5 Tips for Communicating with Family and Friends Who Just Don’t Understand

One of the most common statements I hear from people with chronic illnesses regarding their friends and family members is, “They just don’tDictionary Series - Marketing: communication understand.” This is particularly true for people with autoimmune disorders (such as, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, Lupus, Celiac, etc) and other modern invisible illnesses (like food allergies and ADHD). I am amazed at how many times I have heard someone cluelessly minimize the impact of one of these conditions.

If you are dealing with a chronic condition, I am sure that you have uttered the words, “They just don’t get it” at some point in your life. I know I have on several occasions.

This lack of understanding can be very frustrating for you because whenever anyone speaks to another person they want to feel like they have been heard and understood.

Unfortunately, it is particularly hard for people to wrap their minds around chronic conditions unless they experience them first-hand. Unlike visible disabilities, such as breaking your leg,  people around you have little or no reference point in regards to what might be going on inside of your body. This lack of awareness often leads to miscommunication and misunderstandings.

Communication breakdowns can lead to feelings of anger, anxiety, resentment, animosity, hopelessness, isolation, despair, and depression. All of these emotions negatively impact your relationships and overall quality of life. The stress brought on by conflict can also weaken your ability to manage your symptoms effectively.

Good communication fosters healthier relationships and creates an environment which supports you in managing your condition.

So how do you improve your communication skills? Check out my tips below.

5 Tips for Communicating with Family and Friends Who Just Don’t Understand Your Condition:

1) Tell others how they can help.

Most family members and friends really do want to help, they just don’t know how. When they don’t know how to help they may do annoying things like give you unsolicited advice on how to manage your condition. Instead of getting angry or frustrated with them, remember it is the the thought that counts. They are trying to be helpful. In these situations, just say something like, “Thank you. I appreciate your concern. One thing I could really use your help with is XY and Z.”

2) Manage expectations

Understand that your condition affects the other people in your life. They are likely still clinging to the way things used to be before you were diagnosed or before your symptoms really began to impact you. Though it may seem insignificant compared to the adjustments you have had to make, your friends and family are also adjusting to a new way of living and relating to you. This requires patience and understanding from everyone involved.

Change can be difficult and scary. Don’t be afraid to let your friends and family know what you can and cannot do. For instance, you may not be able to go on an annual hike anymore but you can still enjoy the family beach vacation. Explain to them how your condition impacts you but also remind them of the ways that you can connect and enjoy each other. Change is a lot easier and less frightening when we have an idea of what to expect.

3) Set clear boundaries

Boundaries are essential to creating healthy relationships and living a healthy life in general. But they are especially important when you are living with a chronic condition. Setting firm boundaries involves knowing your limits and communicating them to others. Get clarity around what you can and are willing to tolerate, mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, etc. Once you have awareness of what your boundaries are you can communicate them to others and release everything that is outside of your comfort zone.

4) Give yourself permission to uphold your boundaries

Many women really struggle with upholding boundaries. ¬†Generally speaking, we are taught to be nurturing and polite, so many of us struggle with saying “no” and taking care of ourselves. When you are living with a chronic condition you have to be your own self-advocate and practice self-care. Don’t worry about how others might react or what they might think of you. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself. Your care is your responsibility. Remember, boundaries aren’t meant to punish others, they are meant to support your well-being.

5) Be clear, direct, and respectful

Effective communication requires you to be clear, direct, and respectful. You can firmly uphold your boundaries without being rude. When someone has crossed one of your boundaries, calmly inform them of what your boundary is. Chances are, they were not aware of your boundary or they may have forgotten. Never assume that someone should know something if you have not told them. If you want them to know something, tell them directly.

If a friend or family member continues to cross a particular boundary, remind them of your boundary and let them know how you feel when your boundary is crossed. Also let them know the steps that you will take in order to protect your well-being. If they continue to cross your boundary after you have told them what your boundary is then you need to do what you must do to protect your well-being. In most cases, they will see that you are serious about your well-being and will respect your boundary. Effective communication requires you to respect the other person, but it also requires you to respect yourself.

Follow these 5 tips and you will see your friends and family start to come around. Be patient. It may take some people longer than others to get it. Some people may never get it and that’s okay, too. Surround yourself with supportive people who do understand what you are going through and do what you need to do to create a supportive and healthy environment.

I’d love to hear how you deal with family members who don’t seem to understand you. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

About Tiffany deSilva

Hi I'm Tiffany deSilva, MSW, CPC, CHC, Founder of BrightFire Living, LLC. I am a social worker, speaker, author, certified health, wellness and lifestyle coach, certified green living coach and toxic-free consultant. I am passionate about helping women like you to detox each area of your life, safeguard your family's health, and live life fully charged and completely lit up! I am on a mission to empower women and families who are managing food allergies, autoimmune disorders, and other modern chronic health conditions to live a safe, happy, and healthy life that truly lights your fire!

Feedback & Comments:

  1. Heidi this is truly not something I had thought about in terms of chronic illnesses but it makes a lot of sense. When I read your headline I thought it was going to be a post about people not understanding what we entrepreneurs go through. Maybe that’s a story for another day for you!

    • Tiffany deSilva says

      Hi Mary Ellen, I think much of the principles for good communication can be applied to many different situations, including entrepreneurs who feel misunderstood by their family.

  2. Amen! Amen!

    I write about the power of our “people environment” in my book “Be True Rich.”

    You have outlined clear and powerful steps to keep your environment pristine!


    XO, Katherine.

  3. Tiffany,
    These tips go well for the solo business owner as well especially if all of their friends and family are employed in corporate positions.

  4. This is great advice for people who are not understood by their family and friends. There is nothing worse than hearing someone say “Use mind over matter” when they “don’t see the broken leg” or “Everyone is on that No-Gluten kick.” You’ve given great solutions to dealing with those people in those situations.

  5. Great practical solutions for a difficult situation – I really like the setting boundaries and being clear and direct. I also finds it helps for them to hear it from someone else too so suggest sharing a good book on the topic.

    • Tiffany deSilva says

      Hearing it from someone else is also a good idea. It’s great if they’re open to reading a book. I’ve also found it helpful, in some cases, to invite them along on health-related appointments (doctor visits, treatments, etc).

  6. I agree with several other people who have commented here – these tips are good for many issues!

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