Chronic pain and losing identity…

by | Jun 19, 2018 | Blog | 6 comments

My Chronic Pain has reared its head and roared its presence this week. I capitalize Chronic Pain because it does really seem more of a character in my story of self, than a mere experience. Chronic Pain has needs, expressions and form, and I’ve been ignoring its voice for too long. Voices that are ignored when they whisper, learn to shout.

This blog routinely explores our identity work as Third Culture Kids, and the ways in which we juggle multiple inner voices daily. I find it helpful to think in terms of multiple voices as this helps me to focus on the different expressions of Self I navigate daily. When I say “voices”, I’m simply referring to that sense of push-pull we all experience when we feel conflicting feelings or needs, as if we juggled different characters with their motivations and modes of expression. I have several cultural voices myself, comprised of passport culture, host cultures and the culture of the organisation that sent and supported my family abroad. If you are reading this as a Third Culture Kid, you do to. And there are other identities we juggle too, as parents, children, workers, students, gardeners, marathoners… And maybe you have another identity voice, like me; Chronic Pain.

When we are experiencing identity confusion, this is typically because some of our voices are louder than others, shift with our shifting environments or feel underdeveloped. When we are experiencing identity loss, this is often because one or more of our voices feels routinely under-expressed, de-valued or limited in its expression.

Chronic Pain is a voice that, in getting louder, is muting my ability to express my Self as I normally would do. How can I express myself as a runner, when I can no longer run? How can I express myself as a mother, when I can’t play or concentrate on activities as I would like to? How does your Chronic Pain voice interfere in the expression of other voices?

Identity is often expressed in terms of DOING. I do, therefore I am. This can be a very helpful paradigm, of course. If I want to identify as English, but am not sure about what behaviours could be considered English, how can I do my identity? If I want to identify as an engaged mother, but I don’t do anything I associate with mothering, I won’t feel myself to be succeeding in this identity. Knowing what we are aiming for in terms of identity behaviour takes us a long way towards feeling a sense of coherence between the identities we want and the identities we successfully express.

However, Chronic Pain interferes in our identity expression by limiting the capacity of an individual to do. And so, now what? When we can’t do our identity behaviours, we can feel our sense of Self slipping away. What am I when I can’t DO?

Well, first – chances are I can still DO something. With patience and creativity, and adjusted expectations, I can find new ways of doing the identity behaviours that will retain the identities that matter to me. I can find other ways to feel like an engaged mother, for instance – as many with Chronic Pain do. Nurturing their child’s independence of self care, for instance, and playing games from bed rather than in the park. With support and creativity, identity loss can be stalled through adaptation.

But – this just treats the symptoms, right? The fact is, however well managed the identity loss is, it’s still harder work with Chronic Pain than without. The question remains, what am I when I can’t do (as much)? Or perhaps, am I less if I do less?

What am I that remains, no matter what I do? For many of us, Third Culture Kids or otherwise, this question is at the heart of our identity work.

In the children’s film, Moana, there is a song that never fails to touch me – I am Moana. The song is sung at a point in the story where Moana feels she has failed at her mission, her vision. She is doubting her identity, her sense of who she is and where she fits in the world. In the song she sings a chorus that asserts her eternal ‘I Am’, her sense of who she is, no matter how hampered she feels in the doing, the enacting of her identity.

Who am I?
I am a girl who loves my island
I’m the girl who loves the sea
It calls me
I am the daughter of the village chief
We are descended from voyagers
Who found their way across the world
They call me
I’ve delivered us to where we are
I have journeyed farther
I am everything I’ve learned and more
Still it calls me

I’ve spent some time this morning writing my own “I AM” anthem… I’m no song-writer so I’ve settled for some key statements that remind me of what I love, where I have come from, and all that I have achieved and learnt, and what I’m drawn to. These can become the heartbeat of all I AM, moving me beyond dependency on all I DO and into a new way of being. Why not spend some time building your own, using this as a template?

If Chronic Pain is one of our voices, let’s listen to it. I have ignored its whisperings to my detriment. Let’s listen to its need for rest, restoration and gentleness. Let’s listen to its challenge, and nurture a greater sense of self as being first, doing second.

For more “I Am” inspiration, check out Fia’s gorgeous song here, “Open eyes, now I see that there is nothing to do – just be”.



  1. Dan

    Most interesting and insightful posting, Dr. Rachel. I relate in so many ways (the more so since I’m 77, and feeling the impact of each and every year).

    Music always played large in my life. I’m not that much of a singer; my outlets were playing classical guitar solos and harmonica solos, both of which vitally engaged my life, and that also brought enjoyment to many others. Thirty years ago my fingers betrayed me, ending the guitar playing. In this last decade, my breathing has let me down, ending the playing of harmonica solos. Both a tremendous loss to me. And multiple other body functions have given their notice, including some that gifted Chronic Pain.

    I’ll be giving considerable thought to the suggestions you proposed. They sound credible to me.

    Meantime, I’ve been giving much more time to reading, writing fiction (short stories), and writing non-fiction (mostly family history and memoir bits).

    I smile bitterly as I think back on how I thought my retirement years would play out (as I looked forward to them), and the way they actually have taken turns that denied most of my anticipated activities. But I do enjoy and appreciate reading and writing (though they, too, are hampered by vision issues and slowed-down mental processes).

    Many thanks for sharing from your own life, and for passing on your insights. Very much appreciated.

    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thanks so much for reading, Dan! I’m so sorry health loss has lead to identity loss for you in this way… interesting that you reflect on your identity gains too (as reader and writer). We change and grow constantly, and our identities need never be completely static… it’s hard to grieve the ones we lose though…

  2. Sharon Shaw

    Thank you for this one, Rachel; fatigue and depression can strip identity away too and I wondered why anxiety didn’t seem to do the same (at least until it got so intense I froze!) – but anxiety permits DOING, in fact it demands it.

    I need to give myself more permission to BE, and trust that my aspects of Self are all part of that being, even if they’re not manifesting right now, and they will still be there when I need them. A major hazard of having so many identities is the feeling that I have to be them all at once, or at least be able to call them forth when someone else needs them…

    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thanks for reading, Sharon! Yes, definitely relates to mental pain/strain as well as chronic pain… That’s an interesting distinction with anxiety… And yes, all Self is still there, even when parts feel more in the background… resisting the urge to ‘perform’ the identities I think are more acceptable to others is still a journey for me!

  3. Antje Geiss

    Dear Rachel! Let’s connect 🙂 I would love to chat with you on the weekend?

    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      I’ll email you!


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