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Support from friends
‘Reassurance’ made me lonelier
When I was discharged from hospital after treatment, the flowers poured in, as did the well-wishing cards from family and friends. My housemate had just relocated to Germany for work and my mother came to stay with me for a couple of weeks to look after me while I recovered.
Now, I don’t believe those closest to us have any bad intentions and ultimately want nothing but the best, but in striving to support us, I found they can unconsciously make us feel worse. My family and friends continuously made sympathetic statements that infuriated me. They all expected I’d make a swift recovery and reminded me to count my blessings. Everyone thought that as I’d finished my cancer treatment, I’d get back to normal within three months.
‘Just be grateful you caught it early.’
‘You can move on with your life now.’
‘At least you didn’t have to go through radiation or chemotherapy.’
All of these ‘reassuring’ statements left me feeling even lonelier.
As a psychotherapist, I was acutely aware of my emotional state. My feelings made the surgery feel like a walk in the park. I was suddenly thrust into what I can only describe as an existential whirlpool that depleted me of any sense of security and stripped me of my confidence. I was depressed. It was a dark time and I felt extremely lonely and needed support.
So I put all of my clinical work on hold and I went into therapy myself. This was the first step in supporting my recovery. I needed a place to go where it was okay to cry, to express my anger and to free me from the banal sympathy that often made me feel worse.
A few years previous, I completed a postgraduate diploma in trauma therapy and remembered being really engaged with one of the course directors who is a trauma therapist.
What I was experiencing after cancer felt like a trauma both physically and emotionally. I needed to be with someone that understood this clinically, but also with someone whom I felt connected to – so I looked the course director up.
I spent a year in weekly therapy.
Initially, I cried a lot and was angry. I felt such a loss of control. But over the year, my therapist supported me in coming to terms with my new way of being in the world. She helped me tackle the impatience I had with myself to be better than I really was, to acknowledge my depression and she was there to hold some of the palpable anxiety that came up every time I went for a scan.
I couldn’t imagine going through this experience without psychological support.
Empathy versus sympathy
Reflecting on this, I was curious to understand the situation more. I surmised that those closest to us often find it unbearable to hold the darker aspects of life, such as mortality, and so immediately step into a sympathetic rescue mode rather than being empathetically supportive.
Yet what I wanted most in my moment of need was to feel connected – not in a way that would become an investment in my wounds – I didn’t want to be a victim – but more in a way that made me feel connected to others who had stepped onto a similar path and could empathetically sit with the ups and downs that come with surviving cancer.
Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, articulated the difference between empathy and sympathy in her YouTube short, where she illustrates the best way to ease someone's pain and suffering. She reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities. She proposes that empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection.
Kelly is a psychotherapist in Clapham diagnosed with stage two kidney cancer. She’s spent a lot of time researching other types of psychological support for cancer survivors, discovering there is very little. She is researching group therapy, whereby survivors could meet on a regular basis in a contained and safe space to support each other in an empathetic way.
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