Sandra Bollen-Hughes, counselling psychologist and breast cancer survivor, unpacks what makes a person brave.
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Bravery: such an elusive and interesting concept, isn’t it? Who is brave? Why are they brave? What makes one person overly cautious and another unruffled by crises?
Psychologists believe that a person’s level of dominance, which is a personality factor or trait, will influence how brave they might be. This is because dominance influences drive and independence. It affects how tenacious or outspoken a person is. Other personality factors related to bravery would be high emotional stability and low levels of apprehension.
Bravery and courage are also linked to taking action to reach a desired goal. Setting out to pursue the goal without assurance it will be a success is considered courageous.
But bravery, when it comes to cancer, is a whole different ball game. Cancer doesn’t care how dominant, independent, or outspoken you are. Cancer is just the big bad wolf who is equally as interested in the little girl with her red riding hood as the woodcutter with his axe. When cancer huffs and puffs at the door there is also no clear goal in sight, except perhaps to chase that wolf away.
My own big bad wolf
You would never have caught me hunting down a wolf or taking a solitary stroll through a forest with a basket of goodies. Super cautious, high on apprehension, low on dominance, I didn’t fit the bill for brave.
But cancer didn’t care, and I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 with no choice but to chase that huffing and puffing beast away. It took me some time after my cancer journey to accept the compliment, “You are so brave.” This always triggered these kinds of thoughts: “Me? Bah humbug! All I did was put out my arm and say, ‘Hit me!’ And did I have a choice? Somebody had to put a big pot on to boil or the wolf would come down the chimney and gobble me up. I even left the preparation of that boiling pot to my fabulous oncologist and medical team. How on earth did that make me brave?”
However, the work of two psychologists, Dr Richard Tedeschi and Dr Lawrence Calhoun, who coined the phrase post-traumatic growth challenged me to reappraise my cancer journey. Tedeschi and Calhoun’s research pointed to the fact that people often report personal growth and development after a trauma. There are various ways we can grow through trauma, but one of these ways is that trauma can help us to recognise our personal strengths.
And so, I began asking some questions that were a little kinder than my dismissive Bah-humbug-self initially allowed. I began to ask, “Was there any way I was braver than I thought I would be?” I was delighted to find I could honestly answer, “Yes!” And from there I could begin to scour my memories and sift through my story for evidence of personal strength. And I could begin to ask if this experience has shifted how I respond to challenges now and going forward. Again, I was delighted to be able to answer, “Yes!”
Being brave with the wolf at the door
The point from all of this is: if a person who wasn’t overly endowed with traits typically considered to be associated with bravery can grow and come out of the cancer walk with a greater respect for her own bravery and strength, so can you.
And of course, you won’t always be the image of bravery. A permanent smiling face and stiff upper lip aren’t bravery. In fact, sometimes crying and beating the floor may be what you need to go on. It’s the going on that’s brave. It’s the foot in front of the other that’s brave. It’s the push to the end that’s brave. You got this! Just watch yourself grow.
MEET THE EXPERT – Sandra Bollen-Hughes
Sandra Bollen-Hughes is a counselling psychologist. In 2015 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and realised the great burden of stress that cancer places on patients and so she developed an interest in cancer counselling. She went on to study cancer counselling to gather insight into the field of psycho-oncology. She runs a practice both for general and cancer counselling.
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