Three Lenses to Braving the Wilderness

Living with cancer has given me the opportunity to spend more time reading for enjoyment. It is a welcomed escape. I recently read one of Brené Brown’s books, Braving the Wilderness. In today’s post, I explore this book’s themes from three different lenses.

Lens One: Braving the Wilderness Brené Style

This lens is a basic introduction to the book’s main message. Brené Brown explains that being brave involves being true to yourself. Being brave means bringing life to your story. You are the only one who can do it.

She says you aren’t going to please everyone. Inevitably, it means you can’t be brave and never disappoint anyone. So true.

If you seek the constant approval of others and people pleasing is more important than your own inner happiness, you are not being brave.

There will be criticism with braveness. There will be LOTS of criticism.

There will be great moments of uncertainty because you are standing alone.

There will be vulnerability as you discover all your truths and how you are discovering exactly how you belong.

These sound terrifying. Going through life not knowing yourself is more terrifying. Braving the wilderness means you stand firm when you face the wind and disapproval of others. When you know yourself, you have the courage to stand firm in your beliefs because you know who you are.

To truly belong, you only need to belong to yourself.

That’s the biggest take away for me in the whole book. In a world where belongingness is sought after in almost every interaction and relationship, we all lose sight that the most valuable relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves. The interactions that matter most are the ones directed at how we treat ourselves.

She writes that “true belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.”

Belonging is intertwined with I AM.

Lens Two: Braving the Wilderness with Cancer

My opinion and personal interpretation take over with this lens.

Having cancer is a wilderness of its own. Truly belonging to yourself and blending that wilderness with a cancer wilderness is challenging. To own both wildernesses is overwhelming.

I believe if Brené Brown were to speak directly to me, she would say to lean in fully to the loneliness and discomfort of cancer. She would emphasize the need to become vulnerable with it. The personal connection with it would change how I feel about it. At least I think that’s what she’d say.

I also think I’ve had plenty of loneliness, discomfort, and enough of a personal connection with cancer already.

Brené Brown writes a lot about boundaries. The firmer the boundaries, the more respected they will be. It is not okay to be taken advantage of and trampled upon physically or emotionally. You can’t belong to yourself if you are crushed.

Cancer can crush a person as much as someone else can. Being bald makes you look and feel less feminine. Surgeries do the same and you’re left feeling “less than.” Others often confirm it. If you are flat, then you somehow have lost your womanhood. Perceptions around going flat are slowly changing. Treatments take all the oomph out you so there isn’t much energy left for you to object to cancer defining you. Medical labels, side effects, perceptions, and an evolving normal keep shifting. It’s easy for cancer to define someone. It’s much harder to claim belongingness.

Suddenly, you are not you anymore, but the person with cancer. Everyone has a story to share with you because that’s how they attempt to connect with you and now identify with you. It’s important to set boundaries for how you want to be treated.

Firm boundaries support trust. When others respect boundaries, it is safer to trust them. Trust has caused me an ocean of hurt. A lot has become clearer to me in the last few years.

To me, living with cancer and learning to trust more means:

  • I share what I want about my health and expect my privacy to be respected.
  • I do not have to explain or justify my feelings, nor do I need to provide a reason so others understand.
  • I can’t trust a person with the big stuff if someone has betrayed that trust with smaller stuff.
  • I need to feel physically and emotionally safe in order to feel connected to someone.

Strong boundaries enable a person to have more empathy for others. Self-care comes first. Then you know what you can do and not do for others. I still identify as a helper. Taking care of myself first lets me know what time and energy I have available for others.

Living well demands I brave it – it being life – and I’m braving it fiercely these days. The older I get, the more at home I feel in my own skin. I’ve known for some time that my happiness depends on my braving life. I am comfortable with most of the decisions I make. Being brave is both frightening and peaceful at the same time. The uncertainty and vulnerability show up as frightening, but then the acceptance of those parts of my life oddly brings an element of peace.

Lens Three: Braving Well Together

This sounds like an oxymoron if braving the wilderness involves only needing to belong to ourselves and having the courage to stand alone yet firmly in our beliefs and values. The way I see it, there is still room for the support of others who are also being brave. Picture a wilderness scene. I can be standing in my wilderness next to a beautiful mountain lake holding a sign that proclaims my beliefs. Another person can be standing a few feet away near a magnificent tree with a sign that reads entirely different. Part of my wilderness may be accepting and trusting others. This holds challenges for me, but I need to be vulnerable enough to slowly test those waters. The other person may be working on keeping a few more personal thoughts and the confidences of others private. We can give each other the acknowledging head nod to show our support while still recognizing the work is an individual inner process.

