"I think the toughest thing for me is dealing with those who do "wallow" - some friends almost seem to see it as a competition - who can be in the most pain - who is taking the most meds - who has the most doctors' appointments! I come from the Stoic end of things - "don't complain - just deal" so, while I try to be sympathetic, in some cases I find that I'm really limiting my time with certain individuals just because of this issue. Any tips on dealing with this part of the equation?"
My initial response to this pertinent question:
"... it is very easy for people to collude. You see it also in the workplace that develops a culture of whining about what's not right. People lose, or seriously impair, their sense of agency. Illness evokes vulnerability, and those feeling shaky can take a certain support from "everybody's going through it". But they can become unaware that continual complaints wear others, and also their own spirit, down.
Take the breaks you need. If you have a practice that opens your heart so that you can summon compassion in the times you are with those friends, do that. But also, permit yourself breaks and the distance, it's better than sitting there feeling fed up. More to come very soon, thanks so much for the question."
Here's the 'more to come':
The essential step is to deal with yourself before dealing with him or her.
1. What feelings arise when you are in those conversations?
Impatience? Boredom? Frustration? Sadness?
If you ignore your emotional responses to such conversation, they build up until you walk out, blow up, or make a sarcastic remark. Try to discriminate between a feeling—genuine emotions— and judgment ("I feel they are self-absorbed.") or analysis ("Not one of these people knows what it's like to be really sick.")
If we get stuck in judgment, it's far harder to access compassion.
2. What would you prefer?
Can you hang in for a bit of medical storytelling but not the entire saga? Or perhaps you are like me with hockey, anything after ten seconds is too much.
Ask for what you would prefer, in positive language: "I can hang in with the surgical details for another few minutes, but then could we talk about Olga's new apartment?" Saying what you do want is more constructive than saying what you don't.
Why do they go on and on?
At some level most persons know that such conversations suck the life out of an exchange, but they may go ahead anyway.
Five factors that may be in play:
1. We have created an high-disclosure culture. Programs like The Doctors and Dr. Oz mine health issues, treatment, and endless personal stories— the more graphic the better. Before lunch you can see a stranger's uvula and watch a cardiac catheterization. Provided with these examples, some broadcast matters once kept private.
2. If a person finds a circle who enjoy the topic, that's what they'll talk about. Bridge players can dissect bidding for an entire evening, fishers will parse every catch: you get people with a mutual interest or together, look out. 'Organ recitals' are a way of bonding: we are on this road together. That's powerful when you're scared, and diminished capacity is scary.
The ailment chat is also related to life stage. The job, sports or mom talk is replaced by hernia repairs and knee surgery. When the median age edges past fifty, you'll have to decide if you want to jump in with your blood pressure problem.
Some persons are more health-focussed than others, but for everyone, aging moves physical concerns up the list.
What to do?
Sometimes, you have the energy to listen and witness friends' experiences. You did this for friends' job losses, for the kids who wanted to talk about broken hearts; heck, I even listened to two hours of an upholsterer's financial problems.
Other times, you may simply have other needs, for example, for fun, stimulation, learning, or mutuality. (No, it is not just about your gall bladder, Joe). When it's an utter drag, you could ask for a change of topic, or, if the rest of the group is hanging on every word, go in the other room and do the dishes, as I did when a woman at an all-woman's dinner party launched into a menopause history longer than a Russian novel.
If you are a stoic, able to bear a great deal on your own, celebrate that quality; realize it is not everyone's bent. When you feel your patience eroding, step back for as long as you need. If your retreat becomes habitual, it will be clear you that aren't engaged in those conversations.
My mom and her friend Mrs. Dean spoke nearly every week for over fifty years. When they were older, Mom would ask, "Naomi, how are you?" and the response was, "Terrific, if you don't ask for details." This was their sole acknowledgement of the infirmities of aging, and their mutual agreement to not dwell on them.
Probably two women after your own heart, Margie!