Get over yourself: how to stop boring others with your heart attack story

by Carolyn Thomas

I was a distance runner for 19 years, before a brutal case of plantar fasciitis dashed my Olympics dream forever.  I’m kidding about that last part.  My running group (motto: ‘No pace too slow, no course too short!’) had a useful running rule.  The first ten minutes of every training run were devoted to whining.

“My quads hurt. I’m so tired. I think I’m getting a blister.”

But at precisely the ten minute mark, the rule was: no more whining. Let’s face it, my heart sisters: nobody is that interested.

Upon ruminating on the wisdom of Dr. Martin Seligman‘s book Learned Optimism that I’ve been enjoying lately (see Even Heart Patients Can Learn to be Optimists), I can’t help but notice a proliferation of gloom, doom, pessimism, criticism, complaining, blaming and a whack of running negative commentary around lately. And other people besides me are grumpy, too . . . 

This negative habit is especially tempting for those of us with a chronic illness diagnosis like heart disease.

And after all, haven’t we legitimately earned the right to whine?

Dr. Seligman says no.

He even suggests that ongoing complaining actually worsens physical symptoms by focusing our attention on them. And he adds that pessimism may also lower our resistance to illness, increase our chances of heart disease and even shorten our lives.

Dr. Barbara Keddy agrees, writing on her excellent blog about women and fibromyalgia.  She cites a support group of Toronto women who get together regularly, for example, not to discuss their shared illness, but wellness only. Dr. Keddy, who has not only lived with the daily pain of fibromyalgia for 50 years but is also a heart attack survivor, writes:

“Reliving past injuries of a physical or emotional nature only reactivates the nervous system.

“Instead, it is more important to recognize our reactions rather than the specific events related to the trauma. Perhaps this is why ‘talk therapy’ has not been helpful for people with fibromyalgia.”

I’m not saying we can’t have the occasional mini-meltdown that every heart patient is entitled to now and then. I’m talking about drowning in the deliciously seductive but self-absorbed, pity-party world view that says:

“All life sucks, but especially everything about MY life.”

One morning, I finally had to have a hard look at myself in the bathroom mirror and issue this little heart-to-heart lecture:

Yes, you have heart disease. Join the club.

Yes, you have pain and shortness of breath and palpitations and overpowering fatigue. Get in line.

Yes, you don’t want this to be happening to you. Well, it is.

Yes, you’re confused and frightened and unsure about what to do next. Welcome to the human condition.

Yes, doctors don’t get it, the system is out to crush you, and nobody in your family can understand. Cry me a river.

Because not only is self-absorbed pessimism insidiously contagious, it appears that it can actually make our cardiac problems worse.

Let’s consider the value of hauling ass out of that Garden of Gloom, heart sisters.

“I wept because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

(adapted with gratitude from TheGardener’s rants on Inspire)

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote more about whether ruminating over our medical issues is helping or hurting us in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017) in Chapter 7 (the infamous chapter that the anonymous Johns Hopkins cardiologist who reviewed the manuscript before publication called “irrelevant to female heart patients”).

See also:


Q:  Have some of us earned the right to whine?

9 thoughts on “Get over yourself: how to stop boring others with your heart attack story

  1. Oh thank you Carolyn you wise woman – this made me chuckle. Then I bought Dr Seligmans’s book & started reading it.
    Have a wonderful day!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A wise woman once said to me,
    “Just because we have pain, doesn’t mean we have to be one.”
    So true. Our heart problems should not define us..we are much more than that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh boy. I recognized myself throughout this essay. Thank you – I needed this to help nudge me off this pity party throne I’ve been insisting on since my heart attack 11 months ago. “Attention Must Be Paid!” is how I must sound to my family and friends. THANKS for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Wif and Hub
  5. Thanks so much, Barbara!

    My Dad used to say:
    “Don’t tell your friends about your indigestion!
    ‘How are you?’ is a greeting – not a question!”

    While this may sound like it’s promoting the ‘stiff upper lip’ form of denial, I like to think of this little poem as a reminder not to focus so hard on every little bubble and squeak. With my close family and friends, I may tell them the truth – everybody else gets a ‘Fine thank you!!”



  6. Hi Carolyn:
    It IS true that those of us with chronic conditions tend to bore others, and even ourselves with our myriad of complaints! It isn’t easy letting go of our miseries but all that happens if we continue in this vein is more unhappiness! We must remap our brains and unlearn past reactions to our fears. It certainly is interesting (which you have mentioned to me) that many women who have heart conditions also have fibromyalgia.The nervous system becomes overstimulated and fearful! It isn’t surprising though so I am happy we have connected in this way. Thanks for mentioning my website regarding women and fibromyalgia. Your own site is a tremendous resource for women and I am proud to have it as a link to mine.
    Kind regards,
    Barbara Keddy

    Liked by 1 person

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