Living Your Best Life after Cancer
by Judith E. Pierson, EdD
Only you can know what living well or living your best life means to you. But two key tools can help you discover and shape your vision – being real with yourself and being real with others.
Being real with yourself requires knowing your deepest longings, knowing your true feelings at any given moment of your life, and being able to sit with these feelings and allow them to be a source of wisdom. Being real with others requires the courage to be yourself wholeheartedly, letting go of the insane notion that you have to be perfect to be loved.
Being real with yourself and with others also requires a vulnerability that, after facing cancer, you might feel you don’t want to revisit. After the turbulence of cancer, you may want only predictability in your life and yearn for everything to go back to the way it was before cancer. Completely understandable! But if you become too invested in achieving stability, you may miss the chance to create a more authentic life. It’s good, even advisable, to build a safety net of support, take control in areas where you can, and proceed slowly. But don’t turn your back on the challenge of living your best life. You fought for your life; don’t wimp out now.
Acknowledging Your Feelings Your heart must be the compass for what lies ahead. You need to turn inward, explore your true feelings and desires, and let them be your guide. But first, you must know that all your feelings are OK to have, as long as you express them in healthy ways. Don’t tell yourself, “I shouldn’t feel angry, so I can’t let myself become angry.” You must allow yourself to experience your true feelings and express them in a safe way. For example, if you do feel angry, some safe ways to express anger include writing your uncensored feelings in a journal, throwing ice cubes against a wall, or screaming into a pillow.
Your heart must be the compass for what lies ahead.
When acknowledged, your feelings provide important information for your well-being – what brings you pleasure and joy and what drains you. Your feelings also tell you when you need to take better care of yourself. On the other hand, unacknowledged feelings can sabotage your mental and emotional welfare. If you shut down and ignore your feelings, you cut off your connection to your heart, obscuring important information your mind needs to function well.
Pursuing Your Wants and Needs Like feelings, your needs and desires are a link to your inner self. And they can be pursued in healthy ways. Many of us were taught to minimize our wants and needs, or to put them at the end of our to-do lists. However, if you keep putting yourself last, you will never be able to live your best life. You matter! Tune in to yourself, and fine-tune your ability to know what you want in the moment, as well as what you want in your life. Then pursue those things.
Building Authentic Connections Learn to love and accept yourself. Treat yourself with the same compassion you extend to others. This, in turn, will allow you to build authentic connections. To create a real relationship with another person, you have to stop trying to be who you think they want you to be. You have to risk being seen as who you really are, with your inevitable human imperfections, in order to know that you are unconditionally loved and accepted. Just remember that unconditional love doesn’t mean the person who loves you isn’t occasionally annoyed by you. It simply means they still love you anyway.
All of us can go further when we have people in our lives who walk beside us, who help us over rough patches, and who listen as we express our desires for our lives. It’s essential to nourish the kind of relationships that sustain you – the real you.
Life requires taking risks. You didn’t fight cancer to now put limits on your life. You know the value of life, and you want to experience it. Living your best life means opening your arms to new possibilities, to a deeper connection with others, and to a greater awareness of your feelings and of your life’s desires. Listen to your heart, surround yourself with those who support and sustain your authentic self, and become the author of your own best life.
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Dr. Judith Pierson is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Rehoboth Beach, DE.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2013.