Guilt vs Shame, Part II

In Part I, which was published last week and you can access here, I examined whether a person struggling with what they are labeling “survivor’s guilt” are actually experiencing shame. My conclusion, based on the definitions, my own experiences, and some research, was that there is a combination of both. One element that I believe renders a person in my scenario perhaps different from others is that cancer is simply something that no one can control, not the patients, not the doctors, not the researchers; we are simply at the mercy of our genes and our cells.

And so because of this complete lack of control, I concluded with this question: “And so what do we do when we encounter these situations where we encounter the bad luck of someone else and compare that with our own relatively good luck?”

I do have to emphasize the word “relatively” since no one in this scenario has experienced objectively good luck. At the same time, human beings automatically compare themselves and their experiences with others. And I’ve heard of quite a few people who have reacted strongly to those who have had better experiences.

Let me divide up this discussion into two different categories — the first is if you are on the relatively good side, your luck is better; the second category is if you are on the side of relatively bad luck encountering someone who has had a better experience.

First category, you encounter a person who has had a worse experience than you:

  • I think there is a strong argument to do nothing, say nothing about your experience because there is a possibility that sharing your relatively better experience will only make the person feel bad. When we are in a better position than others, we need to avoid any appearance of flaunting something that isn’t of our own doing, our better blind luck.
  • On the other hand, your “better” experience could provide hope to the other person depending on how you communicate, especially if your “better” experience might be related to some activity they could replicate or if your “better” experience has to do with time, that the other person just needs to hold on for better days. Be careful here and don’t share too much without the other person soliciting input.
  • It is important to note that if you decide to communicate with someone who has had a worse experience than you, be prepared for a strong reaction. There are those who have a strong reaction to seeing that someone else has had better luck than them as it makes them feel bad about themselves and there is no real way to anticipate what kind of reaction will occur.
  • If you are a person in a family where you won the gene lottery and your family member did not, please remember to keep your guilt/shame reaction out of/away from your relationship with your suffering family member. Don’t ask or expect the family member who has cancer or a greater likelihood of cancer to care about your feelings or provide support. For more information, please see this post I wrote about the Ring Theory.

Regardless of how you as an individual reacts to those who have worse luck than you in the context of cancer, I believe we should all default to compassion. One of the best definitions of compassion I’ve found is: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” If we begin with this in mind and allow compassion to guide our responses, I think it may become easier to know how best to respond.

Now for the second category, when you are the person who has had the worse experience:

  • Think before you react. It is a normal, human reaction to be jealous of those who have an easier or better shared experience; at the same time, when that better/easier time is something out of that person’s control, that person isn’t the right target.
  • Watch and learn. It is good to see how someone who is in a better position treats others. Take note of how they treat others or how they behave for future reference.
  • Ask questions. It’s always possible that the person who has had a better experience was able to do so because of something they did or didn’t do. Gather information to see if there is anything you can replicate.
  • Celebrate the achievements of others. Even if it hurts, even if it feels completely wrong, focus on the positive, on how the other person has had a good experience. As you practice gratitude and support others, your own experiences can be put into perspective.

And now it’s your turn … have you ever been in a position like this? If so, how did you handle it?

8 thoughts on “Guilt vs Shame, Part II

  1. I moved to a new state, to a neighborhood diverse in ages which is nice. BUT there are a number of women who have had breast cancer. Great! A support group. Right? No. One said to me when she found out I was MBC, “You don’t look sick.” And all these women want to be updated on my health. It is not supportive and now I avoid them.

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  2. This is such an interesting post. What I find difficult is people in the same or a better situation than me but the way they are dealing with differs from how I am dealing with it. The problem I have is someone taking a less pragmatic approach, particularly in “better” circumstances makes me question my own response. I just don’t find that helpful as it makes me question whether I am in a worse situation than I perceive myself to be.

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  3. I can testify to the part about unsolicited sharing. (I can probably testify to ALL of them at some point), but this is such a clear example I have to share.

    When my friend’s spouse developed cancer, I kept trying to share my experiences in hopes that I could help her be ready for them and take some of the sting out of it. Finally, she one day told me she didn’t like when I shared the stories or talked about my experiences because she knows the ending. (For those who don’t know, I lost him in 2000, to melanoma skin cancer that spread to his lungs and brain)

    That had just never occurred to me, and I thanked her for being honest. Now I try to hold back sometimes, but it’s hard. I talk so much that words are out of my mouth before I think them! 🤷🏽‍♀️

    I have to keep reminding myself that no matter what I say, I won’t save anyone from the pain. They will still have to walk the walk. 😢

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The fact that you desire to share in order to help prepare someone else says something profound about your heart, my friend. And you are also so right that we each walk our paths no matter what anyone else says. For me, I think the key is to remember to ask questions — for instance, I have an experience that I think might help you, would you like to hear it? I often forget to ask, but I’m trying to remember. At the end of the day, I have benefited in so many ways from the people who have gone before, even if I don’t always appreciate the information in the moment. We are all #StrongerTogether.

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