Love. Acceptance. Validation. The encompassing, enthralling feeling of being heard and understood for what you’ve been through in your life. Illness survivors, violence survivors of all types and so many more courageous fighters among us know this feeling too well. You get to know someone, a new friend or a lover perhaps. You open up and tell them your story and – if you’re lucky – they hear you. They acknowledge who you are, and the ways in which they should be more tender, more delicate in word, thought, action. You feel, as you rightly deserve to, that someone not only knows you, but embraces who you are for what you’ve been through.
But this happy picture has it’s evil opposite. That is of sharing your story, only to find yourself struggling to console and make the other person more comfortable with your truth, and your past. I’m as guilty as anyone, maybe more so. Rather than confidence, I have countless times found myself apologizing for the burden that knowing my story of cancer puts on someone else, and excusing it away or even pointlessly trying to convince another person to take my perspective of my own experience: that of someone grateful and strong, not sad and unlucky. I find myself later resenting the conversation, and my own lack of conviction, feeling plagued and overly responsible for the comfortability of someone else.
An example: post treatment, upon telling a new boyfriend what I’d been through, he became so distraught and upset by my courageous story of survival that it brought him to tears. His feigned form of sympathy actually asks me to console him for who I am and what I’ve been through. I was young; I wanted to be in love, and his reaction made me believe I had to earn his love. Instead of telling him to stop being childish, I scrambled through my room to find a picture to show him that I hadn’t been a sad little cancer patient as he obviously thought. And instead I’d been a happy, grateful, beautiful warrior who did something amazing! It was a fruitless pursuit. He refused to look at the picture, and from then on had a hard time talking about cancer. Slowly, steadily, my frustration with not being understood and his labeling me a victim grew; each day becoming more angry that someone else seemed so set on painting my portrait as a sad, tragic one. The relationship, thankfully, ended quickly. With it, so did my patience for other people deciding the underlying tone of my story and past.
What is the difference between sharing your story and making yourself responsible for other people’s feeling? Simple self reliance.
When you acknowledge that how you feel your story and past is more important than how other people feel about it, you free yourself from living by the judgment of other people.
In turn, you stop making yourself responsible for making other people comfortable with who you truly are.
Self reliance is the deep-seeded knowledge that your own opinion of your experience, how you handle it, how you speak of it, and how it plays into your current moment is totally, completely, utterly up to you and can be as free of the judgment of other people as you’d like.
For me, that needs to be completely free. Totally void of all opinions, judgment, and even feelings of other people including those closest to me.
There are people, even those closest to me, for whom my story of surviving cancer is simply too painful to talk about, too hard to acknowledge, and for whom my work (like this site) isn’t something in which they can engage. At first, relinquishing myself from making sure I wasn’t hurting them by sharing my experience induced straight-up guilt, and shame. But then there were those people I’d just met, who outrageously responded with things like: “do you think you just had too many negative thoughts and it gave you cancer?” or “if you had prayed, it wouldn’t have happened.” In both cases, it took over a decade to realize that I owed it to no one to engage in those conversations, nor say things to change their minds (with, say, scientific facts or citing the number of people who’ve written letters in response to my articles). And in fact, I can just as easily turn and walk away without explaining myself, wipe my mind clean of that negativity, and save my energy for more important things. Like loving myself for all I’ve survived.
Beware, though, that taking on the responsibility to make others comfortable can take many forms. Beyond simply reading too far into the other person’s facial expressions (“do they look disgusted? scared? angry?”) and pregnant pauses (“she’s not saying anything, is she freaked out by what I told her?”), or even changing your language to be overtly jovial and light (“it was a long time ago, and not that big of a deal”), it can be more subconscious and damaging to your sense of worth…
Making other people more comfortable looks like:
- Explaining away why it wasn’t so bad, or why it wasn’t scary, or how ‘fine’ you are now.
You have every right to acknowledge the pain and fear you have been through, and absolutely no need to reassure other people of how fine you are now. Maybe you’re doing fine with it all, maybe you’re not. That’s not anyone else’s business unless you want it to be.
Apologies don’t always sound like ‘I’m sorry’. They can sound like excuses, over-explaining, or speaking in a way that gives the other person power. Apologizing for your story can look and feel like you’re doing everything possible to please the other person and make sure they’re not sad or unhappy. Or conversely, not sharing your story because you’re afraid of how they’ll look at you, or not feeling comfortable speaking your truth in any form. The feeling of not wanting to piss another person off. How they feel about you and your experience and what you have to say matters almost nothing compared to how you feel about it.
- Using your story as an excuse
To get love. To get attention. To be noticed. There’s a big difference between opening up and desperately needing validation. If at any point you sound like the victim of your own life’s story, you are probably giving away your power in exchange for the affection and adoration of someone else.
One simple step that might help you, as it did me, to stop taking on this responsibility is a tip from a psychologist Marc David. He implored one of his patients, who had a physical disability, to simply state her condition upon meeting new people, and allow for the silence to follow, whether it be uncomfortable or not. The tactic of simply letting other people be uncomfortable is immediately liberating and freeing, and endlessly empowering. How might you feel in releasing the knee-jerk reaction to say something funny or charming, make a joke, lighten the mood, or justify yourself? How much stronger will you feel in standing your story, your power, rather than using your energy to reach for another person’s affection? How untethered can you become in trusting how you feel rather than deciding your feelings based on the feelings and perceptions of someone else when they look at you?
It may be as simple, or as complicated as all that, depending on how far away you’ve stepped from loving, acknowledging, and embracing who you are and what you’ve been through. The further disconnected you’ve become with your own worthiness and standing by yourself, the harder it might be to stop living by the acceptance of other people. There will be people close to you, people you love dearly, that will need to be put behind harsh boundaries so that you can stop being diminished by their selfish views. But trust me, the work will be worth it. You are the only person you owe ever an explanation to.
In whatever way you need to – by writing it down in a way that feels true and powerful to you, by weeding out the people in your life that don’t support or honor your story in a way that serves you, or more intensive work of therapy and community, come to terms with your story. It is yours to own, yours to tell, and yours to love. It’s the only one you’ve got.
And you, my darling, are a warrior.