The other way I believe we can be brave together is that it’s when we feel alone and are brave that someone else comes along and gives voice that they feel exactly the same way. We may think we are alone, but we are not. It’s very possible that someone was feeling the same way and was beyond grateful to cross paths with someone else giving voice and standing his/her ground in a way they needed. When we are brave on our own, social connections can be found. It’s part of finding your tribe.

Vulnerability has always been tough for me. Honestly, I haven’t always liked Brené Brown’s work. I stopped reading her first book years earlier because I didn’t like what she had to say and I found her too repetitive. Looking back, I wasn’t ready to do some of the work I needed to do.

I still have work to do. LOTS. There is so much I don’t have figured out. I’ve figured out this much: I’ve become more comfortable braving the wilderness.

Consider responding:

  • Have you read any of Brené Brown’s books? What stands out to you?

A Moment in Amsterdam: Fear Alley and Stress

Alleys are narrow. I envision them as dark, lonely places, filled with scary things and unpleasant smells. Forgotten garbage litters the ground. Feral cats and large rats compete for scraps. Alleys potentially are filled with scary people who I’d like to avoid meeting. I wouldn’t be excited about the cats or rats either. They are not safe spaces. No one hangs out in an alley because it’s relaxing.

Back in my youth, I was much more adventurous. I found myself exploring Amsterdam for a few days on my own. I loved it there. The colors of flowers from the numerous flower markets were intense. I took canal rides to tour the city. I lost myself in a VanGogh museum. I relaxed in a beer garden and wrote postcards. The Anne Frank House where Anne hid from the Nazis for two years was transformative. The tourist in me took in everything possible. I may have mentioned in an earlier post that I make an excellent tourist. I even let a stranger buy me a drink and joined his family for dinner one night.

Amsterdam is also known for its nefarious red-light district. I figured it was fine to see during the day. My plan was to turn around if I felt it wasn’t safe. It was an easy walk to that area. I felt plenty safe but was very much out of my element. Gradually, I became aware I was one of the only women in the area not “working.” Women didn’t seem to be outdoors at all. I could not imagine what the area was like in the dark of night. It was time to turn around, however, I did not relish backtracking through what I had seen.

I spied an alley to my left. At the end of the alley rose a tall church steeple. Surely, I would be in a better environment if I took this shortcut. I couldn’t see anyone lurking about there. It was a short distance. It couldn’t be too bad. Weighing my options, I decided to do it. Was it a good idea? Yes and no. I had to use my hands to shield my eyes from windows on both sides that featured more things I didn’t want to see. I walked with a determined pace that was almost a run. I emerged from the dark alley back into the open sunshine and was thrilled to discover the church steeple I had seen was now a building that sold Christmas decorations. Perfect. I found a different route back to my room.

Where am I going with this?

Sometimes walking down a narrow, dark alley may be the only way to find the light again.

From time to time, something scary has to be experienced in order to get to a better place. The scary thing can be unplanned, unavoidable, and unravel life. Fear can stop us from pursuing or reaching our goals. Fear can stop any meaningful movement forward. Fear can keep us unwell.

I have had a lot of practice with fear as someone living with cancer. There has been information to process and digest. Decisions have been made. Many appointments, tests, and results have been faced that I would rather not have had to deal with at all. The process has repeated over and over with revised information, more decisions, and so many more appointments. Life has been filled with uncertainty in the same way as not knowing what may be lurking and waiting in an alley. It seems I’m always adjusting and adapting. I face all these hurdles because not facing them is more fearful than facing them. The distance has been much longer than what I walked in the alley in Amsterdam.

Functioning well in what I call Fear Alley for the long run is too hard. Bodies in a constant state of stress do not recover. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Living in a state of chronic stress where cortisol levels are always elevated affects health negatively. Living in fear is like being in survival mode all the time. It’s high stress. Your body, your mind, your soul can’t recover when in a constant state of fear. Those things are sacrificed so the fear can survive.

