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Setting the Table for Compassion

Setting the Table for Compassion

One of our community members recently asked: “How do you express you’re in pain without sounding like you’re complaining?” A great question. Thinking carefully about who’s asking as well as taking into account their understanding of the disease before you answer can be a helpful first step. Increasing education and awareness about migraine among friends and family is also important. And finally, working to increase our own acceptance of our situation is essential. All of these steps contribute to the receipt of compassion rather than judgment when we talk about how migraine is impacting our lives.

Who is asking?

We may get a bit tongue-tied and fumble for an answer no matter who is asking, or our response may vary depending on who’s asking. Many of us feel conflicted about what to share and how to share it, leading to oversharing at times. Sometimes we might not say enough. Due to these challenges, it can be helpful to gain clarity about who is asking before responding.

  • Acquaintances
    People who don’t know us very well (certain coworkers, those we might encounter at a gathering, etc.) might be asking how we are in order to be courteous rather than out of a true desire to know. My grandmother told me that most people who ask us how we are don’t really care to hear the answer. They are asking to be polite. She trained me not to go into detail and rather to respond with a brief “I’m fine. How are you?

    I have definitely learned over the years that most people enjoy talking about themselves. So, if there’s ever a time I don’t want to talk about myself or someone asks a question I’d rather not answer, I find the best way to avoid a response is to turn the conversation around into an open-ended question about the other person. Then I can sit back, relax and listen. You might also come up with a quick memorized pat answer about what you’re up to that feels easy to say in these kinds of situations. “Oh, I’ve felt better, but I’m managing alright. How are you?”

  • Friends and family
    When people we know well ask how we are, they are likely interested in hearing the answer. And of course, they are aware that we have migraine. In these situations, it can be challenging to find a way to talk about being in pain without feeling like we’re whining or being worried others are perceiving our response as if we are complaining.

Finding our footing

It is easy to feel insecure that a detailed, honest answer may be perceived as whining or weak. This is not always the case. There’s no way to get into the head or heart of the person you are speaking with to know what they are thinking or feeling. It can help to accept yourself as you are, without judgment. When we reflect on how we view ourselves, we may find that we harbor internal judgment for being “weak” or “lazy.” We may have internalized some of the harsh views from society or from people in our lives.

It is so important to practice acceptance and gratitude when it comes to migraine. Doing so is a journey that never ends. When we believe that we are doing the best we can in life, understand that migraine is not our fault, and continue to learn from our condition, we may feel more confident in talking about it to others.

Switching shoes

Another way to increase self-acceptance is to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person. Pretend you are the person asking how someone is doing and they respond by describing severe pain. Is there any part of you that feels judgment toward that person? Not likely. Indeed, you would likely respond with concern and compassion if someone told you he/she was struggling with pain. This is likely the same response you are likely receiving from others.

When judgment is real

Many of us have encountered a situation when we have been perceived as being a whiner when we talk about having migraine. It’s just something we can feel – like an odor coming off the other person. It’s judgment, plain and simple. But here’s the deal: that judgment is based on ignorance. Unfortunately, few people really understand the statistics or real dynamics related to migraine. The best way to combat judgment surrounding migraine is to kill them with facts. Not everyone wants to take on the role of being an educator about the disease all the time, but increasing awareness about the condition will do worlds in decreasing judgment and misinformation.

I see it as setting the table in order to receive compassion. It takes time, but it will only benefit you in the end. There are many ways of doing this. You can forward key articles that resonate with you from sources like to friends and family (this is one of the main strategies I used). Or you can memorize some key facts about the disease and instead of only talking about your own pain, you can pepper in some statistics about migraine in order to help them see that you are but one of 38+ million people battling this condition every day.

Preparing for the loaded question

Preparing yourself for the dreaded “How are you?” question is important. It’s a loaded one for those of us who are living with migraine because there is so much that is not “fine” with how we are. It can feel like opening a Pandora’s box every time someone asks. Taking some time to ready yourself, while working on your own sense of acceptance and increasing awareness among those around you, might help ease your answer.

How do you answer the question “How are you?” How do you handle related judgment and/or lack of compassion?  Please share in the comment section below so we can learn from one another!

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • glassmind
    8 months ago

    How do you answer the question “How are you?” How do you handle related judgment and/or lack of compassion?

    My answer varies with who is asking, how I am doing, and how I feel about answering. Lol

    I have been fortunate that an honest responce from me that mentions pain or another symptom has usually been met with requsts to understand better or with compassion

    The exceptions have been with doctors or close family and that is frustrating as these are the people from whom I expect help or compassion.

    With these I once left the encounter hurt and without help. I’ve learned to be my own advocate and insist on help (in the case of doctors) or say something like “It hurts that you dismiss/judge me. Your sympathy would really help me feel better.” (In the case of family)

    I limit my sharing with repeat offenders (ask for a second opinion with drs or turn to other friends and family) My energy is best spent elsewhere, than convincing people who are unsympathetic to be so.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    7 months ago

    @glassmind– thank you, once again- for taking time to offer your wisdom and guidance, clearly earned from years living with migraine disease- to the rest of us. It is so true that it’s important to choose your battles when it comes to spending what precious and little energy we have.

