"how do I tell my new friends about the old me?"
mixed feelings is a weekly advice column. Every Wednesday, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
hi mixed feelings,
I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer [between high school and college] and spent a number of years dealing with that. I’m fine now, by the way, I kicked cancer’s ass! But it was definitely a very difficult and traumatic time, and going to check ups even years later can stir up lots of negative feelings. I definitely think that going through a huge medical issue like that really changed who I am as a person and my way of looking at the world. [It] feels like a large part of my identity, or at least my story.
My problem is, I’ve since moved to a new city and developed a new friend group. I’m really close to them and having a great time! I realized the other day that none of them know my cancer story…Do you think this is something I should tell new friends? Part of me feels like close friends should know because it’s a big part of who I am today. On the other hand, it’s never come up in conversation before and I don’t want to bring it up randomly and make it seem like a pity party thing. So, any advice on how to navigate divulging important parts of my identity to new friends? — Rems, she/her
First things first: congratulations on kicking cancer’s ass—and on living life every day since that amazing accomplishment. Managing a health condition is like an exclusive club no one wants to belong to, but if you’re a member you often “get it” in ways others simply can’t. The people in our lives who aren’t part of our super cool club want to help and be there for us, but it can feel like we’re living in two different worlds.
I manage a chronic illness, so I feel your struggle—hard. There’s a very fine line between getting the support you deserve from your loved ones and not living in a space where people view you solely through the lens of your medical history. I’ve definitely had to make tough calls about when to share my diagnosis and how much information to divulge to certain people. It sounds simple, especially with those you’re closest with, but let’s be real: it’s a lot of mental gymnastics.
What do you really want?
It’s easy to get caught up in endless overthinking trying to identify the “right thing” to do. In reality, there’s only a “right thing” for you. It’s incredibly common for those who manage a medical issue to worry about coming off as “too needy.” I don’t know anyone who wants to feel like they’re burdening their loved ones, but too often we jump to the opposite end of the spectrum and think that any amount of opening up or asking for support is going to be too much.
This is a hard thing to unlearn—especially for those of us who identify as women because we’re always told by society that we’re taking up too much space! That anxiety around turning the conversation into a “pity party” is something to be mindful of as you make your decision. It’s hard to break out of that mindset but therapy might help you work through that barrier.
Find a safe space, close your eyes, and take a big, deep breath. Ask yourself, “What do I really want to do?” Allow yourself to remove all the feelings of what you “should'' do. Your answer to this question can be anything. It can mean continuing to hold on to this information because you’re not ready to share it. Just remember: there’s no right time to share and it’s never too late.
If you’re ready to share…
If you feel like you’re ready to share our story, keep in mind there’s no right way to share this information. Sometimes sharing personal information with a large group can make you feel like a fish in a fishbowl. It may be easier and less overwhelming to tell one friend and see how that goes first. On the other hand, maybe it feels less daunting to tell the whole group at one time so you’re only going through the big reveal once. Imagine yourself and your friends in these scenarios and ask yourself what you’d be most comfortable with.
When we imagine sharing something meaningful to us, we often think about what we want the other person to say or do in response. Some friends may need time to process and therefore might stay silent during your talk. Others may respond with more questions. Sharing sensitive information about your diagnosis with a loved one and not getting the response you want can feel like a punch in the gut. It can be really challenging to deal with those feelings, but you have to be ready to take that punch, just in case.
Another thing to consider is the environment in which you share your news. Maybe you want to share the information casually at your normal Friday night happy hour because it could relay the message that it’s nothing anyone needs to panic over. It’s also okay if you want to take a more serious tone by having a get together specifically to share and discuss. You don’t even have to do it in person! Sending an email or text in the group chat is a perfectly fine way to get the information out. It could feel like there’s less pressure to say the right thing on the spot.
Whatever you choose, just remember to take care of yourself through the process. You may start sharing and feel like you want to take a break and pull back a little bit. Whatever you choose, it’s all okay. That may feel overwhelming, but the good news is that there’s no wrong way to do it either. This is a challenge, to say the least, but you got this! From one member of the club no one wants to join to another, I’m cheering for you every step of the way.
If you’re dealing with a difficult situation and would like to be featured in an upcoming newsletter, write us!