As much as I love to feel confident, secure, peaceful, and tranquil, I know that emotional wellness comes from deeply accepting where I am in any given moment. It means acknowledging that I am not always going to feel Zen all of the time, as I need the full spectrum of my feelings to navigate this life. In fact, this recognition allows me to more deeply appreciate the moments when I do.

I came up with this title because as cancer survivors, there’s pressure to be positive and less stressed. It’s an achievement to feel like you’ve done a good job at emotional self care and processed what you’ve gone through. This creates a feeling of release and unburdening that we all seek. It’s delicious to feel calm after going through hell.

The tricky part is, learning to let go of suffering also means that you’ll need to let go of the hypervigilant watchdog. The watchdog that wants to be acutely tuned in so that you’re never caught off guard again. The watchdog promises a false sense of control, which intellectually we know is not foolproof but emotionally we wish to believe. Disconnecting is critical to healing.

So, when you’re caught off guard again, it can create feelings of shame and defeat that you let the watchdog go. You might ask yourself, “how can I be back in this place again?”. You may catch yourself thinking “Oh. I should’ve known this would happen”. You may feel guilty for not being prepared, angry that you let your guard down. You may feel self-critical that for losing that Zen-ness you worked so hard to cultivate.

For better or worse, part of healing emotionally involves accepting that healing is not a linear process. It involves anticipating that you’re going to be caught off guard. It means revisiting parts of your story, over and over again, when they demand your attention. These parts are connected to you in ways you can’t always predict. This acceptance can dramatically decrease shame while refocusing you not on the why but the how.

Your goal really isn’t to set your sights on accomplishing complete healing, because that’s an ever evolving process. Your goal is to have a plan of how you’re going to respond.

This is why I’m an advocate for art therapy, because it becomes a safe holding space for containing what has been stirred, while processing what has already happened. When you have a plan, you’ll be able to stand more securely in the chaos, knowing that you’ve got a way to support yourself.

-Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing emotionally from cancer. Through Creative Transformations, she works with people in person and online to offer the self assessment toolcancer coaching, an Art as Therapy program, virtual workshops, and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss a blog and find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.