I was raised by a Dad who is a disciple of positive thinking. He shared his resources with me growing up, and I embraced this philosophy as much as he did. I believe that having a positive outlook, and being able to reframe any situation in a positive light has helped me weather many challenges, but it has some downsides too.
Thankfully, when I received my diagnosis, despite my penchant for positivity, I recognized the importance of allowing myself to feel the fear,
despair, worry, sadness and whatever else was coming up around this shocking news. I said to my family, "I am going to be incredibly positive and strong through this experience, but right now I need to allow myself to grieve." I knew that it was important to go through the mourning period, and even later, to allow myself to feel and express what was coming up for me in each moment.
In the book Radical Remission,
Kelly Turner, Ph.D. talks about nine key factors that make a difference in self-healing, particularly around cancer. This sentence hit home, and let me know I was onto something: “Cancer is the end result of alexithymia – or not expressing feelings or emotions. Most cancer patients, before suffering from cancer, are suffering from alexithymia . . . (which) causes blood pressure to go down and core body temperature to lower . . . and this destroys the functioning of the mitochondria . . . whose main function in the cell is to create energy using oxygen and help the cell die when it is supposed to – neither of which cancer cells do.” (p. 140-141)
We have a tendency to share publicly only those things that make us look good. Especially in the age of social media. There have been a number of studies that correlate high social media use and depression. The reasoning, is that when presented with highly idealized versions of other people’s lives, our own suffers by comparison. I noticed this in my and some friends’ posting on medical media sites such as Care Pages or MyLifeLine too. I often blogged only when I had something positive to share, and then I despaired that my friends weren’t reaching out to offer help as much as I would like. Well, no wonder!
They had no idea how tough things were for me because I was projecting only sunshine and none of the rain. It is important to note that over-sharing only the negative and difficult can be off-putting for people as well. Finding a balance in the middle is ideal for yourself and your community. When I did open up about the difficult times, friends showed up in droves with food, texts, cards, visits, fundraising and whatever else I might be in need of.
People can’t meet a need they don’t know about, so it’s important to be honest and to learn to ask for help. Cancer was absolutely my best teacher in asking. I am still not perfect, nor do I ask 100% of the time (not even close), but I am much more comfortable than I used to be, and I wouldn’t have gotten there without a REALLY BIG need in the form of a life-threatening illness. I absolutely knew I couldn’t do it on my own, as a single survivor, and I would have to rely on my community for support. It is the biggest gift – though not the only one – that I received from cancer.
I love what Amanda Palmer says about this in her book, The Art of Asking: "Asking for help with shame says: You have the power over me. Asking with condescension says: I have the power over you. But asking for help with gratitude says: We have the power to help each other. Indeed we do, but only when we are willing to be vulnerable and trust the people in our community enough to be real with them."
I think there is a huge misunderstanding about emotions in general. We think "being positive" means that we don’t experience worry, fear, anger, depression, frustration, etc. or that if we do, we must hide them. As humans those emotions will ALWAYS be there, and as Kelly Turner suggested, pretending we don’t have them, and not expressing them is actually bad for us. You have heard the phrase, what you resist, persists? Robert Frost said, "The only way out is through."
Here is the thing to know: you can be positive and still be authentic about your experience.
We all have rough days, weeks or circumstances, and being honest about them is key to receiving the support that we need. So allow yourself to feel your emotions, and express them appropriately to others, and you go through them quickly. Stuff them or make them wrong, and they will compound and grow and will eventually burst out, often in the most inappropriate ways at inopportune times and after doing a great deal of damage to your own well-being.
It is important to find the balance between wallowing and ignoring; there is a sweet spot in the middle. Allowing ourselves to be seen in all of our messy, strong, happy, sad, upset and inspirational ways is what connects us to others who experience the exact same roller coaster of emotions that we do. Vulnerability fosters intimacy. When we can share all the parts of our lives, and our cancer experiences, we actually connect more with those around us.
The magic is in knowing that we are not our emotions,
which are, after-all fleeting. When we realize that we can be ok no matter what happens to us – that our feelings about a situation, in fact, aren’t even real, they are just feelings – then we can rise above the temporary and begin to grasp the eternal.
Did you ever have a break-through cancer moment? Tell us in the comments below!
Photo courtesy of Tanja Heffner