Ableist Word Profile: I Feel Your Pain!

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

I hear this one all the time.  I am pretty sure I am very very guilty of using this one.  I saw it used the other day in a context that I am not going to get into here, but it really struck it home for me in a way that made me jump (not at all literally) and decide that it needed to be unpacked here a little.

I feel your pain.

I had to go to the school to pick up my daughter because she had a slight fever.  Anything will get them sent home during the Flu Panic going around right now.  We walked to the nearest shoppette to pick up some canned soup for lunch before going home, and The Kid had that Look.  The tired eyes, with the dark circles and the pallor that told me she just wasn’t feeling well.  We got our soup and orange juice and a cab to get home.  She nodded off on the ride home as I stroked her hair, shoving aside my own pain wishing I knew how she felt and what she needed.  She can only tell me so much.  She can only give me clues to what it feels like to be inside her body feeling her experiences of being sick.  She is the only person who can communicate the way it feels to have that fever or that headache or to have that need for a nap and soup and cuddles and blankets.  No matter how much I understand how colds and germs and immune systems work, and no matter how well I know that low grade fevers are actually good for you, only she can tell me how it feels.

I can’t feel her pain.

Just like you can’t feel my pain.

One of the core principles of feminism, IMO, is the concept of bodily autonomy.  My body is mine.  Mine and mine alone.  You don’t get to tell me how to manage it, you don’t get to touch it without my permission, and anything that tries to attack me from the inside is treated as an enemy hostile if it dares grow uninvited.  This stems from the fundamental idea that you or anyone else who isn’t me could never understand my body better than me.

Coinciding with that, is that no one other human being other than me knows how it feels to be me, to be in my body, to literally feel the pain of living in this body.

Even the best of my doctors, the ones who care with all of their compassion, the ones who were and are capable of great empathy, can not physically feel my pain.  No matter how many fancy diplomas are on their walls or how many scans they’ve run or how many times they’ve played pin cushion with me, they still need me to resort to the handy dandy pain scale as a rubric for making this clear to them.

So, how can you, random stranger, on a random message board or in a random comment section feel my pain?

Can you feel the moment I wake in the morning, those three fleeting moments where I forget and turn my head too quickly, jarring my neck and triggering a migraine that has been hanging over me like a shroud all night?

Can you feel the way my body feels like it is bruised in all of the places it rested against itself or the mattress all night?

How can you, random person in line with me at the supermarket, feel my pain?

Can you feel the pain that my hip and other joints are causing, necessitating the cane, or that the cane is causing my back and shoulders?

Can you feel the dizziness that the blearing pain in my head causes?

How can you, random family member/friend/concerned citizen, feel my pain?

Can you feel the numerous side effects that my body must endure from the various medications I need to make it through a day?

Can you feel the rawness of my throat from the numerous times one of those side effects was not being able to hold a meal down?

I am not discounting the way that you want to relate to me, or to express that you share in my disapproval of something.  I understand that you want to sympathize with my frustration.  You may even want to align with my feelings, or appreciate my sentiment.  There are lots of options that you have that don’t somehow imply that you have some kind of insider info on the goings on of my body or what it really feels like to be me.

About Ouyang Dan

is an extremely proggy-liberal, formerly single mommy, Native American, invisibly disabled, U.S. Navy Veteran, social justice activist and aspiring freelance writer currently living in South Korea on Uncle Sam's dime. She has a super human tolerance for caffeine and chocolate and believes she should use those powers for good. She said should. She is not a concise person, and sometimes comes on a little aggressively in comments. Sometimes her right arm still twitches when military brass walks past her, but she would rather be reading YA Lit or pwning n00bs. She can be found being cliche about music, overthinking pop culture, and grumbling about whatever else suits her fancy at her personal website, random babble.... She also writes about military issues for's Women's Rights blog. If you have something interesting to say email her at ouyangdan [at] disabledfeminists [dot] com. Lawyers in Italy looking to hold lottery winnings in her bank account may wait longer for reply.

12 thoughts on “Ableist Word Profile: I Feel Your Pain!

