Does Pregnancy Depression Make You Hypersensitive to Criticism?

Warrior Mom Alexis Lesa describes how pregnancy depression made her oversensitive.

The first symptom I noticed when I experienced depression in pregnancy was fatigue. I knew to be wary of that type of crushing exhaustion, since it has accompanied every bout of depression I’ve ever experienced, so I was on high alert for any subsequent symptoms.

The next symptom of pregnancy depression came not too much later; it was November, so I was about four months pregnant. I went to a girls’ night out at my best friend’s house, and it turned out to be quite a large gathering. There were many women there who I’d never met before, and several who I knew only casually. I tend to not do well in these types of situations–I almost always get intimidated and end up overcompensating for my insecurity by being loud and maybe a little obnoxious. But that night, I tried to be especially mindful of my words, and felt that the activity went off well. I was proud of myself for being at least a little bit normal, and I went home happy.

A couple of days later, I got a phone call from my friend who had hosted the party. I don’t want to go into detail, but she basically said I had offended several people at the party and they had gone to her about it. I was horrified, not to mention humiliated. I talked to her for almost an hour, trying to figure out how best to resolve the situation. She was very nice about it, but I was still devastated.

That night, and every night for a week, I cried myself to sleep. My husband was so worried about me, trying to console me and reassure me that I was a good person, and it had all just been a misunderstanding, that those people just didn’t understand my sense of humor. After that week of disconsolate weeping, I knew I was depressed again.

First, let me say this: I probably would have been hurt whether I was depressed or not. It’s never fun to learn that people are talking behind your back. And yes, the whole incident was a little immature and has since been completely resolved. I am good friends with all these women to this day. But my response to the situation was completely unreasonable and dramatic, and I see now that my depression in pregnancy disabled me from viewing the situation realistically. At the time, it felt like the walls of my house were closing in on me, and I was dangerously close to suicidal thoughts. I was most definitely hopeless, telling myself that no one loved me, and that the world would be better off if I weren’t there.

I couldn’t stop thinking that I was a failure at life, that I was the only person who could turn an entire room of people against her and not even know it. I was humiliated to the point of not wanting to leave my house or see my friends, and it took almost a year before I agreed to go to a girls’ night out again.

Going back to my original point, oversensitivity to criticism is one of my first signals that I’m relapsing. It has characterized every round of depression I’ve ever experienced, and it has often rendered me emotionally incapacitated. It has nearly driven my marriage to its breaking point on more than one occasion, and I have come close to alienating friends I’ve had since high school after being offended by some well-meant and completely casual comment.

I am now 17 1/2 months postpartum, and still navigating my way through the maze of PPD recovery. I’ve come to the point where I am able to analyze past actions and see where I was influenced by the overwhelming emotions that accompany both pregnancy depression and PPD, and I see now that I have a pattern of self-destruction when I receive any type of negative feedback. My husband will say something as harmless as, “Did the kids nap today?” and I will immediately jump to the conclusion that he is accusing me of being a bad mother because the kids didn’t get to sleep that day. I instantly go on the defensive, which nearly always ends in an argument, which ends in me crying and yelling.

I realize to any healthy mind this sounds ridiculous, but I know many PPD moms will relate. Even though I am much better now than I was just a few months ago, I still occasionally experience this type of thing. However, I have come up with a weapon to help combat the self-doubt. It might sound a little silly, but it’s really worked for me.

When someone says something to me that I could potentially construe as offensive or critical, instead of responding immediately, I make up a mantra to repeat in my head three times before I say a word. For example, if my husband calls and tells me that our bank account is overdrawn because I forgot to transfer money for the third time in a month, I don’t get defensive. The mantra I would use in this case would go something like this: I failed to do something. I am not a failure. I’ll repeat this in my mind until I’ve convinced myself that my husband isn’t criticizing me, but is merely alerting me to a problem that needs to be resolved. I created a problem, but I am not the problem.

You can make up a mantra for any similar situation. The point is to redirect the negativity from you to your action. In this way, you may be able to step back from the hurtful words and see that they may not be so hurtful after all.

Alexis Lesa

How about you? Have you had similar experiences?

About Katherine Stone

is the founder of Postpartum Progress. She has been named a WebMD Health Hero, one of the fiercest women in America by More magazine, and one of the top 20 Social Media Moms by Working Mother magazine. She is a survivor of postpartum OCD.

Tell Us What You Think

Comments

  1. Oh my gosh, I totally relate to this. My husband feels he has to walk on egg shells around me, which is hard on a marriage. Cause you're supposed to be partners, you know?
    I love this idea – of repeating a mantra three times before reacting. Coming up with the mantra on the spot, in the middle of a freakout is a little tricky, I think. This seems like the kind of thing to have in my back pocket, all ready to go. I like the one you mentioned, Alexis about "failing to do something but not being a failure". Would love other suggestions for mantras.

