The Trap of the "Good Sick Person" Narrative

There is this narrative that people with a strong spiritual practice are always calm, equanimous and even joyful in the face of pain and loss. That when people with a strong spiritual practice experience pain they can be mellow.

Throughout years of chronic pain with varying limitations in mobility and several surgical procedures I've gone through periods marked by depression, anxiety, irritability, neediness, and... I'll just say it, plain bitchiness. And I berated myself because I was supposed to be more advanced in my practice. I was supposed to be handling all of this better. In other words, I was falling short, failing to meet the standard of how I should experience illness. I judged myself for not being a good sick person, and I felt like a fraud.

At one point during my last post-surgical recovery, when I was particularly moody - and particularly critical of my moodiness, I saw an interview with Tara Brach, as part of the Self-Acceptance Summit. She shared how, through bouts of sickness, she not only felt sick, but found that she was becoming irritable and self-centered, and then not liking herself for being a bad sick person. "I thought 'I am not being spiritual in how I'm being sick.' So there's the layer of suffering from the illness. And then a second layer of suffering - a sense of unworthiness for being a bad sick person."

Here she was, one of the most renowned Western Buddhist teachers, with thousands of hours of meditation under her belt, describing how she felt the same way I did. Sharing that same sense of falling short, and what she calls the "trance of unworthiness". Reminding me of our common humanity.

She went on to say that "There's usually some sort of background that's monitoring how am I doing now? And usually there's a gap between a standard of who we should be and our moment to moment experience. And that gap makes us always feel always in some way like we're not OK."

That standard of who we should be is what I call the performative narrative. And it shows up everywhere, including the idea of how we should perform health, and also how we should perform illness, i.e. being a good sick person. 

Tara Brach shared how "Underneath this experience of the bad sick person is a sinking feeling and this very core belief that if I am this bad at being sick then I'll never wake up and be free the way I want to be, and the fear of getting caught here." I would add that underneath the experience of being the bad anything, aka not conforming to the performative role or narrative, there is the core belief that we will never be worthy, that we will never belong. And often this core belief is reinforced by a culture that is unjust and oppressive to certain bodies, and lodges the shame within bodies.

She then said "Once we get that we're suffering because we're at war with ourselves, there can be a deep, sincere commitment to embracing our own being and embracing life everywhere." She pointed to the way out: pausing, feeling the sense of failing, of not being a good or together person, offering kindness to the bad sick person.  And then connecting with what's going on in the body with kindness. There is a specific practice for this: RAIN. 

Recognize what is happening;

Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;

Investigate with interest and care;

Nurture with self-compassion.

So I did. And that is where my meditation practice came in. Not in performing the role of a good sick person, but in returning to my body and tending to my pain with mindfulness and compassion. When I gave myself permission to simply feel what I was feeling, to experience the pain and the loss from an embodied experience, I was finally able to offer myself compassion.

I'd love to say that this took care of the critical voice for good, and that this particular performative narrative has never been an issue for me again, but that's not real life. Real life involves facing these inner experiences of unworthiness weaved together with cultural performative narratives. It involves coming back to the practice of embodiment, kindness and compassion over and over again. Like Sharon Salzberg says: "The healing is in the return, not in never having left." And Tara Brach explains how years of practice translate into being able to come out the trance of unworthiness a little faster each time. 

How does the narrative of the good sick person show up for you? Drop me a line to share with me.

Recommended resources for your Fiercely Embodied practice:

Tara Brach’s Three Part Series on Embodied Awareness

Embracing Unlived Life: Part 1
Embracing Unlived Life: Part 2
Pain and Living Fully: Part 3

Tara's interview (as well as others) as part of the Self-Acceptance Summit

About the author

Lilia Graue is a physician, psychotherapist, consultant and teacher. She works with brave humans to counter performative health, among other oppressive discourses, to do the compassionate healing work necessary to collectively create a culture of body justice and liberation, so that we may all become Fiercely Embodied.



Lilia Graue