  1. I was reading on the Dabrowski Discussion group about the way we are socialised to show concern.

    It all starts with broken toes or stubbed toes. And how if somebody was in the playground you would say something.

    If the person was otherwise happy and all right, like in their faces, I would feel nothing.

    Is it in any way OK to be able to say, ‘I couldn’t imagine …’. That would probably be ablist language, in another context.

    Wittgehnstein is really good at this pain thing, and especially how inexpressible it can be in words, along to other people.
    .-= Adelaide Dupont´s last blog ..Running sheet for Key Concepts and Development: prelim and first draft, with pics and sounds! =-.

  2. I am so with you on this – I really loved the explanation of bodily autonomy… I’ll have to remember that for the next time I’m trying to explain it to the more stubborn people in my life.
    .-= NTE´s last blog ..15 years and counting… =-.

  3. This phrase has never bugged me that much, possibly because I don’t have chronic pain. I do find it extremely annoying when people use it about things that are related to my disability, but that’s not because of the bodily autonomy issue but because they’re claiming to understand, relate and have similar experiences themselves when they really, really don’t. Which isn’t really the same.

    Anyway, this has given me a lot to think about, and a phrase to banish from my vocabulary. Thanks very much for writing this!

  4. This I could not agree more. I think it bothers me the most when someone tells me how they know someone with my condition who can do various things pain free or are able to push through their pain. First they have no idea if we have the same pain tolerance or if we are even experiencing the same amount of pain. You are right no knows but the individual who is living with the pain and no amount of sympathizing renders the speaker with the ability to truly understand.
    .-= Renee´s last blog ..Sunday Shame: Halloween Edition =-.

  5. I do not identify as disabled but I do suffer from chronic medical conditions and personally, I take the expression to mean empathy, not dismissal. From my experience, it’s either incredibly empathetic or something that someone says to me when they are really unsure what to say but want me to feel listened to and understood.

    Whether it’s accurate or not, is another issue, obviously. But of all the “look-at-me-dismissing-your-experience” crap that I hear on a regular basis, “I feel your pain” is not one of them.

  6. Ya know, it’s funny (where funny is read as fucked up) because I know that when people say “I feel your pain” they aren’t being literal. Like, I grok that concept…I can wrap my brain around it. I know they are not being literal, thank you very much. The thing is…words mean things. And flippantly going about using them as if they don’t is messed up. That is what this series is about. Drawing attention to language that might be hurtful to someone in ways you didn’t think about before.

    So, for those of you who are leaving comments along the line of “it’s not a big deal”, or “ZOMG, they don’t mean it like that!”, I am not going to approve those. No one here is going to approve those, and if you don’t like it, too damn bad. My thread, my call. It is a big deal. The sooner we realize that words mean things, that they have impact on people, on actual human beings who have actual feelings and who are affected by the things other people say, the better.

    There are better ways to express sympathy and empathy. I demonstrated that in the OP. If you are just going to argue w/ me and defend your right to use hurtful language, move on and find another blog to abuse. It isn’t going to happen here.

    You don’t have to agree w/ me, lot’s of people don’t. But be respectful. To those of you who have managed to do that, thank you. It doesn’t have to bug you personally (not every AWP will), we are just trying to broaden the way you look at institutionalized ableism.

  7. I hope this is not crossing the line or seen as defending ableism.

    I can see how definitely when you are discussing your own body and your own experiences, the phrase ‘I feel your pain’ is coopting and dismissive. But the phrase in the profile is only discussed within this context. Let’s say it is used about something different (tough marking professor drops your grade for a mis-quote – ‘X prof did Y to me, so tough man’, ‘yeah, I feel your pain’. Is this offensive? I mean do you consider the coopting of the word ‘pain’ for this purpose to be an issue? So if you witnessed the conversation re the grading, would you be offended by the use of the word ‘pain’.

    My question is – is it usage of the word *pain* which makes it blanketly offensive or is it just when being used to dismiss/discomfort someone whose experience you do not have. I’m not being facetious – I’m asking because it’s not clear from your post.