  2. Because of my PPD, I am in a constant state of fog and forgetfulness. Every Saturday, I create a grocery list based off of a week's worth of meals for my family. Then I go shopping. Last week I forgot so many things, and they were written down. When my husband joked with me about it, I got raging mad.
    Last night, my son said something incredibly funny and I didn't write it down. I wanted to remember it so badly. Today, I was near tears and created a headache for myself because I couldn't remember! I do this all too often in almost every instance of my life.
    Last week, I exploded on a coworker because he changed his mind about something (there's more to it than that but…). It's so hard to not take personally for me. I like your idea about repeating a mantra and expelling the negative energy. This is one suggestion I'm really going to work hard at, thank you!

  3. Ok, yeah crying yourself to bed every night for a week is an over-reaction but I think those women should have been direct with you in the moment if they thought you said something out of line, instead of gossiping to the hostess. I think we as women are terrible about that. I know it's hard to have the difficult conversations but really, they should have told you directly if it was that important. And what kind of friend tells you that stuff? Ugh….she should have told them if they have a problem with you they need to take it up with you directly.

  4. Oh yeah, totally. I've since talked to these women about what happened and we straightened everything out. They know now how they made me feel and I told them that they should have just come to me. It's true, women have a hard time with being honest about the way they feel about other women.

  5. I read this post immediately after reading the previous guest post on breastfeeding and suddenly a lot of things that didn't make sense to me previously make a lot more sense.
    I am always surprised and dismayed when mothers who had to use formula get upset over people advocating for the rights of breastfeeding mothers. They seem to take the protection of the right to breastfeed without interference or sabotage, as a criticism of formula feeding mothers.
    The link that I had not made is that some (many?) of the mothers who did turn to formula may not simply be defensive because of the "breast is best" message that is pervasive in society, but also because they are suffering from PPD and are therefore overreacting by turning messages in support of breastfeeding into a criticism of a mother who needs to make a different choice.
    Thank you for the eye opener.

  6. That may be partly true–goodness knows that PPD is often complicated a great deal by breastfeeding. But I wouldn't go so far as to say that the mothers who are offended by breastfeeding advocates are being oversensitive. While this may be the case for some women, it is also true that some breastfeeding advocates are extremely pushy and border on preachy. I had very little guilt when I switched from breastmilk to formula because I knew I was making the right choice for my family, yet I still get offended when women talk about formula as though it is poison.
    The fact is, the decision whether or not to breastfeed is an intensely personal decision, and I think we can safely say that the great majority of mothers want the best for their children. So it's one thing advocate for breastfeeding and to try to educate the public about the inherent benefits of breastmilk–and I am all for this type of education–but it is an entirely separate thing to make assumptions about women who choose not to breastfeed; this is neither productive nor humane. Having your choice for your child questioned by a stranger never feels good, especially when you have carefully considered all options and chosen the one you know is right for you and your baby.
    Thanks for your comment, it really made me think!

  7. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    You know I have HUGE respect for you, Annie. Truly. But, and maybe it didn't come across this way in the other post, we aren't in any way upset about advocating for breastfeeding mothers. Most moms with PPD who end up not breastfeeding have no issue with advocating for BFing, and would agree that generally-speaking it's the best thing for babies. Many moms who had to quit or chose not to because of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders have been BF advocates themselves.
    It's just that some people go overboard, and will call out mothers for formula-feeding as though they are making a selfish choice, without knowing that some who do it are doing so for self-preservation or because they have to take medication that is contraindicated. You should hear the things that have been said to suffering moms, and how they've been treated. I know you wouldn't do that, but some people do. That can be very, very painful.

  8. As a Dad and husband I have been directly involved in post natal and clinical depression. This dark illness hit my wife 5-6wks after the birth of our 3rd child. Amongst the many effects of depression my wife experienced is that which you have described, super sensitivity to critism which can occur in mostly everyday stuff. Without going into detail I'd like to say that talking with my wife became a very difficult task during the bad, bad times. I had to think very carefully before I opened by mouth otherwise things went out of shape very quickly. Criticising or anything that could be interpreted as criticism had to be avoided.Sometimes I didn't have the patience to dance on egg shells all the time and didn't. Not the way to go. The point being that a usual conversation method didn't apply all the time and talking could be unpredictable. My wife, as do you and any others with depression, have a puzzle to solve here though. You see, no-one likes being criticised anyway; I don't. So where do you draw the line of sensitivity attributed to depression or just plain 'don't criticise me'? Depression seems to give usual behaviour an alternate meaning. Another frustration for the sufferer to endure. Your post is interesting and important because you talk of things that are real and have an impact on you that no-one else can see. That must be tough.

