How Cancer Has Made My Life Better: Part 2 – Empathy in Personal Relationships

First off – sorry it’s taken me so long to get this second of three “love letters” written. In the months since my first letter, I’ve had cancer progression, gotten married, gotten started on the process of building a house, and spent a couple weeks in Atlanta undergoing mistletoe treatment for my cancer. I’m happy to report that the mistletoe treatment seems to be working well with the other treatments I’m on, as I’ve seen a 50% reduction in the size of the cancer spots on my liver in less than two months! So now it’s time to write some more. Thanks for coming back with me.

Empathy has been a real journey of self discovery for me over the years, and in particular since I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. I’m a big believer in energy, so I want to take a minute to try to explain what my experience with energy has been like over the years. I can now see that for a long time, I had the experience of absorbing other peoples’ energy without really understanding it. I would have a fight with someone, or listen to them vent their problems. They would walk away feeling worlds better, and I’d gradually start to feel like I had been hit by a truck. In the most literal and unusual instances, with my dog and when my daughter was a baby (before she could speak) – I would know something was wrong with either of them. After awhile of being near them, I would physically feel whatever was bothering them in my own body, and I would eventually realize my stomach ache (or whatever) was the same thing they were feeling. I can see and understand now that this is what I was experiencing, but at the time, I did not always realize what was happening. I would just walk away from encounters with other people feeling drained or negative, without the ability to work through the feeling, because it wasn’t really “mine” to begin with. It left me feeling resentful and detached from people that I could have otherwise felt connected to, because I was taking on their negative energy without finding a way to rid myself of it or protect myself from absorbing it in the first place. If the concept sounds far fetched, think of the idea of “laying your troubles” on someone else. You tell them all that’s bothering you, maybe kindly or maybe in an angry vent or explosion, maybe you give them a big old hug, and you suddenly feel loads lighter, like a burden has been lifted. It’s a great thing, unless it turns out that the other person is now carrying that burden. That energy doesn’t just disappear. It has to go somewhere.

So my own sensitivity to energy has made it hard for me to connect with other people at times over my life. Even though I “feel” other people, I haven’t always been able to truly understand them in a conscious way. Living with cancer has helped me bridge the gap between unnamed and misunderstood feelings, and consciously understanding other people. I’ll try to explain how!

First, I’ve had to come to know myself. In the months since I was diagnosed, I’ve had to start really listening to my own body. I’ve had to pay attention to symptoms that I would have otherwise tried to write off or ignore so that I could try to anticipate exactly what was going on with my cancer. At my most fatigued, I’ve had to really pay attention to how much energy I had, so that I could know how much I could get done before I would hit a wall of exhaustion and be done for the day. I can never predict how I’ll feel from one day to the next, so I have to take time to truly assess how I’m feeling each day and what might make it better or worse. There’s no ability to just press on and go through the motions if the energy to support that is not there. Limited energy has gotten me to the point that I’ve had to start being honest with myself about what I can do and not do. It means having to be flexible and roll with last minute changes in energy level or unforeseen symptoms. I’ve never been in tune with my own energy, emotions or body in this way before because I’ve never had the time or perceived need to keep up with it. Now it’s essential to being able to function.

In this still observation of myself, I’ve developed more of an awareness of others too. Because I’m taking time to notice, I’m taking time to notice more about other people, as well. It just comes with the territory. So because I become aware of what energy other people are bringing to the table sooner in my interactions with them, I find that I understand them better and “get” them quite a bit more. I also want to be more mindful of what other people are going through, because I have benefitted from the kindness of other people recognizing what I’m going through quite a bit during my time with cancer. I find myself trying to anticipate other people’s feelings more, which finds me putting myself in their shoes more often.

At the same time, having to take better care of myself has allowed me to develop better boundaries. I simply cannot do and be all the things I used to attempt, so I’ve had to learn to say no. I’ve had to learn to turn away things, people, opportunities and everything else, when I just wasn’t up for it. I’ve had to turn away from things when I recognized them having a negative effect on me, and my awareness has let me see much sooner when that is happening. This necessity developed even before I was diagnosed with cancer, when I was a single mom trying to heal emotionally from a broken marriage and rebuild my life. When I started dating my now husband Kevin, I was so selective over the “energy” that I let into my life, that I constantly found myself filtering out tv, movies, reading material, music and anything else I came in contact with that I perceived was adding negative energy into my life. I would tell Kevin I was protecting my qi. He probably thought I was crazy, and definitely thought I was a drag to watch tv with, but I think he’s come to respect and understand my need for positive surroundings the more he has gotten to know me. And as my energy has healed, I’ve been a bit more able to let in mainstream stuff without feeling so much of the threat to my energy from it. I like to think I’ve built a healthy coat of protection around my energy from minding it and building it back up. I can occasionally watch the news or a reality show now and take it with a light heart, and also recognize when it’s time to turn it off. Same with social media. It has a place without taking over.

