False hope is worse than no hope. Because it does not help us learn to live with difficult truths. Yet some people think giving or receiving false hope is better than no hope. I disagree.
False hope vs reassurance
Once my GP told me that “things will get easier”. Then, it had been six years since my first breast cancer diagnosis. Though the cancer was aggressive, I had been in remission for five years. For many this means, things will get easier: less worries about the cancer coming back and less chances of the cancer coming back. I would like to be able to look at it like that, but I can’t.
I know comments like my doctor’s are meant to reassure, made with the best of intentions, and probably conviction. But I also know, they are often meant to pacify what is interpreted as health or cancer anxiety, hopelessness, pessimism and cynicisms.
What I feel is all of the above and yet none of it.
Health alertness vs health anxiety
If you have been diagnosed with cancer or another life-changing or life-shortening illness, you too, may know the feeling of living with what I call constant ‘subtitles’:
Nothing is what it is. Nothing is like it used to be. Nothing is like we thought it would be. And we call much into question.
Comments like “but you look so well … you must not worry so much” can be unhelpful and dangerous. They can lure us into a false sense of reassurance, when we need to remain alert to changes in our bodies.
There is a very fine line between health awareness, watching out for red flag signs as well as irrational health anxiety.
And there is nothing right or wrong about it. There is no blue print or manual that can tell us, how to do it ‘right’.
You, too, will probably have had moments of health concerns and feeling unwell. Since my initial cancer treatment I have had many. Thankfully, the symptoms turned out to be related to other things. Yet these are intensely frightening and dare I say traumatic moments in our lives.
Each time (and increasingly so) I had to check in with myself, whether I am over-reacting, whether I will be thought of as a time waster, as someone overcome by health anxiety.
Coping with health anxiety: professionally and personally
And what do I do for a living? I am a psychotherapist; and I specialise in supporting people affected by cancer and loss. And people ask me, how do I square that?
Is it healthy for me “to work with cancer”, when I have been affected by cancer?
Is that not too close to home?
Does that not make things worse for me?
My truthful answer? No.
Like any other therapist or counsellor, cancer or no cancer, I too, have to monitor myself constantly, to see whether I am emotionally and physically fit to do the work.
But how can I help others deal with their health anxiety, when I too experience it?
There would be a problem, if we were to assume (wrongly in my view), that there needs to be a way of having health or cancer anxiety “sorted … done and dusted … ticked off the list”.
Health anxiety is normal and human. What matters is knowing how to face up to it and being able to live with it, without it standing in our way and becoming disproportionately irrational.
If you are tempted to give someone hope that you don’t believe in
It is understandable that we may want to reassure others – for so many reasons. Depending on how close we are, others’ despair can be hard for us to cope with. It is upsetting, especially when we don’t know what to say.
Then we may be tempted to give false hope, anything, to reassure them and us. As I said, it is understandable. But does it really work and help you and the other?
False hope vs meaningful hope
Coping with health anxiety is about accepting our anxiety and learning to regulate it, so it does not work against our well-being. False hope gets in the way of that process.
Instead we need to learn to find meaningful hope in ourselves and in our ability to be able to do the best we can, whatever may happen – illness or no illness.
It’s about hope, that somehow, somewhere we will find a way out of the dark moments and places.
We must not sugar-coat the truth, that we cannot know what is around the corner.
There is no point in giving false hope, like it will get easier, because it happens to have been ‘x’ number of years.
Meaningful hope and reassurance can be hard to give and hard to receive:
The belief that despite what has happened, we can cope and live well with the here and now and with whatever may come, or not.
The fearlessness of facing up to difficult possibilities in our lives and not shying away from naming them.
The supportive silence and acknowledgement that living with sub-titles of fear and mortality is not easy and requires constant focus and honest acceptance.
To be able to acknowledge that hope is hard to come by and to keep, that is more helpful than any false hope can ever be. @KarinSieger (Click to Tweet!)
My final thought
Now you may have noticed, that some of this article is written in the past tense. Because since writing the original piece, I have been re-diagnosed with breast cancer.
I am intrigued that I thought of writing this piece before then.
And I am glad that I have already thought about how unhelpful false hope is. Because right now, many people (understandably so) want to give me something, some hope. And I am grateful for their concern, but think about it, false hope is worse than no hope.
Now I have talked the talk, I have to walk the walk.
Karin Sieger is a UK-based psychotherapist and writer specialising in personal transitions, endings, making peace and the emotional impact of cancer, for which Karin has been treated herself. She does her writing on her orange houseboat in London. Karin posts regularly on her website KarinSieger.com. You can sign up for her Newsletter, follow her on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook or connect via LinkedIn.