Expectations, Part II

In part I of my musings on Expectations, I laid out the definitions and some of the context of approaching expectations in a variety of ways. In this post, I want to look at the more personal examples and explore how that’s been an issue that I’ve grappled with in my own life, before and after my MBC diagnosis.

Remember those books on love languages? I don’t know if the science holds up under scrutiny, but it was a big deal back when I got married. Both personality and love language testing was part of the pre-marital classes Elliot and I took, so it was a big topic of discussion. Regardless of whether the categories are true or make sense overall, I’ve found in my own life that I feel the most loved when someone sees a need in my life and fulfills it without being asked — that was labeled “Acts of Service” in the love language parlance. Honestly, I’m not sure that’s unique or even just one of many — I think at a basic level, each of us wants to be loved in such a way that we don’t have to ask for our needs to be met.

Someone responded recently on a post on Facebook that I can’t find now that allyship, the act of being an ally to someone different from yourself, is a form of a love language. I’d never connected the two before and it resonated with me so much. Some of the dearest friends I have made in this new experience of living with terminal cancer are those who aren’t in that boat with me, those who do the work and take the time to understand, to support me, and to support all of my crazy schemes and endeavors. Doing that, especially when cancer isn’t a personal experience, really does communicate love.

what a beautiful expression of love

I’m also reminded of the movie Avatar, which came out quite a while ago. In that movie, one of the greetings that made a big impact on me was when one person or Avatar (I can’t remember what they were called) took another’s head into their palms and said “I see you.” I think that’s another basic need, to be seen for who we are, faults and all, and yet the other person continues to hold our gaze unflinchingly. The idea that we could drop our mask, drop any posturing, and just be with another human being is intoxicating and I think a lot of people chase that ideal their whole lives, with a variety of results.

It’s been a few years since I had the time or ability, but some of the happiest moments in my life were when I made unique gifts for my family. I don’t make the gifts so much anymore; at the same time, I spend lots and lots of time throughout the year searching for the perfect gifts for birthdays, for Christmas, for just because. It is extremely satisfying to me when I can find the perfect item and surprise someone else. I don’t always hit the mark each time, but more often than not, I think.

Prior to breast cancer, and one of the reasons I think the transition has been so difficult for me, I was nearly always in the role of the caretaker. I was the strong one. I was the one setting up meal trains and ensuring that people in crisis had solutions. It’s what I did for a living, it’s what I did for my volunteer work, and it has defined my life in so many ways. I’m sure part of that is the fact that I am the eldest of six (6) children and was raised in a culture where independence and resourcefulness was prized and it was expected that those who needed help were helped by those who could.

When I found myself in a situation where I could no longer apply the hard won coping mechanisms I’d learned and applied for my entire life, I literally was left with a situation where I had very little frame of reference. My cultural norms did not serve me well in this transition because I was far more likely to hide my pain, to say I’m fine, and not give anyone else the opportunity to help. My mother, though, a breast cancer survivor and consummate nurturer, saw through that. She knew what I would need and jumped into action. Not to say that my father wasn’t part of that, he lived without my mom for months without complaint as she cared me through surgeries and treatment and the devastation of my terminal diagnosis.

When I take two steps back, I know that another’s response to my pain or illness is about them, not about me. This is easy to acknowledge intellectually. Privately and emotionally, it’s just much harder. Part of my personality as well is that I rarely say I will do something when I don’t have any intention on following through.

I came across this meme recently …

Based on my own experiences and the experiences I’ve heard from others, this vast difference between what people say and what they actually do is pretty widespread, maybe even universal. I think it is a cultural norm to say “let me know what I can do to help” without a clear vision of what that looks like. When the person who needs help musters up the courage and vulnerability to ask for help and there are crickets, it only teaches the person who needs help not to ask or to respond angrily or nastily when someone doesn’t follow through.

My conclusions?

I’m working hard to review and revise my expectations of others, to give grace when people show me who they are and what they can do, and to ask for help of the people who want to help. This is hard for me. So excruciatingly hard. All I ask of those around me is to tell me the truth, to communicate what is real and what is possible, and to understand that I don’t ask for help easily or lightly. When I finally ask, I’m in a pretty dire situation.

24 thoughts on “Expectations, Part II

  1. So now I know why I like you! I am the oldest of seven and as such, things fell into my lap that I just accepted. Even when my mother died – twenty years after I’d moved away from my family – they all looked to me to make decisions; still do when I’m around. And I accept that role (actually I like that role). So when I was diagnosed – the first time – I was surprised and embarrassed (!) when people offered to help! I could do this by myself, right? Except for one very dear friend who said, “I don’t barge in. If you want or need something, please let me know and I will be there for you.” That made such an impression on me and I am holding onto that offer until I really need to use it … because, of course, I think I can do it all! Love your writing!

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    1. I hear you!! It hasn’t been until I literally physically couldn’t do things that I finally broke down and let others help. Seeing vulnerability as something other than weakness is an area of growth for me and I’m working at it. Thank you for reading and commenting! Us eldest kiddos need to stick together. 🙂

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  2. Beautifully written, and so relatable, Abigail! As a child growing up, it was ingrained in me to stand on my own two feet, do things myself, and don’t show any emotions. I’m finally starting to learn how to unlearn and no longer believing that asking for help is a sign of weakness. It’s hard to change, but not impossible, thanks to reading posts like yours to help us grow.💕

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    1. I struggle with this too, like really struggle with this. I don’t ask until it’s an emergency usually and I still see vulnerability as weakness in myself and often in others. I’m working hard to adjust this thinking and to see vulnerability as strength. For me, it takes a lot more strength to ask for help than to just handle things on my own and suffer in silence. Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

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      1. Spot on, Abigail. I feel the same way. Thank you so much for your blog. Your words are powerful and will improve the lives of many.💪

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  3. This is the hardest part of my cancer career training so far. I absolutely steadfastly have heretofore been indelibly independent. Asking for help instead of giving help hasn’t been easy. But I realized this: to not ask is as insulting as saying to somebody “your help isn’t good enough.” It’s like learning to delegate work when I was an eager young executive. I had to take my expectations and create space for how others go about things as well as that somehow noting that the processes and the results might even teach me something. I’m still learning. It’s very painful in some ways, not becoming obsolete in my life, because we still need to feel needed and for me should I require any form of help what’s happening to my own value? It’s still tough.

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  4. I so relate to this. I am always “the strong one.” I am learning to let go of that and to ask. But also, as a person living with a spouse with metastatic cancer and always the one fielding the questions, sometimes I just wish people would do something without being asked!

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    1. I agree with you 100%!! I’ve noticed that those of us in the metastatic community are much more in tune with what is needed whereas the general public isn’t as comfortable. It would probably help overall to put out a list of things that would be helpful for the support system to hear. Just an idea. ❤️

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  5. Oh how I identify with this. I have asked my family if they need me to lay in bed and moan to understand. But now is the time if covid, and if the people who are a necessary part of my circle would just take basic precautions so they don’t make me sick, I would be so grateful. I am amazed at how little they care.

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