    If we have the energy to spare, it’s wonderful to advocate for ourselves (especially when we must with our physicians) and sometimes it’s best to exit ourselves from the interaction when we don’t have the energy to provide a class on migraine to the uninformed. It’s a nice reminder to know it’s in our hands to make that call on a case by case basis.

    Please keep these wonderful comments coming!

  • Tom Picerno moderator
    8 months ago

    @glassmind I totally get where you are coming from with this. I used to cringe when I knew there would be people asking how I was doing. For years I just said I was fine but over time I realized this was a discredit for me and them. I try my best to be open and honest especially with my doctors. In my circle of acquaintances and friends I do my best to educate them when I’m having a good day and that makes it easier for us to understand the situations when I’m having a bad day. Most people are really compassionate and take education on migraine seriously .

  • Luvmyfam22
    11 months ago

    The question, “How are you?” haunts me because it is so layered and changes more than the weather – I live in Chicago! Often, as much as I can, I say, “My spirit is well, thanks for asking and how’ve you been?” to dissuade the question. Because, I know it is usually a targeted question about my migraines. Since that is a growing can of worms, or shall I say symptoms and triggers, I find I can get the conversation off of myself and onto safer ground. However, there are a handful of people who ‘know’ me just by a look and just tell me how I’m doing! They are usually always spot on and so very compassionate and give me words of encouragement and hope, then tell me stories of cheer! Oh do I that!!!

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    11 months ago

    What a great share! Thank you for offering your experiences. I love the statement “my spirit is well…” and then quickly turning it back to the other person. Even when the most compassionate people ask us how we are- with the best of intentions- wanting to hear how we REALLY are- it truly can get old to talk about migraine. Especially if it feels like that’s all that we are being asked about and therefore are talking about.

    Finding ways to give a quick and honest check in- and to receive compassion – but then can be free to go on to other topics – and even better, hear and share stories of joy- well, that’s what life is all about.

    Thanks again for that uplifting offering.

  • AZReynolds
    11 months ago

    I always answer “I’m fine”, or “Gotta migraine”. Usually Gotta migraine gets the reply of “Sorry, I will let you go. Call me when you get better.” I’m learning nobody really wants details unless they are interesting. A bad fall from my sycope migraines might get more details, or AIWS episodes are always amusing so I will share those with trusted family members and friends, but other than that… I’m fine is best.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    11 months ago

    Thank you for sharing what you are learning. You make a good point that mentioning migraine often shuts people down and seems to make them want to close the conversation quickly either out of compassion (they want to literally let you go to take care of yourself) or due to the fact that many people are uncomfortable talking about pain and are unclear as to how to handle it. It’s ironic that we are often left lying about the pain we have in order to make the other person feel more comfortable.
    Thanks again for chiming in- glad you’re a part of our community!

    11 months ago

    It is interesting to me that I just came home from a short trip down the street ( I live in a small town in the smallest province in Canada) and, while there, saw a coworker. I have been off work, due to chronic migraine for 4 months now. So, I felt that this coworker was judging me when I told her how I have been and what the plans are for me next, for treatment. She has suffered with Migraine as I have ( 36 now) and mine became chronic about 18 months ago.

    I am a workaholic, not so much in the number of hours I work as that is controlled by others. However, by my obsession around my work. I am a RN and have specialized in geriatric nursing for 30 years. It was very difficult for me to finally take a sick leave, this was the last thing I gave up, having given up social engagements and family gatherings log before. I struggled for the first 40 days or so, my thoughts racing about getting back to work. So, to see a coworker brought some of those thoughts back ” I am being a wimp”…etc.

    I admitted to an acquaintance of mine ( becoming more of a friend now due to this disease), that when I heard she was off work and missing church events due to ” Migraine”, I thought she was crazy as, up to that point, mine were 4 to 5 days a month and not consecutive days. WoW!! was I in for an eye opener!! I usually research any medical diagnosis I hear about that I do not know know much about. Apparently I thought I knew all there was to know about Migraine!! I had no idea all these symptoms could happen. I thought I had a brain tumor and paid for an MRI to rule that out.

    I remember, about 3 years ago, a ” former” friend told me that she felt I used my migraines as an excuse to not go out if I changed my mind about a social engagement. I was so hurt by that and probably will never forget it.

    So, yes, as others pointed out, I have found it is important to remember my audience. I do not see many people anyway as I can hardly leave the house but, my family understands and a couple of close friends and that is all I need anyway right? I actually do not think my GP even understands but I do have a neurologist. I have tried to educate my GP but he is overworked and not interested. I email him link to articles etc…

    I am so thankful I have found this site. I relate to everything everyone says. It is nice to have the support.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    11 months ago

    So grateful for your share. It’s helpful that you showed how your perspective shifted during the course of your disease as it evolved in frequency. So glad you have an understanding support group- and you’re so right, it only takes a couple of close friends. In fact, when we are battling chronic migraine, we don’t always have the energy to cultivate many relationships beyond that anyway.

