I see it all the time and, at times, have done it myself, belittling and/or comparing the struggles of others. Especially when the struggles of others are specific to struggles you yourself have overcome. It is so easy to look back and gloss over the detailed bits, to forget the triggers, to urge too hard that people overlook things that weren’t so hard, in hindsight. And yet, true empathy is to work to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes as they are now, not as they could be.
Let me give an example.
I’ve never been too hung up on appearance. Comfort has always been a big deal for me and that usually trumped appearance, for me. It was after pregnancies that I finally, truly, embraced the body that I have, not the body I wanted. I kept fit by being active, to a certain extent, and threw away the scale.
When I learned that I would need chemo, I went out a bought a wig. The wig was astonishingly like my own hair and frankly if I wore it, people who knew me were hard pressed to know that’s what I was wearing. But I only wore it once.
We’re in Florida, you see, and the fact that the wig was hot was a bigger deal to me than revealing my bald head.
I’m pretty much comfortable with me and I don’t care much if I made people uncomfortable. I had quite a few kiddos ask to rub my head and lots of staring by adults. I just stared them down, just like I would make contact and stare people down who were uncomfortable with me nursing or pumping in public.
I get that not everyone is like me.
I get that for some people, seeing themselves in the mirror looking different can cause a ptsd reaction. I have ptsd about other things. Sounds, smells, pink ribbons. These things cause so much angst and upset that wouldn’t be readily apparent to others.
I know that many other people have experiences that they struggle to explain. I don’t usually spend any time attempting to explain or justify myself. I will often make a statement as to why something affects me differently and then move on.
I’ve recently learned that a dear friend of mine, while working through her own ptsd about how her hair looks so very different, was told (In different actual words) to suck it up by other women in a support group we’re both in. That, in different words, her hair was such a small thing in the broad scheme of things and she should not be so focused on the differences foisted upon her by chemo.
Different people grieve different things.
For those of us who are stage IV, some things aren’t as big of a deal. Learning that one’s life expectancy is significantly shortened does put a different context on literally everything.
But not everyone processes things the same way.
If I’d had early stage breast cancer, I may have been more focused on how my bald head made me feel or really short hair made my eyes look different or how my body didn’t feel the same. I experience these feelings on some level, it’s just that they don’t compare discernibly to being terminal.
That’s not everyone’s experience.
I don’t experience being told I can’t have more children than in the same way as someone who has never had children. I don’t experience issues with dating or when to tell someone about my diagnosis because my husband already knows literally everything.
You see? We’re all experiencing different parts of the elephant called a breast cancer diagnosis. We each have our own, unique context. Some of it will be the same, some different.
When we think we can tell someone else how to feel, how to manage the psychological aftermath of treatment, how to recover, we have stepped out of where we should be.
Tough love has its place and sometimes some people need a bigger prod to get out of a rut. I don’t think anyone has the ability to intervene unless they are family or super super close friends, who know the entire context.
Support groups are just that, there for support.
Let’s focus on that, supporting others, and leave the instructions or input to those who ask for it.