So, where does this leave me with other people? Well, as I said before, I have benefitted from the kindness and understanding of other people a lot since I’ve found out I was sick. When I shared the news of my diagnosis, I was flooded with supportive messages, cards, gifts, food, and visits. People have continued to follow my cancer updates with love and supportive encouragement every time I share something new. It has completely changed my faith in other people and made me want to be better in the way I support others. I think it has also helped open up my daughter and husband (who tend to be more introverted) to the goodness and meaningfulness of relationships with other people, in a season where it would have been more natural for them to withdraw. Combine that with what I’ve described above – more ability to observe myself and others, healthier boundaries and a stronger emotional energy, and I just find myself much more connected to the people around me, and in a different way. I don’t think it’s an “always sunshine” kind of way in which I’m never having conflicts with people or only having good times. But I think it is a more authentic connection in which I feel that I’m being seen and heard, and am making the effort to see and hear other people. It’s more real.

In the midst of all this, another interesting thing is happening. I used to view many aspects of the world as very black and white. There was always a right and wrong, and I could always find very palpable differences between myself and other people. As I go deeper into the process of understanding myself and other people, benefitting from theirs and God’s grace and mercy, and in return wanting to show mercy and grace to others, I find issues blending into lovely shades of gray. Every time I find myself feeling passionately about an issue, and vehemently opposed to someone or thing that represents the “other side” of an issue to me, I eventually find some big thing or series of small things that I really have in common with them. It is usually so glaring that I can’t help but laugh at how ironic it is. It makes it impossible for me to see them as diametrically opposed to me, because it is usually such a similarity. So I end up finding myself in every side of an issue, feeling “with” the people I would have otherwise felt “against” because I understand them too well. Frankly the more you understand people, the more difficult it is to feel disconnected from and unlike them. Instead of feeling different than everyone else, I see myself in everyone else. I see what people are feeling and going through, in their joy and in their pain. In it I see my joy and my pain.

This has left me with a much greater sense of love and empathy toward other people that continues to grow daily. Instead of taking everything personally, seeing other people’s actions as offenses and assaults on me, I recognize that people’s actions have little to do with me and everything to do with them. I see that people are finding their own way, and try to give them the space to do so. It’s like I’m simultaneously learning to let go of the unhealthy push and pull, and learning to embrace the fullness of interaction with other people. I can protect my energy enough to allow me to interact with other people in the way that I want to.

The most exciting part of that for me is the possibility of learning to use all this as a gift to help other people and even myself. Here’s my most meaningful example. I would describe my daughter as whirlwind of words and emotions. At 7, she feels big things and expresses them in big ways. Like most kids, working through something in the moment can often be a big challenge. Art is a very productive outlet for her, but its more rare for her to find and use the real words to tell me exactly what’s going on with her. Those moments of her letting her guard down to really open up to me with introspective words are few and far between. Words are my currency, so that’s very much the opposite of how I deal with my emotions. Talking and writing help me organize and sort through my feelings unlike anything else. So, parenting a person who expresses their self so differently than me is a serious challenge. It makes me understand what it must be like for my mom, who is much more like my daughter in the way she works through things, to have parented me – the talker. LOL. The other day my daughter was having a lot of difficult emotions that I could only partially understand, and I offered the only real help I could offer in that moment, when she wasn’t able to talk about it – a hug. And when she leaned in to hug me, I breathed it all in. I truly wanted to absorb every ounce of her negative emotion. I wanted to take all of it away and leave her feeling worlds lighter. I recognized that perhaps was the first time I’ve consciously tried to absorb another person’s energy. And I did. She slowly got back to her and day and finished her school work with flying colors, and I had to figure out what to do with that energy. I realized that’s what being a mom means to me, and she’s the only person I would truly allow my energy to be that vulnerable for on a regular basis. But because I have developed better boundaries, I know that if I’m going to be willing and able to take her negative energy away from her, I can’t harbor it in myself either. I felt it later when I snapped at my husband for something small. I have to recognize it in myself and use all my self care tools to resolve it. So this is the journey I find myself on now. Working to understand other people, to see what I have in common with them more than our differences, to learn how I can offer other people more mercy and grace to show gratitude for the mercy and grace I’ve received when I wasn’t necessarily deserving of them, and learning to hone my sensitivity to energy into a tool that lets me direct it in helpful ways. I think this is what healing looks like – and I sincerely hope that the result is my own healing from cancer, as well as an ability to help others heal.

My questions for you are these: How have your life experiences opened you up to other people? What positive growth have you found from seemingly negative things? What aspects of yourself do you see the opportunity to develop? It’s not always an easy or comfortable process, but I do believe it’s worth it friends!

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