One of the things I work a lot with as a psychotherapist is how we work with feelings that make us feel uncomfortable for some reason. You’ve probably noticed simple versions in your own life, when you’re upset with a friend and notice that you don’t answer their texts quite so fast, or maybe you don’t quite know how to sign off…
Think about how much time you might spend thinking about that. Possibly not a huge amount, but maybe a few minutes.
Now imagine that you’re dealing with lots of feelings that you find ‘unacceptable’ or which don’t meet your expectations of how you should be or feel. They can all add up.
There is a useful term, ‘cognitive dissonance’ which describes the discomfort we can feel when reality doesn’t match how we want or expect it to be. We can use psychological mechanisms (often called defence mechanisms) try to ‘smooth’ this discomfort over.
The thing is, these feelings don’t just ‘go away’ even if we don’t do anything about them. In fact, we can find ourselves going to a lot of effort to avoid them accidentally ‘spilling out’ in messy ways.
When you become a mother, you can experience a lot of feelings that you didn’t expect to feel.
For example, imagine you’re feeling anxious about your ability to look after your baby, but you feel that there is something wrong with feeling anxiety. You might try to avoid the feelings of anxiety by taking stringent steps to make sure that your baby doesn’t get sick, or feel upset. You might find yourself latching on to strict routines or particular ways of doing things to make sure your baby doesn’t ever experience stress, because that reinforces the idea that you can’t look after your baby properly.
Or imagine you’re feeling disappointed in your partner. This feeling might feel scary or unacceptable to you, so rather than acknowledging this feeling, you find yourself justifying why you are being critical or snappy towards him.
Or even imagine you’re feeling disappointed in your birth, and feeling that you have failed in some way. If you feel ashamed of feeling like that, you might try to pretend that you feel fine and tell yourself that everything is fine and have to work hard to manage those feelings inside you so they don’t spill out.
All of this psychological activity takes effort and work. In fact it can take more work than simply being able to acknowledge the feeling, and if necessary doing what you need to do or accessing support to help you behave the way you want to behave.
There are many feelings that people assume are ‘wrong’ to feel as mothers, and so rather than allowing that these feelings are there (and maybe getting some support if necessary), they can end up trying to just suppress these feelings and spend extra energy trying to cover them up. This CAN work fine, and I’m not going to pretend it’s not a strategy we all use from time to time. However, if you’re finding these feelings increasingly hard to suppress or hide, then you might find yourself getting increasingly stressed or worried or low or disconnected.
The psychotherapist Estela Welldon wrote about how the suppression of these feelings can lead to mental health issues, and I'm pleased to say that there are a raft of great Instagram accounts talking more about the real feelings of motherhood, such as on @darksideofthemum and @eatingheryoung .
One way that we can try to manage feelings or situations that we find difficult us is to use positive affirmations (and deny our ‘negative’ feelings). However whilst this can sometimes work, research shows that if you are already experiencing low self esteem, positive statements might actually make you feel worse (the research doesn’t say this, but I wonder if it is possibly because they increase the cognitive dissonance).
It can be very hard to get in touch with our deepest feelings. Especially if we are ashamed of them. Yet they are a normal part of a healthy range of mental wellbeing. Being more able to identify feelings such as these can help us to acknowledge and respect them. And that gives more options about how we choose to behave (or enlist some help if we feel unable to accept them). And oddly, that can often end up helping the feelings to feel less powerful, or even go away. Because they’ve been properly attended to.
So, for example, if you’re feeling deeply ashamed of something, you can spend a lot of time and effort trying to hide it. And worrying about being found out. However, if you allow the feeling to come to light, then you can show it some compassion. You can decide if the shame is really warranted. You can maybe even decide if you want to do something to change things. You now have choices, and making those choices might mean you can spend less time worrying about avoiding that feeling. You’re now spending less energy trying to avoid the ‘cognitive dissonance.’ And that can bring a sense of relief. You might still experience these emotions, but removing the shame you feel about them can allow you to stop having to work so hard to deny them and get more help if you need it.
I’m not trying to say it’s an easy fix, but owning our feelings can definitely help us lead less stressful lives. It can take a bit of practice, especially if we’re used to being highly critical or ashamed of any feelings that we don’t like. It might also take the support of someone who can gently and kindly help you see your feelings in a more compassionate and realistic light. Different kinds of therapy, such as counselling or compassion-focussed CBT or EFT can be helpful to help you gently look at the emotions that might be causing you stress.