    The point you bring up about educating your GP made me think of an additional point. While we want to raise awareness, understanding and compassion on the topic of migraine, it is ultimately not our job to do so. We have to pick and choose our battles on that front. It would be very nice to have your GP (especially) really get what you’re up against, but thankfully it sounds like you have a good neurologist. Perhaps you could ask your neurologist to help in educating the GP so it’s not all on your shoulders?

    I’m thankful you’ve found our site too! I’m very grateful you are a part of our community and always look forward to your comments. Please stay in touch.

  • Nikita212
    11 months ago

    I have decided to say as little as possible to acquaintances. I’m choosy about which relatives I talk to as well. Friends and family who really care are different. I share the most with my closest sister. Another sister is silent when I have shared anything about what it’s really like, so I feel like I’ve hit a wall.

    In other words, I’ve learned to be careful about who I talk to. Sometimes I feel obligated to share because a migraine has changed plans. I get a variety of responses from stone silence to compassion.

    I feel many people don’t know what to say or understand migraine. I have been told it’s just a matter of perspective. I change my perspective and migraines will go away. I wish it were that easy!

    Education does seem to be the best remedy, but those not affected have no particular reason to pay attention. Sites like can work wonders.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    11 months ago

    Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned in your migraine journey. It sounds like you’ve become quite wise in terms of reading the room when it comes to sharing the details of living with migraine disease. And you’re so right, no matter how many resources we have to share, if someone isn’t interested in learning, it’s like talking to a closed door. In those cases, best to conserve our energy and share with those who at least are leaving their compassion-door ajar. Or, as you said in response to another post, to seek out those with whom you might share similar health challenges. Building relationships with others who are living with chronic pain will likely lead to a bigger pay off in terms of receiving understanding and a healthy exchange of kindness and support.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  • bluesguy
    11 months ago

    I like this article. It hits all of the points that so many of us deal with weekly, if not daily. Do people really care beyond being polite? Like you say, we need to know our audience. I have been struggling with chronic migraine since two eye surgeries 13 and 10 years ago changed my life forever. Since that time, I have lost my career(23 years in a career in psych. social work and marriage and family therapy), lost some close friends, and have been the target of emotional/psychological abuse from my significant other’s family. I have had so much difficulty going to the family events, that I am no longer invited to the family gatherings, weddings, parties, etc…. I have tried to explain my trouble with my migraines (chronic), how my eyes have precipitated my condition, and how it effects me physically, neurologically, and every other way possible. They really do not care. I try to explain that loud noises, lights, some foods/drinks, stress, etc… cause my migraines to become more disabling. However, they do not care. If I can’t come to their loud/bright, and drunken parties, their cruises of the same nature, or their trips to casinos (every trigger there is surrounds me at Casinos.), then that is my problem. Then they say that I don’t attend because I don’t like their family, and that it is all my problem, and they see no reason to change their behavior for my benefit. So, I am stuck. Or it feels that way to me. Do you have any advice to help me learn to manage this divisive and harmful environment with this family? Thanks.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    11 months ago

    Oh, I’m so sorry you’re feeling so stuck and that you are receiving such judgment and lack of acceptance and understanding from your in-laws. That is really rough.

    I’m sure, from your profession, you have a lot of your own insights as to what might be driving their reactions (insecurities about you not liking them, perhaps?) – and about what would be most healthy for you to focus on (building a healthy support system).

    I wonder about you seeking a way to show them that they are important to you in a way that won’t trigger a migraine attack. Perhaps inviting them (or a small, manageable number of them), on your terms, to your home, or environment that you can control. Or if your migraines are chronic and it’s likely that you would have to cancel such an event- perhaps think of ways that you can reach out, spur of the moment, when you’re migraines give you a quick respite. Facetime them in that quick window or time? If they live close, call and see if they can grab a quiet tea with you, right then. I don’t know these people, I just have been where you are, and I wonder if your reaching out from time to time would help to disway the story they’ve concocted that you are difficult or someone who never shows, or cancels… Also, in those real moments, when you’re connecting with just one or two people, rather than the full herd of the family- you can more easily show your true self, and so can they.

    Most importantly, it would be so great for you to focus on building a strong healthy support system for yourself especially because you are experiencing such negativity. Your professional background tells you how to do this- look for the people in your life who have shown acceptance, non judgment and kindness- seek them out, cultivate those connections as best you can. I’m of the opinion that those living with chronic migraine would do well to connect with a therapist because of how challenging this journey can be. And seek out support groups, online communities so that you can connect with others who are navigating the same terrain. I also find that it helps to keep handy the few articles about migraine that resonate with you the best and to forward those to your friends and family to help them better understand what you’re up against. It can do worlds in growing the compassion, awareness, and understanding of those who surround you.

    So very glad you chimed in- and even more glad you’re a part of our community. Please stay in touch and let us know how you are.

  • bluesguy
    11 months ago

    Holly, thank you so much for your thoughtful guidance, and empathy. It means a lot to me that you took the time and energy to provide me with this advice. I will definitely copy this page, and keep it around. I can continue to learn from you by studying your varied suggestions. That was very cool.

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