Empathy and Protecting Your Heart
Let me first give the disclaimer that I'm not so good at empathy. It's not instinctive to me and I have to work at it. I can say that for those of us who don't understand and embrace empathy at a gut level, it is a skill that can be practiced and learned. After some decades of practicing, I'm much better at it now.
Empathy can be defined as:
"the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner."
Empathy in the MBC community
Those of us in the MBC community, I think, do a lot of empathy. Over and over, when someone is having a hard time and posts that in a forum or conversation, there are TONS of comments emphasizing that (and how) others feel and experience the same things. What a wonderful feeling, to know that someone else has experienced the same struggles, that we are not alone in some of the darkest moments of our lives. That feeling alone has helped pull me out of some of those dark valleys.
The flip side of that is when we feel so intensely about another human being, especially when they are somehow living a parallel life analogous and so very similar to ours, when we lose that person, it is devastating in the extreme, at a cellular level. As I've gotten more and more connected to others in the MBC Community and walked with them through the diagnosis to treatment to progression and then to hospice, I've felt invested in their lives in such a different way than in any other context. When they have died, when MBC has ended their existence, I've often felt as thought I would simply cease to exist it was that devastating.
So how do we express and practice empathy and yet protect our hearts?
The answer I've found is that we really can't. Every person I've invested in took a piece of my heart with them when they died; at the same time, I had a piece of theirs and that small part of them lives on in me. Carrying these beautiful people with me into the future has become not as much of a pain point but also a privilege and an honor to be part of their legacy. Celebrations of life can truly be a celebration of all that they were.
But does this mean that we retain an "entire heart" at the end of the day? That the give and take leaves us with the same amount?
I can't say that I have all the answers; at the same time, what has happened for me over time is that I've discovered the possibility of having harmony between the need for connection with others and the need to protect my own energy. Not a balance because the pendulum swings back and forth between these two things. I don't believe there is any way to truly achieve or maintain balance, but a way for the two disparate things to live together in harmony with give and take is possible. Not that I have it figured out, not at all, just that I can see and glimpse the prospect, somewhere close to the horizon.
Here's what I've found ...
- I can't put all my eggs in one basket. As an introvert, I tend to go super deep with few people and have a small circle of close friends. With people in the MBC community, I have found that I can't focus on too small of a circle because that circle is always getting smaller and smaller; I have to be intentional about maintaining more connections.
- I have to listen to my caregivers. As an introvert, people drain me of energy. The people who are in the MBC Community often drain even more since what they are experiencing may be more triggering than I realize and also because MBC is a thief of all that is good. I often don't realize when my energy has been depleted too much and my caregivers can often sense this before I am aware of the issue.
- I have to prioritize bilateral relationships. One of the biggest things I discovered after being diagnosed with MBC is that I was carrying more one-way relationships than was healthy for me. I didn't realize this until I needed help and was surprised at who showed up for me and who didn't. Now, I know that I need to ensure that I'm putting those bilateral relationships at the front of the line for my energy.
- Stepping back for self care isn't selfish. Dropping things for me is brutal. I hate failing at commitments. What has helped me figure out what I can drop if I need to take care of myself is to remind myself that the balls I'm juggling are not all made of glass, some are rubber and can bounce. Figuring out which things I can drop and when is the key for me as well as giving myself permission to just be.
- Structuring contact can be valuable. Sometimes putting away my phone so that no one can reach me for a bit is the kindest thing I can do for them and for me.
As we know from the first law of thermodynamics, energy cannot be created or destroyed, it is only changed from one form to another. At a basic level, I think we all live on in the lives of each other, that our energy never disappears. When we carry the pieces of those dear to us after their death, we are not only fulfilling parts of their legacy, but also literally keeping their energy alive in us. What a beautiful thought!
And now it's your turn... do you think it's possible to both take care of yourself and connect with others? Does my list resonate with you?
Have you gained new friends in your metastatic cancer journey?