As I left Maggie’s Centre a couple of weeks ago I was handed a book to borrow which the team there thought might be interesting and meaningful to me. Its title ‘The Cancer Survivor’s Companion’ (by Dr Frances Goodhart and Lucy Atkins) somehow does not sit right with me; I can’t explain why but perhaps it’s something to do with the word survivor because I don’t feel that it resonates with how I see myself. However not one to be put off from reading further due to an uncomfortable label, I’ve worked my way through it and of course found some gems of comfort and alignment.
In particular an exercise to reflect on the now and what your current place is. I think this is useful for most people actually, not just those in my position or those who are looking forward to being at this junction and so I’d like to share it, reaching out to you if you’d like to ‘rethink yourself’.
This exercise shows you a way to understand- and develop- the way you see yourself.
It’s worth thinking a bit about the way you see yourself nowadays. This isn’t pointless navel gazing. It will help you to understand the deep changes that you’ve been through. This, in turn, will help you accept these changes, and to get your life back on track.
- Ask yourself how you saw yourself- before cancer. Did you have a strong sense of who you were and of your role in life? How would you describe yourself? (‘I’m the provider for my family’; ‘I’m the person who organises this family’; ‘I’m the joker in the office’ ; ‘I’m a private person who doesn’t confide in others’; ‘I’m strong and independent’ ; ‘I’m a good-looking person who takes trouble over my appearance’ ; ‘I’m an arty, musical, creative type’ ; ‘I’m a leader’; ‘I’m solid and dependable’ ; ‘I’m the person who is busier now I am retired than I was when working’)
- Now dig deeper- Is this the full picture? These ‘headline’ ways of looking at yourself are valuable: they help you to know where you’re going; to make sense of who you are and why you do what you do. But they can also dominate your self-image. It’s easy to collect all the evidence that backs up this way of looking at yourself, while ignoring the things that point to a different ‘you’. Yes, you brought home the biggest pay packet, were a working mother, kept yourself busy in retirement- but what else did you do? Who else are you?
Try asking yourself these questions:
What else did I do? As a family member, friend, colleague. What else did I do that wasn’t the headline news but was always part of how I behaved? For instance, were you the person who could defuse a tense situation? Were you good at reassuring others, or making them laugh in difficult times? Were you practical- could you fix fuses or bake the birthday cake? Did you take your neighbour’s dog for a walk or keep an eye on their home whilst they were away? Were you a shoulder to cry on or a good bloke in a crisis? Would you help a blind person cross a busy street or give a friendly nod to your newsagent as you bought your paper?
Is it really all over? See how this is all in the past tense? Now ask yourself- has it really gone? Certainly some of the headlines might have been wiped out by cancer- maybe you aren’t the main earner or the multi-tasker any more- and this can be really horrible. But when you look at yourself more closely there may well be other, subtler parts of yourself that are still going strong. When the chips are down, these lower key, emotional roles in life are more important and more valuable (to you and others) than any of the ‘headlines’- the pay packet, the spotless home, the glittering career. At first, your brain will focus on your headline roles when you do this exercise, but if you keep going, you’ll realise there’s much more to you than that.
If you’re feeling bad about yourself it’s going to be hard to think realistically about who you are, what you do, how you relate and give meaning to other people. You may well come up with all sorts of unhelpful thoughts about yourself. That’s OK- get through those, let them come out (if you ignore them they’re only going to pop back). But then force yourself to go further- say to yourself ‘yes…….and’ : What else do I do? How would a neighbour describe me? What would a friend list as my qualities? Why does a loved one love me? You don’t have to tell anyone about any of this- it’s just for you. It won’t make you big-headed. This is the ‘case for the defence’ in your own private prosecution- and everyone has the right to a defence.
I chose a quote from the marvellous Emma Stone to accompany this post- I think it says it all.
“Confidence is the only key. I know a lot of people who aren’t traditionally ‘beautiful’ – not symmetrical or perfect-bodied or perfect-skinned. But none of that matters because all that shines through is their confidence, humour and comfort with themselves. I can’t think of any better representation of beauty than someone who is unafraid to be herself.”