That’s right, compassion for yourself. Sure you’ve got compassion for friends and family. You’re the first one your friends reach out to to talk about their problems. They know you’ll be warm, understanding and nonjudgmental. So, what stops you from treating yourself kindly as you go through the trauma of infertility?
Research shows that infertility carries the emotional weight of a traumatic cancer diagnosis! Take a moment to really take that in. Infertility is trauma. The American Psychological Association’s describes trauma as: “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives.” Yep, that sounds like the experience of infertility!
So, why is it so difficult for women and men to feel compassion for themselves as they make their way through this difficult journey?
Most of us develop our initial values from our family. Many hard working parents taught their children to push through obstacles, to ‘suck it up’ when it came to adversity. A common retort to emotions spilling from a child might have been, “you should be thankful you have food on the table and a roof over your head, now get over it!” So you learned that feeling your emotions was silly, a waste of time, a pity party, or maybe you were told that you’re weak, even a ‘sissy’ if you were male. After all, the American ideal is a tough guy, like Clint Eastwood, or Daniel Craig – cool and buttoned up. And now you’re faced with the truth, that it’s not going to be easy to get pregnant and you may even need a doctor’s help. You’re feeling all kinds of really strong emotions. And because you’ve internalized what you’ve learned, it might be difficult to deal with everything you are feeling.”What’s wrong with me? I should be able to deal with this? Why am I falling apart? I don’t recognize myself!”
Or maybe you describe yourself as a “type A personality”, someone who is goal oriented, competitive, a multi-tasker to the max, someone who over schedules, is time urgent and often self critical. Since you got your diagnosis, you have been glued to the internet, reading every article, blog, and book you can get your hands on. If you are a Millennial, you are used to getting everything you’ve worked hard for. And now you’re faced with a journey where you have very little control. Your inner voices are screaming “I should never have listened to my husband. I knew we should have started trying to get pregnant right away. I’m not getting any younger. I’m so mad at myself for not pushing”.
Some believe self criticism is kind of like a kick in the butt – a motivator, that pushes for excellence.
Other parts hold the belief that if we criticize ourself, it will hurt less when someone else says something hurtful. Again, it’s protective. For example, an inner critic might be saying, “I’m a failure as a women because I can’t get pregnant”. The inner critic that says that, thinks that when your mother or mother-in-law says to you, “When are you going to make me a grandmother”, it won’t hurt as much because you’ve already said it to yourself. But the truth is, it hurts just as bad.
And then there’s the fear – if you allow yourself to really, really feel the sadness, pain, disappointment, whatever the emotion is, the fear is you will completely fall apart, and end up in a pool of never ending tears. And that, is way too scary! So, it’s safer to keep the emotions away with criticism instead of allowing in softer self understanding.
Compassion for yourself is not: wimpy, weak, self absorbed, or a pity party.
What it is, is a non-judgmental, understanding, and appreciative viewpoint that we are human, and, as part of the human experience, we are vulnerable and there are ups and downs in life. Kristen Neff, PhD describes self-compassion as “extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.” (For more from Kristien Neff, look for ‘Self-Compassion, Step by Step’.
Here’s an interesting experiment you can do to begin to notice just how often you do not have compassion for yourself. Pick an hour when you commit to noticing your thoughts. Notice how often your critic comes up to tell you how bad you are in one way or another. Maybe you are castigating yourself about something you did or didn’t do. Would you talk to your friend like that? Are you surprised how many times in an hour you are unkind to yourself? While I do believe that those internal critics have a positive intention to help you (i.e. the criticisms keep you from a thought that the critic thinks would be much too difficult for you to handle), what the critic ends up doing, is keeping you from being able to be kind to yourself and the ability to self-soothe. Perhaps your critic is a perfectionist part that holds the belief that you are not allowed to make a mistake even though we are all imperfect. For most individuals suffering from infertility, when we feel imperfect and inadequate, we tend to isolate which is another hallmark of infertility.
Bringing compassion to yourself is a process and a practice. It does not happen overnight. But it is certainly a worthwhile practice that will help you develop the stamina to go through fertility treatment or to create clarity so you or you and your partner can make life altering decisions from your Self and not from a part of you that is overwhelmed with anger, sadness, or hopelessness.
In future blogs, we’ll talk more about our parts, how they influence us as we move through infertility, and the ways to bring compassion to yourself during this really difficult time!
Sending compassionate thoughts from me to you!