Both of us have experienced (and, so far, survived) cancer and its treatments multiple times. Evan twice, and Pat three times. On this matter, at least we can invoke authority through experience.
When first diagnosed and in planning treatment, one can usually rely upon support from partners, friends, and family, as well as the numbness of shell shock, to get through the initial period. Most of us are pretty good for the short-term. Then the routine of hospital visits, coping with side effects and managing daily life sets in and friends and family, and even partners, are often less available, as what was acute usually moves into the chronic. Staying in for the long haul can be tough. It can be helpful to remember this, whether you are a carer or being cared for.
Although support programs are increasingly available through the hospital and cancer organizations, both of us were very fortunate that key friends stepped in to organize formal care teams. They accompanied us to hospital visits when our partners were working, prepared meals, and provided visits and emotional support to both us and our partners.
It seemed allowing others to care for us is sometimes hard to accept. We may view it as a weakness, imagine we are a burden, or not worthy of such attention…
This was extremely helpful but came with varying degrees of resistance. It seemed allowing others to care for us is sometimes hard to accept. We may view it as a weakness, imagine we are a burden, or not worthy of such attention; and yet we often have no trouble caring for those in need, and may even go out of our way to do so. We might well ask why the double standard? We are so often, sooner or later, in the same boat.
Self-care, in general, is a struggle for those of us who are by nature care-givers, whether personally and professionally (as we both are). And although allowing others to care for us is a key part of a self-care plan (see Shelly Tygeilski’s 8-part series on Mindful Self-Care), it can be harder than being kind to ourselves. This is worth investigating because we are social creatures, and relatedness is a key psychological need. We cannot have true intimacy without vulnerability, without at some point putting ourselves in the hands of another as they too will need to put themselves in the hands of someone else.
Believe it or not, as an adult, it can bring a lot of ease when we let ourselves let go and can be taken care of. When we both had cancer, receiving meals from friends and family was a great relief, and allowed limited energy to be used for other purposes.
What your Early Attachment Style Says About How You Recieve Help
Clues to whether or not it is easy or difficult for us to care or be cared for may be found in attachment theory. Psychiatrists Robert Maunder and Jon Hunter have long researched how the stress of illness triggers early attachment styles formed by our infant relationships to primary caregivers. In their research and book (Love, Fear, and Health: How Our Attachments to Others Shape Health and Health Care. University of Toronto Press, 2015) they show how we all express varying attachment styles described as secure; preoccupied, anxious and security-seeking; self-reliant, avoidant and dismissive of support; and cautious, disorganized and fearful of support.
Even those of us who are chiefly secure in our attachments have degrees of guilt, loss of control, and loss of identity that offers of support may trigger when we are vulnerable. This may explain why allowing others to care for us can feel threatening.
One of the primary lessons of mindfulness is that aging, illness, and death come to all of us sooner or later. As Muriel Spark, the author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, says: “It is difficult for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form a habit while young.” To death, we would add aging and illness, and not only remembering but facing them with eyes open, grace, equanimity, and self-care in all its facets.
Four Things to Remember When Others Want to Care For You
In allowing others to show their care for us, it is important to consider the following:
- It’s a gift to allow others to care for you. Your partner, friends, and family want to help out to the degree they are able, and it benefits them. Ideally, there’s a balance between expressions of care of you to them, and them to you. Remember, being of service, makes people happier.
- It doesn’t mean you’re weak. Allowing others to show their care doesn’t mean you stop being able to care for yourself (or others). It is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of our interdependence and what it is to be human.
- It’s an act of compassion. Opening up to care is an act of compassion to self and others. It is the desire to be of assistance and following through on that desire.
- We all need a community. Care from others is part of any self-care plan and helps us build communities of care in an increasingly isolating society. Those who are part of a care team become a community unto themselves.
A Mindfulness Practice to Open Up to Care
- Come into a comfortable posture, one that embodies ease and wakefulness, and close the eyes if that’s available, turning attention to the body sitting.
- Bring attention to the sensations inside the body and outside the body, at the surface of the skin, and to sounds………After a few moments shifting attention to the body breathing……to the movement of the breath in the body and out of the body, to any associated sensations of the inhalation and the exhalation…….(engaging with this breath practice for a few minutes).
- And now, bringing to mind a time when you took care of someone. It may have been a significant event, such as a catastrophic illness or a small event, such as helping a child, or the planning of a dinner or party.
- Checking in with the body now and any sensations and noticing the feeling tone of those – pleasant or unpleasant; and what emotions are showing; what thoughts – how did you relate to that experience – welcoming or unwelcoming, and what did you do? Exploring this for a few minutes or so….Perhaps saying to yourself – this is a person, or these are people in need of care, just like me.
- And now, bringing to mind a time when you needed to be cared for. Again, it may have been a simple event or something really serious such as an illness, or perhaps you experienced a significant loss. Contemplating what happened? How did you relate to this situation? How able were you to let people take care of you if you did? And if not, what got in the way?
- Imagining what it might be like to say yes, to receiving care from others. Considering how that might affect your relationship with those caregivers. How might it be beneficial to you and them? Contemplating this for a few minutes.
- And then bringing your attention back to the sensations of the breath in the body, resting here. And when you’re ready, opening your eyes, and if it’s helpful writing down any significant thoughts or insights that came to mind.