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Too little support

At the other end of the spectrum there are heartbreaking stories from people whose loved ones have not believed or understood their pain and symptoms, even to the point of nasty names such as "drama queen" and "hypochondriac".

At the risk of sounding like a broken record it's worth reiterating that pain is real. When loved ones lack understanding or empathy – even if they are helping with chores or other practical support – a persons’ pain experience can get worse.

Do you know the difference between sympathy and empathy? Check out this video by Brené Brown.

Case study

Meet Cecily. She's 45 years old with a 7-year history of widespread pain. Cecily’s husband Roger thought that Cecily was making it up because she doesn’t have an official diagnosis, which caused Cecily a lot of emotional distress.

After completing an online pain-management program, Cecily began self-managing her pain and Roger and Cecily attended couples’ therapy with a psychologist who specializes in pain management.

Learning more about chronic pain and self-management skills (such as pacing, movement, relaxation, and identification of unhelpful thought patterns) helped Roger to understand that Cecily’s pain is real. He also found ways to support Cecily with the new behaviors and skills she had learned, and validating her experience reduced her emotional distress.

A mock up patient file case study for Cecily, someone living with pain who is receiving too little support from her husband, as explained in the text above the image.
Case study for Cecily – receiving too little support

Balanced support – try the Goldilocks approach

If Goldilocks knew one thing it was that the best approach is "not too little and not too much but just right!"

Cheerlead, support, nurture and protect. This might not be easy and it requires lots of checking in, tweaking and recalibrating, but if you aim to provide balanced support, you will find a way. Try incorporating some of the ideas in this program, and figure it out between you with frank and open discussions.

You are not going to get this right all the time, and that’s okay. One day you might ruffle pom poms and sing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ only to be met with a fierce rebuke. Or a compassionate hug might be scorned as not supportive enough. Mistakes are evidence that you are trying, so try not to take it personally, speak to your own support people, and try again.

Here are a quick few tips on providing some balanced support.

What helpful support looks like:

  • Cheerlead and encourage with small words of encouragement and affirmation.
  • Help them in other areas of their life (e.g. chores, shopping, medical appointments).
  • Provide evidence-based information about their condition.
  • Understand them with clear communication (e.g. keep checking in, asking questions, offering support and being patient and flexible).
  • It’s not all about pain, don't forget to remind them why you love them!

What unhelpful support looks like:

  • Disbelief or dismissal of their pain (no, it’s definitely real!).
  • Toxic positivity and always look for silver linings.
  • Pushing for the ‘quick-fix’ route.
  • Taking on roles you’re not qualified for (like, therapist or doctor).
  • Too much support (can increase sense of disability and helplessness).
  • Too little support (often because they have not believed or understood pain).
A simple table comparing the dos (Yep!) and don'ts (Nah!) of supporting someone living with pain with more detail in the text above the image.

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The program will:

  1. increase your understanding of fibromyalgia and what’s really going on for your loved one in pain
  2. provide you with the tools to take good care of you
  3. build your confidence to support your loved one in the best possible way.

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Note: Case studies in this article were based on those presented in Lewandowski et al. 2007 (see references below).