Language, Part I

Anyone who has met me knows that I’m often painfully precise. My husband often comments how this tendency has shown up in our marriage and our parenting and now my kids often hold our feet to the fire on the words that come out of our mouths. My parents got me a shirt for my birthday this past December that says “I’m silently correcting your grammar,” and people are probably happy that my corrections tend to be silent.

Suffice it to say, language is REALLY important to me. And that started before my diagnosis in 2017 with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC).

And it’s only gotten worse.

Recently, two things happened that vividly reminded me just how important language choices are and how the words we use in the context of suffering can either harm or heal; not much middle ground available. Please note that this post isn’t about anyone in particular and I have no position on anyone’s motives, I always assume that the person saying something that can harm someone else simply doesn’t know how painful or harmful their words can be. Sometimes, when I see comments or responses or posts it can take me a bit to figure out why the language affects me at a gut level and my perceptions are almost never neutral.

First scenario was in a private support group full of those of us living with MBC. A member of the group posted about how she was struggling and it was RAW. This member was sharing with us how she wasn’t sure that she could keep going, that she felt defeated and as if there wouldn’t be improvement. The vulnerability in this post was so apparent, the words flew off the page and hit me at a gut level. The courage it takes to share this level of information, even in private groups, is astounding.

The responses to this post blew me away. Many contained various versions of the message “keep fighting” and “you got this” and “you are stronger than you know” and “keep going” and “stay positive.” Maybe these responses seem ok to you and maybe this would be what you might say to someone who is feeling defeated, feeling like giving up, struggling and reaching out for support. Let me tell you how I read these responses … each of them dismissed/diminished the struggle and jumped right to trying to fix the unfixable.

I totally get the impulse to help. Vulnerability and struggle trigger something in all of us. At the same time, whenever there are people who are vulnerable and reaching out to share how much they are struggling, I suspect they aren’t looking for strangers who only know small snippets of their lives to fix the issue. I suspect that the person taking the incredibly difficult step to share the most painful feelings they have probably ever experienced is looking for validation, empathy, and to know they aren’t alone.

I know it’s hard to know what to say in these situations. I’ve struggled with this too and found things coming out of my mouth or from my fingers as I type that still make me cringe.

To bring a small amount of levity to this rather heavy discussion, I tracked down some memes that Chelsey Gomez, an artist and a cancer community advocate, shared some time ago. She can be found online at OhYouresoTough and she has a pretty kickass Etsy shop where I’ve spent a rather significant amount time/money, much to my husband’s consternation.

Check out these examples of what we (those of us with cancer) often hear when someone says a variety of popular phrases …

I get that this may be hard to hear since many of these phrases might be in your toolbox for when someone is struggling, cancer or not. Each of the statements listed under “we hear,” resonate so strongly with me and it’s so helpful to read how others might be reacting similarly since it can be hard to put words to the feelings that the statements create. And it isn’t just cancer muggles saying these things; people inside the cancer community use them as well.

I think part of the issue is that we all hear some of these dismissive and hard to hear statements so that’s what comes out of our mouths when we see someone else struggling — I still have to bite my tongue at times because some of these knee jerk reactions are still part of me too. Whenever we have these patterns or knee jerk reactions, it’s good to have something specific to use in their place. It’s always hard to know what to say in these scenarios, so I’ve included a second meme from Chelsey with some ideas …

That last one is what I and the other admins in that Facebook support group said to the person who posted. We each posted something along the lines of this — we see you, we validate your feelings, we’ve been there. Every time I’ve struggled and reached out to others to share, I’ve wanted/needed to hear that message. That I’m seen. That I’m not alone. That my feelings/reaction matches the struggle I’m having. We each included how we were able to handle that scenario with a few tips/tricks that worked for us.

