“Our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as being able to remake ourselves.” – Gandhi
Hands up if you’ve ever had a traumatic experience that you felt changed you. I’ll go first: in 2010 I had my colon removed due to cancer, and shortly after that I found out I had Lynch syndrome, which is a genetic condition that makes me more likely to get certain types of cancer in the future. I’ve written a lot about these experiences, particularly about how they have affected me emotionally. I’ve also thought a lot about how they have changed me as a person, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it hasn’t all been negative. In some ways, I’ve even changed for the better. Here are three things to think about that may help you feel better about your bad experiences too, whatever those may be.
How to Build Your Confidence After a Life-Altering Event
Remember you are still you
After you’ve had a life-changing experience, it might feel like you’ve changed irreversibly, and you’re not the person you used to be. It might feel like you’ll never be able to get that person back. And I’m not going to claim to be an expert on this because I’m sure I haven’t got it completely figured out. But I bet that whoever the ‘self’ is that you used to be, he or she is still in there.
If you feel like you don’t recognize yourself, think about how you define your ‘self’ as you used to be, or how you’d always like to be. What is it that makes you, you? I consider myself to be how I was when I was 15-18 years old. A music-loving gothic kid who didn’t care that she was the only one of her classmates wandering around the school in a Metallica hoodie. The funny, weird one of her friends who didn’t concern herself with what other people thought of her, but who was loyal, a good listener, happy and optimistic. What about you? Once you have that definition of this ‘former self,’ ask yourself if that is still you. Have you changed and lost that part of yourself? For me, the answer is no. I’m still that kid. It’s just that this kid has seen a lot, and sometimes she has to go to hospital appointments, and sometimes she is distracted by her worries. But she always comes back. In fact, she never actually leaves. If you don’t feel like you are still your old self, defining those qualities you miss can help you to figure out how to get them back.
Consider how your bad experiences have changed you for the better
It’s natural to think about our bad experiences as being only negative. In my case, cancer is to blame for lots of things – anxiety, fear of recurrence, negative body image, lack of trust in my body, and so on.
But it isn’t all bad. Stop thinking about all the negatives for a moment, and think of one positive thing that your bad experience has done for you, or how it has changed you in a positive way, however small. Here’s one of mine: cancer has made me more vigilant about my health. There are loads of people with health problems who don’t even realize they have them, and others who do know but prefer to bury their heads in the sand. I am in a position of knowledge, and I can potentially stop bad things before they happen. It’s like a superpower. Sometimes I refer to it as paranoia, but if I reframe it as vigilance, that is a more helpful way to look at things.
I’ll give you another – cancer has made me more pro-active about doing the things I want to do. Now, I have always been impatient. In fact, you could say I was born that way – I was born five days late, but my mother was in labor for just twenty minutes before I popped out. What I mean is, I do things when I decide I’m good and ready, but once I’m ready, I want to do it now. I want everything to have been done ten minutes ago. And ever since I had cancer and found out about my genetic condition, this is even truer. In the past seven years, I’ve done a fire walk. I’ve had a ride in a hot air balloon. I’ve visited New York, Gothenburg, Amsterdam, Bruges, Porto Santo (a little island off Madeira), Fuerteventura, and Orlando (more than once). I’ve been in the audience watching my favorite TV show here in the UK being filmed live, twice. I ‘ve seen most of my favorite bands play live, some several times. I’ve begun my MA Creative Writing while working full time, I’ve been working on my literary magazine for nearly four years, and I’ve been writing for my blog, as well as lots of poems, and three so far unpublished novels. I am busy and fulfilled, and I believe that is at least partly because I have been faced with my mortality. I’ve tried to take “one day” out of my vocabulary, because “one day” isn’t good enough anymore. None of this “one day I’ll go looking for the Northern Lights.” Give me a date. How soon can I visit my favorite places again? When can I experience something new? Take me there now. Yes, there is a rush. Who knows what might happen in the future? And I am proud and grateful for that. Sometimes we can find things to be grateful for even in terrible circumstances – we just have to look hard.
Accept your “new” self
And finally, embrace the new you. Everybody changes, anyway – all the time. Even just tiny changes. We experience things every day that gives us new ways of seeing the world. You’re not even the same person you were yesterday. And that’s okay. Our cells change. We’re wearing different clothes, which make us feel different. We’ve scrubbed off the dead skin in the shower. We’re breathing in different air. You’re not even the person you were five minutes ago, never mind several years ago.
Sometimes I wonder whether I am my old self, a damaged version of myself, or some health or self-care advocate. Which me am I today, and which should I try to be? New me or old me, which is best? I spent a long time thinking I needed to pick one identity and stick with it forever. But humans aren’t like that. We have many different layers that make us who we are. We are our old selves mixed with our new selves, and the sooner we see the good qualities in each, the better.
Our experiences can make us stronger, smarter versions of ourselves. I’ve even grown to love my scars. I’m proud of them, and I’m proud of myself. I still have lots of fears and shortcomings. There’s a lot I want to be better at. But I’ll never stop being me, and I’ll never stop looking for things to be grateful for in even the worst situations.