First of all, happy Breast Cancer Awareness Month! It’s a time of year to give the gentle reminder to keep up on whatever type of screening is age/risk appropriate for you (my lump was found during a routine physical), support the wonderful research that has greatly helped me and other survivors throughout the years, and just celebrate those of us who have been surviving and thriving with this disease and the friends and family who have helped us on our journey.
I originally started this post because sometimes I struggle knowing when to set boundaries for my own personal time. I quickly realized, however, that we can talk about boundaries a couple of ways: setting boundaries for ourselves and our own wellbeing (my initial thoughts on boundaries) and setting boundaries with others. I’m going to start with setting boundaries with others because I feel that is more on topic with cancer. I’ll dive into setting boundaries for ourselves in my next post. I Googled boundaries and here’s what came up for “examples of boundaries in relationships”: saying no, expecting respect, not taking blame inappropriately, respecting other’s privacy. Sometimes it’s just hard to know when to set a limit or say no. One example I heard on Glennon Doyle’s podcast was setting a boundary of only seeing a close friend during daylight hours. Apparently in that relationship, things tended to go awry at night and therefore nighttime hangouts were avoided to preserve the friendship. Many of us have those friends that we just can’t talk sports or politics with because we feel so strongly and it’s an “agree to disagree” situation. Texting and other direct messaging is another common example. Generally we avoid texting people at 3 a.m. to respect sleep boundaries.
Like all of us, my personality type gives a lot of background on how my boundaries work. I am a very classic introvert. I can be nervous and uncomfortable around others. I think more accurately, I am a Type 5 personality in the Enneagram. For those of you that don’t know about the Enneagram, you can get an overview and test here. As someone who has always hated personality tests, I can honestly say I LOVE the Enneagram. I feel like it gets me in a way no other personality test does (as a disclaimer I will say I took the test without knowing the personality types and I think that gave me a more authentic result and I, like most people, test strongly in multiple types). It really shows each personality as an asset to our society. As the old saying goes: It takes all kinds. I will also say that learning others’ Enneagram Types can really help a relationship. For example, while my husband never has and probably never will take the Enneagram test, I noticed parts of some characteristics in him that I had never thought about before. For example, he definitely has components of the Type 6 persona …specifically “the biggest fear being unprepared and unable to defend themselves against danger”. When I think of some of his most aggravating, annoying traits to me, many stem from this part of his personality and seeing it as part of his personality and a legitimate fear, rather than him just being a jerk, helps me give him grace at times that I would have otherwise felt frustration and anger. I digress, back to boundaries. For a Type 5, like me, our biggest fear is: “being overwhelmed by their own needs or those of other people”. In other words, Type 5 people are CONSTANTLY setting up boundaries. I would say this is one of the biggest downfalls of a Type 5 and unfortunately why many Type 5s struggle to connect with others. Years ago I would have said that some people just don’t really need to connect to others, but all humans need and crave connection, to different extents and in different ways, and this is a constant battle for Type 5 people.
Back to cancer and boundaries, multiple boundary-type issues come up with cancer. First and probably most obvious is the multitude of really kind people that will come out of the woodwork with all kinds of offerings of help, meals, cleaning, babysitting, care baskets, you name it. I’ve said this before and it’s worth repeating, I was flabbergasted by just how many thoughtful and giving people helped me through my different struggles with cancer. What also became clear to me from the get-go was that I needed to establish some boundaries of what I really needed and was comfortable receiving. There are definitely many people who find themselves with a medical diagnosis that they cannot afford and that is truly crippling to their lives in ways other than just the medical and physical hardships. They don’t have insurance, help with child care, a job with benefits that allows for medical time off, access to good nutrition, transportation to medical appointments, etc. I have never had any of these hardships and needed to make that piece clear to anyone that might be wanting to help set up any type of fundraising that would definitely be helpful to others in my situation, but not for me at that time. As somewhat of a tangent on this topic, I’d also like to stress how helpful it can be in these situations, when things are just getting heated, to have a “help” point person that is not the actual patient or their spouse/primary caretaker. A quick assessment of what someone needs and the ability to serve as a point of contact for anyone that might reach out can be really helpful.
Yet another part of boundaries is trusting that those around you will be aware of their own needs and limitations. This can be tricky and uncomfortable especially for the Type 5s among us who aren’t particularly good at social nuances and just assume that others will know when to say no and feel comfortable saying no. Ideally when someone offers help, it will come from a place of legitimate good will; not feelings of guilt, indebtedness, social pressures, or control issues. Back to the Enneagram, there is actually a personality type called “The Giver”, it is Type 2. This personality type lives to serve others. Nuns and nurses often fall into this category, but I think many people have this trait in them. While givers are such an asset to society and truly excel in making others feel loved and taken care of, their gift (like all other gifts in the Enneagram) can turn unhealthy at times. The potential problem with givers is that they can overwhelm with their giving and it can be hard to connect with them if they are unwilling to accept help themselves. After all, everybody (even us curmudgeonly Type 5s) loves to give. As humans giving to others makes us feel good and connected. Thus, a total martyr, I’m-going-to-fall-on-my-sword-for-humanity type, can alienate themselves from others by the very thing they do to make themselves “lovable”, giving to extremes. In the cancer world, we tend to encounter many givers. After all, even at our healthiest we interact with nurses A LOT. And many of the givers in our lives will seek out ways to help us out. Thus, my advice to a new cancer patient would be to be ready to encounter this type of personality, be direct and clear about expectations, and especially if you are like me and maybe a little uncomfortable with receiving help, try to open yourself to accepting it. There are some truly special and inspiring moments to be had as a cancer patient, if you let them happen.