One other thought on the “you’re so strong,” “you’ve got this,” “just keep going,” type messaging. This type of messaging falls in a gray area for me. As with everything, there are always those people who feel better when hearing this type of cheerleading commentary, it fills something in them. And I don’t think that this messaging has as many of the issues as some of the statements included above, especially the “fight” metaphor which just needs to disappear completely.

But here’s the issue, from my perspective — for those of us who are shouldering the heavy burdens of cancer (or really any other type of trauma), it often doesn’t resonate because we don’t feel strong, we don’t feel as thought we “have it” and we have no choice but to keep going. I don’t know of anyone who chooses to experience trauma, we’re all conscripts, draftees. So when people say things that may be valid reflections of how they see us and it doesn’t resonate, it adds to a feeling of not being seen, of the speaker not really knowing what we face. I also hear a little bit of “I’m so glad you are dealing with that and not me.”

I hope that this post gives you something to think about, something to consider when encountering the struggles of others. Our words can help. Our words can wound. Choosing words carefully is important.

Stay tuned for my second post about my own recent experiences, one that I’m still struggling with … and feel free to share what phrases resonate (or don’t) with you. This isn’t a black and white issue but it is a vitally important one.

29 thoughts on “Language, Part I

  1. I hate the fact that when my daughter was looking and feeling better, relatives would question me.
    They did not see her on the really bad days! I appreciate you! Keep teaching!❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Invisible illnesses are hard for people to wrap their brains around. I’ve gotten the questions too and soooooo many looks and even notes when I use my handicapped placard to park close. Empathy is a dying skill. appreciate you!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Girl!!!! You hit the nail on the head here! I’ll share in our NC/SC group if that’s ok! The “you’re so strong” is a hard one for me because when I’m NOT feeling strong – as we all have those days- I feel that much weaker, if that makes sense! Here’s a blog post I wrote along the same line – in honor of the first day of baseball season today, I think I’ll repost my survivingbreast cancer article! Keep doing you!!! Thanks for being a badass and telling it like it is – you are a true patient advocate:)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Abigail,
    Word can help. Words can wound. That pretty much sums it up. I think people in pain (any kind) first and foremost want validation. Actually, people who aren’t in pain want that too. Love this spot-on post. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Remembering that I used some of the stock phrases before I was on the receiving end, I try to hear the emotion behind awkward comments. “You look great,” often means “I’m relieved. It’s awful knowing I’m going to lose you. “Stay positive” gets my hackles up, but it usually means “I’m trying to stay positive, but I’m very sad you are so sick.” Flipping the ‘you” comments to hear the “I” emotion can be helpful.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. At 78, I’m much older than many of you and so not in as much psychological pain about approaching death. Kids are grown, even grandkids starting to launch. Supportive friends and family who know they can’t fix it. Easier to hear comments in the spirit offered, although I do resist the “you’re so brave” comments. Were I your age, I’d be raging and wildly prickly. Thanks for all you do for the community.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Amazing post! You hit the proverbial nail on the head. If I may, there is another phrase that I experienced. It is, “What is (fill in the name of the person) doing for you? Oh — and then there are the questions; “Have you tried (this)?” “Have you called your doctor.” What I heard each time was, “I can’t be bothered helping you.” The REAL help we expect is a listening ear. (Hugs)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve heard many of these comments too. It can really hurt and make you feel angry. I do try to see what the person really means, rather than what words come out, but sometimes that’s hard to do and I just feel hurt and angry…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for putting this into words. I think this daily! My favorite is the “you got this!” I want to reply that actually I don’t as it’s terminal. The only thing I “got” is a disease that will probably kill me. But I don’t say that because for whatever reason I feel the need to comfort others for the inconvenience or grief my illness has placed on them. The human mind and emotions are interesting! I appreciate this post. ♥️

    Liked by 1 person

  8. ‘…we have no choice but to keep going. I don’t know of anyone who chooses to experience trauma, we’re all conscripts, draftees.”

    Your words are beautiful and truth-filled, and I’m better for having read them. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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