So if I walk into your house, take off my shirt and put on a robe that opens to the front, please understand that repetitive actions turn into habits. A breast cancer diagnosis, even one with as much hope as my own, changes life in an instant. I now have my daily appointment with either a surgeon, oncologist, geneticist, radiologist or my plastic (that is the hip term for plastic surgeon, for those who are not part of the “Cancer Club”). They each require, of course, that we talk about and take a peek at, and either touch or stick a needle into the very part of my body I was taught from a young age to cover. Add my supportive and protective husband to the mix, looking on as all this occurs…it could really be a Saturday Night Live skit, if it wasn’t such a serious situation. Because I am a psychotherapist, I cannot help but debrief each of these sessions, with thoughts about the dynamic that occurs, with each doctor and their staff. I cannot help but notice how human interaction can be powerfully motivating and it can also be debilitating.
I am grateful that this diagnosis came at a time in my life where I have some developed personal boundaries. I went through infertility treatment in my twenties and still look back at that time and regret my lack of self-advocation. I have to remind myself that there are reasons we become human doormats, at the times in life that we really need to act as warriors. When faced with difficult challenges, the actions necessary to receive help from others, often requires us to become uncomfortably humble as we have to share our intimate issues, with those who can help. Being an advocate for oneself, when you are in a compromised position, can be hard, whether it is an illness, a severed relationship, a traumatic event or a financial hardship. There is a feeling of helplessness that comes with life challenges that often makes people feel unworthy or even embarrassed. That innermost need to feel taken care of, can take over and we can cling to the hope that someone might see our desperation and respond to it. We hope that we won’t have to muster up more courage when we already feel so depleted. It does not matter if the situation was brought on by poor decision-making or just a “that’s life” blow. It becomes difficult to believe in our own worthiness or that our time and effort to seek better options will ultimately change anything.
Coming from an occupation that rests on compassion and empathy, it is something that I relate to and appreciate on the receiving end. In the past two weeks, I have met some of the most compassionate, empathetic people who use their intelligence and skill to offer hope and healing to those facing a deadly disease. For example, I can honestly say that even though I never want to go back to the Sally Jobe Breast Imaging Center in Golden, Colorado, where I have now had multiple mammograms, ultrasounds, MRI and biopsies, the doctors, nurses and technicians there will forever hold a place in my heart. They know about my diagnosis but they also know my family and I know a bit about theirs. We have shared funny stories and they don’t have to ask anymore which juice I prefer after procedures. At no time did anyone end an appointment before I felt heard and had my questions answered. I am one of many people they see each day but they acted as if they have waited all day, just for me. When I left after yet another biopsy yesterday, I received multiple hugs and well wishes. They gave me hope.
I have also met just a couple of individuals that were able to use their position of having something I need, to make me feel as alone and emotionally unsafe as I have ever felt in my life. My head reminds me that hurting people hurt people and that insecure people are often the ones who behave arrogantly. But that does not do much for me when I have to deal with their behaviors that feel just icky on the receiving end. Can I just say how much I hate it that I come up with the most amazing retorts, as I am driving away, instead of in the moment, where I continue to practice the stunned, deer in the headlights look, because I find it so hard to believe that people can care so little about anyone but themselves? I am determined to use these experiences, both the good and the bad, as a better-than-any-classroom-lecture, in my practice.
How individuals treat others effects not only the dynamic between the two interacting individuals but also the people in the web of the dynamic. It is the reason that children who observe domestic abuse often go on to abuse. Being an onlooker to poor behavior or watching someone be treated poorly and not feeling empowered to do something about it, can be harmful too. I remember in elementary school being forever changed when I observed a teacher who actually really liked me, humiliate another child in my class. I remember feeling the tension of wanting to support the other child but not lose my standing with the teacher. Most likely I was not alone in my feelings that day and every child learned from that experience. Some learned to bully the weaker member of the team, some learned that you gain control momentarily when you humiliate another, and some learned that mean people are not good motivators and leaders. When I became a teacher, I vowed to never be like than man. He did not offer hope.
People experience tensions like this every day as we journey along in life: in our jobs, our social circles, our families. Sometimes the interactions that give or take hope away are subtle and we aren’t even aware they are happening until the hope is apparent, or lost. One narcissistic, insecure, hurting person can ruin a work environment, a social gathering, a family, if they are allowed. However, while it is often self-soothing to point to another person as the reason for the dysfunction, everyone must take responsibility for the part they play in the dynamic. While it may feel easier at times, to not advocate for ourselves or for another person, when we are silent we allow the abuse. When we allow such action, over and over, it becomes less obviously a problem and eventually a norm. Repetitive actions create habits.
What habits do you see at work in your daily walk of life that you might have more power than you think to change? What norms are you allowing to happen through your own passivity or because you are hoping someone else will miraculously see the need and respond? Do you need to be reminded that setting personal boundaries is good for both you and the other people in your life? In many life situations, we do not have to allow people like my fifth grade teacher to determine the course we take. Learning how to appropriately and respectfully set personal boundaries is empowering. By setting boundaries, you protect yourself and you demand the best from others, which in turn makes them better people as well. Doing this over and over again….yes, you know…say it with me…CREATES HABITS and thus, new norms and healthier, happier, interactions with friends, co-workers and family members and all the other people you encounter.
Sixteen years ago I would have told my today self that a couple bad experiences in a week of good, was good enough. I would have said that I have to put up with a disrespectful doctor because he comes highly recommended and is locally considered the best at what he does. I would have had a good cry and then sucked it up. Today, I believe that I do not have to support bad behavior. I can advocate for myself, ask more questions, do what it takes to open communication. And if that fails, as it did, I can walk away. I can decide that I choose to put my body, my life, my emotions, in the care of someone else who offers me hope rather than discouragement. It was obvious by the way that the staff in the office of which I refer operated, they were used to the norm and were a little shocked that we didn’t stick around for the abuse. And I won’t lie, I cried the whole way home. But then I realized that because I had tried to communicate well, I had done my part. No regrets. And because I was willing to walk away, the situation will not repeat itself over and over again. My team of doctors won’t be mostly fantastic, it will be completely fantastic. Why? Because life is super hard and I need all the hope I can get.
Who are you getting your hope from? Who are you giving hope to? What are you doing to learn how to communicate in a way that lets others know that you are worthy? It is something to think about.