    Some of the words on ableist word profile seem to be ‘words’ (like the r word). Others seem to be *conversations* or *phrases* in a context which become an issue. I would like to think that I’m not enough of an arrogant asshole to start telling people how to manage their conditions but I’d like to know if my use of a word is offending them in another context.

    In other words, (if this isn’t abundantly clear) I completely and utterly accept your AWP and thank you for sharing it. I’d just like to ask a follow up question to define some parameters that I’m unsure of.

  8. The first time I heard someone use this phrase (fairly recently) it irritated me, and it didn’t even relate to a circumstance in which the claim was unreasonable – it was in the context of childcare dramas or some such, so it was about stress and inconvenience, not physical pain. The next time it was about a hangover, equally inconsequential. Oddly, I then started using it, despite it having annoyed me. I’m pretty sure I’ve never used it in respect to anyone’s actual pain – more in the context of anger, frustration or indeed, hangovers – but I don’t know why I started using a phrase that had grated on me.

    I completely agree that in the context of disability it is not just grating, it is … disrespectful and infuriating and well, you already said. I can see no good reason not to remove it from my public vocab – in fact I said it somewhere the other day and after it was said I felt decidedly uncomfortable about it. I’ll go back to whatever it was I used to say before this one popped into my usage.

  9. This is an expression I’ve used in that “I’m using this cheesy expression” way, but the cases when I’ve used it have been mental/emotional “pain,” more frustration than pain. I started writing this comment to ask if changing the expression to “I feel your frustration” would be acceptable, but in thinking of how to phrase the question I’ve answered it myself. Even if we’re not talking about physical pain, I cannot know how something affects you. The same principles apply: even though you and I are dealing with the same childcare drama (because our kids go to the same daycare and have the same teacher who just left/got fired/whatever), the way it affects you will be different than the way it affects me, because you and I are different people and our kids are different people who wil react to this change in different ways. Maybe you can afford to go elsewhere for childcare, but I can’t; maybe you disliked that teacher anyway, so on and do forth.

    I can feel my frustration, and I can imagine yours, but I cannot feel your frustration.

    Thanks for these posts. “The thing is…words mean things. And flippantly going about using them as if they don’t is messed up.” I was trying to explain this same thing to my step-sister-in-law (yes, there’s a reason I mark every degree of separation between me and her) yesterday on Facebook. Words have meanings, and words shape our thoughts, our paradigms, our ideas. They have power. If “ZOMG, I didn’t mean it like that!” then don’t SAY it like that. Say what you mean, it helps everybody out.
    .-= Criss´s last blog ..Dear Biblethumpers: You’re doing it wrong. And making the rest of us look bad. =-.

  10. Let’s say it is used about something different (tough marking professor drops your grade for a mis-quote – ‘X prof did Y to me, so tough man’, ‘yeah, I feel your pain’. Is this offensive? I mean do you consider the coopting of the word ‘pain’ for this purpose to be an issue? So if you witnessed the conversation re the grading, would you be offended by the use of the word ‘pain’.

    Did it cause you physical pain? Did it cause you extreme mental pain? That would be a question to ask yourself. Even then…the second person here can’t really have that experience, since sie is a separate person. Do you get what I mean? Word mean things, and that is all I am trying to explain here.

    My question is – is it usage of the word *pain* which makes it blanketly offensive or is it just when being used to dismiss/discomfort someone whose experience you do not have. I’m not being facetious – I’m asking because it’s not clear from your post.

    Kind of.

    I guess it is kind of like when I have one of my major, severe, chronic headaches, that make me curl up into a fetal position and wish that I could pass out, that I used to be hospitalized for, and someone tries to relate by telling me that sometimes they get a headache that requires two whole Excedrin to knock out. It kind of makes me feel like that. It’s not the same thing. It’s not the same experience. Words. Mean. Things.

    I am sorry it took me so long to get to your comment. I’ve been sick which has sorely depleted my spoons.

  11. Thanks for the post, Ouyang. Even before this, for reasons I can’t articulate well, I’ve personally been trying to shift to ‘I hear that’, which is sort of Americanised as a phrase but just…makes more sense to me.

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