When Life Gives You Lemons: Dealing with Your Emotions

Sometimes life brings you lemons—it’s up to you to decide what you choose to do with them. I don’t consider myself as entirely optimistic, neither do I force myself to immediately see the positive in the struggle. I’d say I’m more inclined to be a realistic type of person.

Struggles are a part of everyone’s life, all come in different sizes and all stay through different periods of time. Some people’s struggles may seem small or insignificant when we compare them to ours; certainly, there are challenges that brutally change one’s life—but how one feels about those challenges is uniquely personal. The depth of the emotion is an intimate journey that cannot be measured nor judged. 

For this reason, knowing yourself is critical.

I was 20 years old when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She noticed a lump in her right breast but was too scared to see her doctor. She eventually agreed after her OB/GYN reassured her of a non-cancer diagnosis. Her two sisters, one of my cousins, and I were there. Soon after surgery started, everyone decided to go grab some coffee but I wanted to stay. I remember as if it was yesterday, standing against a wall just outside the surgery room with some medical records in my hands, when I saw the OB/GYN walk out, pull his mask down and with a scared look said, “It’s cancer, honey; it’s cancer.” I stood there paralyzed, feeling as if time had just suddenly stopped. He asked me to go into a private room to talk. My mom’s youngest sister had just returned and walked in with me. There, the doctor explained the options and recommended a radical mastectomy but needed someone to authorize it. My aunt looked at me. “Your call,” she said. My call? I’m only 20 years old! How can I be the one to decide such a thing? Feeling sick and numbed, I mumbled, “Doctor, do whatever you need to do so that my mother will be safe.” He nodded, put his mask on, and left the room.

My memories of what happened afterward are still so vivid and emotionally loaded. Seeing my mother so fragile and vulnerable was very scary. Back at home, standing next to her in front of the mirror, we saw her (new) body for the first time after the surgery. It was such a powerful moment of humility and cruel reality. Only she knew what it was like. My mom decided not to have breast reconstruction, instead we got her a silicon breast prosthesis. Years later she would make silly jokes about her “portable booby”. 

Weeks of chemotherapy and radiation followed, plus classes, exams, the family business, and the house chores. It. Was. Chaos!

The journey I was about to embrace was during a time of my life I was forced to catch too many lemons all at once. I’m sure my lemonades had different flavors depending on how I felt each day. Sometimes sweet-sour, and at times perhaps rotten. I surely embraced each moment as it came; being spiritually strong was crucial and not having children was extremely helpful to stay focused. But without a doubt, it certainly was a hectic time in my life and the beginning of a journey I’d walk with my beautiful mother for the next seven years.

Staying strong for the one(s) we are caring for is a complex challenge; to balance it with our own personal lives is even harder. I know now that struggles come in distinct magnitudes and each one impacts us differently. Hence, the two most important things I always try to recognize when in front of a situation are:  

  • What size of a struggle am I looking at?
  • What emotions are arising in me?

Sizing a struggle allows me to have clarity and focus on understanding what it is that I need to do or learn, embracing what’s most serious first. After being diagnosed with cancer, a lot of new information and medical terms start coming into your life. Parallel to this, the physical and emotional well-being of the patient and the caregiver quickly start taking a hit. Being able to rank my struggles helps my mind to have some order, avoiding overwhelming feelings that can lead to anxiety or panic attacks. 

Recognizing my emotions equals honoring my feelings. It’s extremely important that I’m able to name my emotions so that I can put them aside and embrace what I have in front of myself, instead of pushing them inside and have those emotions affect me later in a greater way. Pretending to be strong never works for me.

Practicing mindfulness has helped me to slow down and not overreact (most of the time) to challenges or stressful situations. I take my time to understand and evaluate a situation. I take my time to think about what happened and observe how I feel and why I feel a certain emotion. 

Here are 3 simple mindfulness tips that help me:

  1. Turn your attention inwards and observe yourself, your thoughts, your actions, your words. Observe, without judgment. Take notes if possible. This practice helps you become more aware, be more in the present.
  2. When in a stressful moment, tell or repeat to yourself “stay calm” or “calm down” for at least 5 seconds before saying anything, then take three deep (belly) breaths, try to close your eyes if possible, and if you can make a whoosh sound as you breath out, even better.
  3. Find an outlet (a refuge), set an alarm for at least 10 minutes, and make sure you won’t be disturbed. Play music if you would like or stay in silence; get in a comfortable position, sitting, laying down, on a couch, in your car; just think comfort.  And with your eyes closed, start observing your breathing. Don’t try to resist thoughts and put all your attention into your heart. Feel it in your body and welcome any emotion that arises. It doesn’t matter if you cry, allow the emotions to come. You might feel gratitude or frustration—whatever the emotion, welcome it and then let it go. 

About Me

Originally from the town of San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico, Gabriela S. OM. now lives in Palo Alto, CA with her husband and two daughters. She holds a BA in Accounting and Finance and has pursued holistic education from top institutions over the past four years where she’s trained in mindfulness, compassion, and emotional intelligence. She holds an English Proficiency from the University of Cambridge. Gabriela lost her mother to breast cancer and now shares her experience and the lessons she learned as a caregiver. You can learn more on her website www.enroute.life or follow her on Facebook @enroute.life.