Chronic stress is the metaphorical mugger lurking in Fear Alley. Stress can contribute to health conditions such as obesity, ulcers, depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, and hair loss. A negative relationship exists between stress and the immune system, affecting the way certain cells find and attack cancer cells. Our natural killer cells don’t work as well in a stressed environment. The immune system works better when unstressed. Stress is very handy to have around in fight or flight situations, but surviving in a heightened state of prolonged fight or flight for months and years is going to cause more problems in the long run that will cause a vicious cycle of ongoing stress. Those living with cancer have better outcomes when stress levels are lower. To remain in some type of warrior state where I feel like I am in a constant battle keeps me in a state of stress. I won’t do it. I can’t. It makes my heart hurt. My body physically shakes. Muscles in my gut tighten as if anticipating a punch. The fear and worry spike my anxiety levels.

What if we believed in hope instead?

What if fear and stress were left behind in the alley and images of the alley just faded away forever? You would be left standing in the sun, absorbing warmth, light, and hope into every cell of your being. Your body would have an opportunity to relax and thrive. You’d sleep more soundly and feel assured that things were going to work out. Thoughts and ideas would connect easily in your mind. You’d feel something in your soul that just felt right. This sounds really good to me! For me, less stress means I’m much calmer and more relaxed. My heart doesn’t race. I don’t shake. My stomach is happier. So am I.

Absorbing warmth and hope into every cell means leaving stress behind. How does this happen? Meditate. A few breaths make a difference. Start with inhaling fully for three or four counts and then slowly exhale for the same number. Repeat this four or five times. It’s a mini-break and gives your body an opportunity to reset. Go for a ten-minute walk if there’s time. You’ll combine deep breathing and get a few minutes of exercise. Other ways you can lower stress are to spend a few minutes writing in your gratitude journal, think of something to make you laugh, or make a quick phone call to a friend. Use affirmations to set the positive, hopeful, no stress mindset that you seek.

Hope isn’t found at the end of a dark alley. It’s found in all the little moments where a thought makes you smile, you spend time doing something that brings you joy, or you take that ten-minute walk. All those moments add up. Hope is found in the heart. Ultimately, this means hope could even be found as you walk through what is fearful. Somehow. Maybe it’s just a small molecule of hope, but it grows as you inch toward the end of the alley. Hope is always within.

Don’t let fear crush hope.

Hope makes living with cancer so much easier than trying to live with it from a place of fear. It’s like permanently living in the Amsterdam flower market or having the Van Gogh museum completely to yourself. Every part of your life feels better with hope. There may be alleys to walk through that are unavoidable. I wouldn’t recommend strolling down any just for the experience. Hope is obtainable without an alley walk. I’d like to think hope is also unavoidable.

We all need to hold on to hope and not let go.

We all deserve the sunny parts of Amsterdam.

All the time.

 

Consider responding:

  • When can fear be the only path to lead you to something better?
  • How can you approach fearful places differently and come from a place of hope?

 

Committing to the Hat

One thing that drives me crazy lately is wearing a hat. It is winter and hat wearing weather. On the pro side, it keeps me toasty warm. I am a fan of toasty warm. On the con side, taking off the hat usually shifts my wig. It has to be done carefully. One hand has to glide up past my forehead and underneath said hat. It rests between the hat and my hair, anchoring it in place. It doesn’t always work. It has become one of many extra processes in my life. It makes me feel self-conscious. I am not a fan of self-conscious.

When I put on a hat, I have to really commit to the hat. You see, I may have it on for a while. Even if I get hot, I don’t feel like I can easily take it off without possibly drawing attention to myself. The reality is probably no one is looking at me. But there’s still the self-conscious thing.

Committing to the hat is just one more thing I have to do. It’s one of the behind the scene consequences of living with cancer. Others include my independent pharmacy of mostly supplements that I ingest several times a day that I believe help me, neupogen injections every weekend to boost white cell counts, feeling anxious about many social situations, not knowing how I’ll feel when I wake up, and juggling an ever-changing schedule of appointments and such.

Committing in general has been up in the air over the past several years. Everything is more uncertain. Maybe that’s why the hat is harder to wear.

Ironically, I need to commit to uncertainty.

A hat seems like such a small thing. But it’s a small thing over which I would rather exercise some control. Control is a big thing for a lot of people. Some try to control other people through a position where they do not know how to be a successful leader. We can’t control how others respond. Ineffective leaders are met with lack of respect and people who undermine them in order to do what is needed. People who seek to manipulate in relationships are still alone inside. Others try to control themselves through self-destructive acts. Yes, we are responsible for our choices. A decision to inflict hurt on yourself is not within your control or a choice. It is the polar opposite of self-love. I have come across a few people in my life who have struggled with self-love. I can’t control them. I can show up for them with love, friendship, and support.

