“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh, Stepping into Freedom: Rules of Monastic Practice for Novices
When I was in the midst of my battle with postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, and postpartum OCD, I felt a lot of things. I felt turmoil, anger, sadness, rage, guilt, despair, hopelessness, frustration, numbness … I felt pretty much every negative emotion you can imagine and then some. Sometimes, I felt the lack of emotion, and that was just as bad if not worse. I felt like the world’s worst mother, a horrible wife, and an awful person in general. I felt like I was an utter and complete failure in every single way.
Unfortunately, I know that I am not alone in this. I wish that I were, but I’m not. I’ve talked to many other women who say “I feel/felt…” and list off so many awful things. Usually, they say they, too, feel like a bad mother. A monster. A failure. A bad wife. Sometimes it’s “I don’t feel anything, what kind of mother doesn’t feel anything?” It is a sad reality that perinatal mood and anxiety disorders distort your perception, and not just of the world around you but of yourself.
The good news is that these feelings are exactly that. They are only a distorted perception. Much like looking in a warped mirror will give an inaccurate and untrue reflection of the physical appearance of whoever is standing in front of the mirror, our feelings while we battle maternal mental illness do not necessarily reflect the truth of who we are or how we are. Listen to me, and listen carefully: Your negative feelings do not define you. You do not have to be what and how you feel.
Let’s take an example from one of my cats. He seems to think he’s part lap dog, part teddy bear, part lion. He regularly sits at the back window and stares out at the wild turkeys that are MUCH larger than he is, plotting ways that he can go outside and try to take one on. The truth of the matter is that those turkeys would probably use him as a plaything. He thinks he’s a mighty hunter but he’s a dainty house-cat who has spent maybe 10 minutes outside in his entire life. He thinks he’s a puppy but he’s a cat.
Just as my delightful cat (and he really is, I absolutely adore him) is not what he feels like, we don’t have to be what we feel either. I’m a good mother. I’m a good wife. I’m certainly not a failure. I am not my feelings. You aren’t either. You do not have to let your feelings define you. I can tell you right now, you’re a WONDERFUL person. You have a beautiful spirit. You’re a fantastic parent. You have so much worth. You are strong and powerful.
Now I know first-hand that when you’re in the thick of things it’s a lot easier to say that than it is to believe it. In case you need help holding on to the truth and keeping track of the fact that you’re awesome and your negative feelings are just a bad mirror, this is a trick that might help. Please note that there’s no guarantee but it has helped some people, so feel free to give it a try and see if it can benefit you. (Also note, this is SO not my idea, I borrowed it from other people, like the therapist I used to see).
Put positive affirmations on your bathroom mirror. Every morning and every night, say them out loud, and go read them when you feel low. Things like “I am unique. I am wonderful. I am loved. I am strong. I am a good mother. I am a success.” Use the positive words to remind yourself that you rock. Please note that I am NOT saying “You should just change your thinking and everything will be all better!” Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are not a matter of just having certain thinking patterns; all I’m saying is that sometimes hearing good things about ourselves, having a reminder that we have positive qualities, can help combat those nasty little bad feelings.
No matter what you feel, hold tight to the truth in the words of Thích Nhất Hạnh. Feelings come and go. They may be here now, but they will not always be. You do have to let them define you. You are not the nasty things that perinatal mood and anxiety disorders tell you you are. You are wonderful things. You are lovely, lovable and loved. You are you. And you are a better you than anyone else could come up with.