  9. "My husband will say something as harmless as, “Did the kids nap today?” and I will immediately jump to the conclusion that he is accusing me of being a bad mother because the kids didn’t get to sleep that day. I instantly go on the defensive, which nearly always ends in an argument, which ends in me crying and yelling."
    YES YES YES YES YES. I do this ALL the time. I love how you end— move the focus from you to the action. This post has provided me words to live by. THANK YOU, Alexis! <3

  10. Annie,
    As a woman who had to formula feed b/c of the meds for my PPD, I can say that while not offended by the BF advocates, I was often hurt by them. I agree that breastfeeding is the best choice IF IT WORKS–and there are thousand reasons why it can't, doesn't, won't, etc. So, as a formula mom who hasn't ever actually had anyone question or deride my choice, but has felt guilty at every turn…yes, I feel that your closing statement is accurate. My PPD caused me to believe that every poster in the OB office about the benefits of breastfeeding was a flashing neon sign that said "YOU SUCK AS A MOM."
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts– and for the understanding that you demonstrated in your conclusion.

  11. I love every time you write a post because I see so much of myself in you, and I don't feel so alone or crazy.

  12. At least a couple others mentioned the whole "walking on eggshells" analogy, and this is exactly what my husband said it was like when I was really struggling with my PPD. The simplest, most non-offensive comment could be taken by me as something insulting and very offensive, when – in reality – it was nothing close to that! For me, that's another symptom that things aren't going right. I'll over react or take things too personally. But, when things are going well and the anxiety/depression is managed, I can brush things off, see them more for what they actually are, and get over it faster if it really is something that upsets me.
    I'm glad you brought up this aspect of PPD because I feel like it's another area that doesn't get a lot of attention, much like the anger/irritability part of PPD.
    I love your idea of adopting a mantra before reacting with words!
    Thank you for another thought-provoking and honest post – you rock!

  13. I have always been a perfectionist all of my life so taking criticism is like taking a knife to my soul. However, PPD took it to a whole other scary level. For example, I attended a mom and babies class to help me cope with agoraphobia. My son still was in the throws of colic and no matter what I did to console him, none of it worked. So one of the moms in the group suggested I try XYZ and I took that as a criticism that I wasn't a good parent and I didn't know what I was doing. I cried for days afterwards.

  14. Alexis, Katherine, Heidi:
    I do know that there are people who are rude or insensitive to formula feeding moms and that has to stop. I would never accuse anyone of overreacting or being oversensitive to that.
    What I was referring to are the people who comment on my posts (which are not attacking formula feeding moms) and who interpret my advocacy and support of breastfeeding moms and my criticism of the unethical marketing practices of formula companies as a criticism of them for needing to or wanting to use formula.
    People read criticism between the lines that is not there and what I was trying to say with my comment is that perhaps that comes from the fact that PPD makes some moms hypersensitive to criticism (as pointed out in this post).

  15. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    I see what you mean. I totally don't interpret advocacy like yours as critical. We may feel criticized for the reasons Alexis states in her post, but it's not because certain advocates want us to, it's that we feel guilty and we may hear advocacy as criticism.
    This is why I try to hang out online only with people like you, who want to talk about these things and have open and positive dialog, rather than the trolls who don't care about anyone's feelings. Thanks for your comments Annie!

  16. My husband tells me this all the time (when I'm in a good mood, he's not stupid:)). He knows it's the PPD talking, but it's still hard for him not to be able to talk to me honestly. He actually used the term "walking on eggshells" as well. Either this means our husbands are doing some secret blogging on their own and have formed some sort of club, or we need to think of a new phrase to describe the phenomenon.

  17. Not alone, not crazy.

  18. I feel for you, Billy. Even though your wife is suffering immeasurably, you most definitely don't travel an easy road. Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment. It is husbands/dads like you who make the recovery process that much more possible for women with PPD.

  19. You're right, when I was in the midst of the worst of my PPD, there was no way I'd have been able to think of something like that on the spot. I've just made a few up and use them according to what the situation requires. Here are a couple others I have in rotation right now:
    "I've created a problem. I'm not the problem."
    "I made a mistake. I can fix a mistake."
    Not sure if that helps at all, but I'm always available via email if you'd like to talk about anything!
    alexistlesa@gmail.com

  20. God Alexis, ure posts have come at such a great time this week….U have no idea how much u have helped me! I think we are the same person, LOL!!! Thank you so much and I will try to use ure tactics. So happy u are sharing, it makes me feel like I am not alone…

  21. I definitely have this sensitivity to criticism when I am depressed. In fact, that's usually how I know I am depressed rather than just tired or cranky: someone's perfectly innocuous comment will set off a firestorm of paralyzing self-criticism in my head, and I'll drop whatever I was doing to obsess about it for hours.
    This sensitivity to criticism seems to go along with a general tendency to get "stuck in my head" over something. For example, while having an otherwise peaceful day it will suddenly become very important that I organize the kids' toys by age level, and I will start thinking about how Friend X or Relative Y's children's bedrooms are so much more organized. Or my daughter will regress with her toilet training, and I'll try to figure out what I'm doing wrong and what the "magic formula" is for fixing the problem. I just have a hard time being in the present and accepting what I can't control– it's like I'm trying to manufacture stress and crisis for myself!

  22. Wow. Thank you for this. I thought my PPD had ended almost a year ago, but by reading this I can see that it has not. This explains so many things! Thank you, thank you, thank you. Now I can get help instead of making so many drastic changes that I was planning. My whole family will benefit now.