Vulnerability is Healing

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For starters, I feel extremely overwhelmed with gratitude that I have an amazing support system. Many of my friends and family have been super understanding, loving and compassionate during my ordeal. But there have also been a few instances that have ticked me off. And it turns out that many cancer patients I have talked to also share the same outlook. Even though some sentiments are coming from a kind place, people are unaware of their damaging effect. Sometimes, we find ourselves not knowing what to do or what to say–when in fact, it is enough to just acknowledge that you can’t find the right words at this moment in time. This is not to discourage you all to hold yourselves back and stay silent. I would rather have people try and risk saying the wrong thing than disappearing from our lives. And if you do feel like you have to call them out, that’s ok. It’s nothing personal. Criticism hurts. It’s even harder to explain why we feel offended, especially when people are met with a defensive response. But it is also important that we learn and grow by making the necessary changes to become better citizens of this diverse society we are living in. That is EXACTLY why I feel the need to bring these things to attention from the perspective of a trauma survivor. At the end of the day, we are all here to learn from one another through our personal experiences.

As human beings, we have the tendency to fix things by jumping into solution mode. We have this belief that by offering advice, we offer an instant relief.

During my cancer diagnosis, I recall some statements directed at me on tackling cancer. 

“Think positively.”

“Keep fighting.”

“Stop worrying. It doesn’t change anything.”

“There’s always worse out there.”

“We all suffer, we all have our own trials.”

“God allows the most intense trials to those whom enough strength to endure has been given…”

“It’s only temporary.”

“BUT at least…”

“You are done with treatment. The worst is over so you are all good now, right?!”

While they are stating the obvious and are nicely worded with the intent to provide comfort and encouragement, these are some of the most unrealistic and insensitive things to say to someone going through a traumatic event. Truth is, they don’t help. In fact, they usually end up doing more harm than good.

You may perceive them as attainable, but that is because you are standing on the outside looking in; not the other way around. You don’t have cancer yourself and that type of logic is more relevant to someone who does not. This does not give you the right to comment on what we should or shouldn’t think, feel, or do. Even if you had cancer, and these statements may have helped you overcome your ordeal, then great… but this doesn’t mean that they will have the same effect on the rest of us. Attempting to provide unsolicited advice is as counterproductive as it may be productive.

Telling us to “think positively” will not enable us to start thinking positively.

Telling us to keep on fighting will not necessarily serve as a form of motivation or encouragement.

Telling us that worrying doesn’t change a thing won’t stop us from worrying.

Telling us that “there’s always worse” will not make us feel better about our situation. Sure, things could be worse…but things could’ve been better too.

Telling us that “we all suffer” will not make us feel less alone.

Telling us that God doesn’t give us more than what we cannot handle does not ease the suffering.

Telling us that it’s only temporary undermines the level of adversity we are forced to handle.

Besides, temporary is relative, and the anguish we face can last between days to years. While “temporary” is a way of reassuring us that cancer is short-term, the duration can feel like an eternity to us. And unfortunately, for some of us, treatment never ends–and it is really hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

By saying that treatment is over and assuming we are back to our normal selves, it comes off as though we are pretending that none of this happened, when in FACT, something did happen. It’s as if our experiences were denied from our existence.

It comes off as condescending because it discounts and negates the amount of suffering we have to endure. By saying these things, it promotes the idea that the quoter understands and knows pain, trauma and suffering when the subject doesn’t. It potentially leads to feelings of guilt and shame, especially when we struggle to fulfill these sets of expectations. In the long run, it can implicitly silence our voices and shut us down from speaking out about our struggles. This compels us to indulge in unhealthy and destructive coping mechanisms.

Believe me when I say this: in 90% of cases, we don’t expect people to provide their input on handling tragedy whenever we open up about our feelings of anger, anxiety, and grief.

So instead of feeding us with these sorts of clichés and biblical pick-up lines, why not create a safe space for us to be heard, acknowledged, and validated? Let’s start promoting more “genuine-ness.” Let’s start addressing the needs of the cancer patients by first asking them what support means in their subjective eyes. Let’s stop telling cancer patients how to think and feel.

Every once in a while, we need this “release” so that we can slowly process what we are going through. We do not expect you to wave your wand and fix us. All it takes is to share, listen, and connect. Vulnerability is healing.

By : Carmen Dörwald