The hat is also about control– my need for control over something where I don’t have it. I’ve really not had much control since diagnosis.

Anyone have a hat for that?

Uncertainty and lack of control go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Chocolate and peanut butter are better.

I’d love to pal around in a vintage hat of the 1920s, go back in time, and meet my grandma when she was younger. It would have to be a special time traveling hat. We’d be friends. I imagine meeting at what was known back in the day as Stevens Point Normal School where she went for teaching certification. I’d love to see her passion of one of our shared interests and how her youth and experiences shaped the years when I knew her.

I don’t care for the cancer hats, the kinds that are knitted or ordered through cancer magazines and online. This includes bandanas and scarves. They all are just so obvious. When I wore those years ago, I was fine with them, both physically and emotionally comfortable. It was too bad if others had a problem seeing me that way. Now, they are more of a reminder of loss. I am very aware of my losses and don’t need visual reminders. I am not some sort of public service announcement either. The cancer hat I wear is invisible, but it is part of that uncertainty and lack of control.

In fact, I still don’t know how to refer to myself. You think I would after nearly seven years. Am I a survivor? A thriver? The survivor label is used for someone who has been treated for cancer and thought to be cancer free. The thriver label is used to distinguish those who will never be thought of as survivors . . . yet. I’m not sure where this began. Perhaps it was well-intentioned. Perhaps it was designed out of need to give some of that sought after control back to people’s lives. However, there is even some discomfort within the cancer community itself with the term. As a result of that discomfort, sometimes thrivers are not included in discussions or are isolated into their own group because there is worry they will scare others, not have any similar needs in common with survivors, and be of no help. Abigail Johnston explains it better in her blog post Early Stagers vs. Metastatic Patients. Take a moment to read it!

Right now, I think I can wear both those hats. I’m surviving and thriving. Maybe I’m a driver (for change), a striver (for health), a troublemaking conniver (just because). I’m definitely feeling a Lin-Manuel vibe. At the same time, I really don’t like being labeled. Just let me be me.

And there it is . . . the reason I don’t know how to refer to myself.

Just let me be me.

Don’t call me anything. What bothers me is others who want to tell me what I am. Some are very firm about it. We’re all different. The survivor hat may not work for one person, but work really well for someone else.

If I could choose a hat, I would choose a sun hat. I can pull off a wide-brimmed sun hat and wear it well. I like that because with proper sunshades I can people watch (stare at people) and no one knows that’s what I’m doing (until now). Keeping cool in the hot sun is a priority, too. My fair complexion freckles and I burn easily. I must do what I can to remain youthful looking. Medications also require avoiding time in direct sun.

My favorite hat is a cream wool winter hat I used to wear with the brim flipped up. I guess it’s called a bucket hat (think Paddington Bear). I wore it during a golden time when all was well in my life. It looked cute on me. I had no problems committing to that hat. It was functional, attractive, and easy to wear. Stylistically, it was very simple and matched with many of my coats. My life was also much simpler when I wore it, but I’m sure I didn’t realize it because I didn’t know what I know now.

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Are there any positives to committing to the hat?

People who have let go of control seem to be happier. You can love and accept things as they are without a need to fix something. Surrendering control may present opportunities to relax. You may find you get what you need. Controlling less and doing less may give you more. Committing to the hat, committing to uncertainty, can help a person commit to more freedom. Spontaneity can take pressure off from a lot of choices. Do you want to know something? When I started this paragraph, I really didn’t think I was going to find a way to reframe this hat thing in a positive way. Anything is possible.

Committing to freedom, to relaxing, to ultimately receiving more of what I need all sound a lot better than wearing uncertainty day after day after day.

I know for everyone else wearing a hat doesn’t cause a second thought. It shouldn’t. Well, maybe it should cause pause for some folks because there are people who adorn some very questionable hat choices in my book. Remember though, it isn’t really about the hat. One last thing the hat is about is recognizing that there are things people do that aren’t visible on the surface. Everyone has these. Everyone has uncertainty. Everyone just wants to have the comfort of a hat that fits really well. My favorite cream hat calls.