When Motherhood Isn’t What You Thought It Would Be
“Why am I so bad at this?”
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Why don’t I feel that overwhelming loving feeling toward her? Is there something wrong with me?”
These are the thoughts that raced through my mind as I was sobbing at 2 a.m., trying to rock my 4-week-old baby girl back to sleep.
I’ve always wanted to be a mom. As a kid, if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered, “a mom.” In friend groups, I’ve always been the “mom” to everyone. When I thought about motherhood, I felt totally confident and prepared to become a mother.
But the day she was born, all those things I thought would come naturally never came. And even now, 3 months into it, I’m still struggling with those late-night thoughts.
Let me clarify something before you get any further — I’m not here to give you any advice. I can’t share a list of steps to help you out of these feelings because I’m still in it myself. And I don’t have it figured out (not even close), but I can offer you this: You’re not alone. I see you.
And I see you questioning yourself and your baby, wondering if you’ll make it through this in one piece, struggling to understand how different motherhood is than how you thought it would be. And I’ve realized, for me at least, that these feelings aren’t just rooted in sadness or sleep deprivation, but grief.
Grieving What Used to Be and Accepting the New
After my husband, my daughter, and I survived those first 3 weeks of postpartum and the fog *somewhat* lifted, I had this unshakeable feeling that the Caroline I had known 3 weeks earlier was gone. The super type-A, confident, reliable person I had been was just upheaved, and a new life — a new person — had just begun. And while I was told to enjoy it, to celebrate having “mother” as my number one descriptor, and to lean into this person I was becoming, I couldn’t do it. I liked the person I used to be and the life I had before motherhood. I didn’t want anything to change. But it had to.
I’ve grieved things as they used to be. I can no longer be on-call for everyone’s every need. I can’t go out with friends at the drop of a hat. No more snuggling on the couch every night with my husband and our dog. Heck, even the clothes I wore no longer fit, and they probably never will. Now, everything revolves around a feeding and sleeping schedule. I have to look for childcare, turn down calls and visits, and set firm boundaries with friends and family.
Maybe you’ve changed careers, or maybe you’ve given up your job to stay home with your baby. And maybe you’ve felt ostracized by family and friends because of this transition into motherhood. Regardless of what your life as a mom looks like, we all have to mourn the life we had before our little ones came into our lives. For good and not so good, things will never be the same.
Grieving Who I Thought I Would Be
There is this second aspect of grief that has taken me nearly 3 months to understand. It’s this feeling that I’m not the kind of mom I always thought I would be. My whole life, I envisioned this fun, adventurous mom dancing in the kitchen with her kids. But when my daughter was born and struggled to eat and refused to sleep, I thought I would lose my mind. That vision of the energetic mom quickly disappeared, and what felt like a shell of a person took her place.
For over two months, there was rarely a day without a breakdown from me, my husband, and our baby. It has been hard to bond with and love on my daughter and nearly impossible to feel close to my husband. At times I’ve felt like I just can’t do it anymore.
*I want to take a second here to say something that needs to be said. Since the very beginning, I’ve been in conversations with my doctor to monitor Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Anxiety symptoms. Since 1 in 7 women experience PPD, I was very aware that this was a possibility for me. It is always a good idea to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms or have any concerns. For more resources on Postpartum Mental Health, check out: Postpartum Support International. You can also call the PSI Helpline at 1-800-944-4773 (#1 En Español or #2 English) or TEXT: 503-894-9453 (English) or 971-420-0294 (Español).*
I’ve felt stuck in a never-ending cycle of trying to force myself into who I am “supposed to be,” then breaking down when that pressure is too much for me to handle. After the first 10 weeks of this, I gave up. I stopped trying to force that image on myself and started trying to accept the mother I am right now. This doesn’t mean I can’t learn and grow as my baby girl learns and grows — that will always be my goal.
But I want you to hear this: It’s ok to rest in who you are right now. Take the pressure off yourself to be the mom you feel like you’re supposed to be. Ignore the people who tell you to enjoy every moment, because not every moment is enjoyable. If no one else has, I want to tell you that it’s ok to need a break, to ask for help before you get desperate, and to be honest when people ask, “Don’t you just love being a mom??”
I know it gets better. But until it does, I don’t want to pretend that I’m loving this stage. People give new moms an unrealistic expectation to immediately bond with their baby, to be joyful about the many challenges of motherhood, and to appreciate all the fleeting stages their child will go through.
But what happens when none of that feels possible? Most new moms are left to wonder if there’s something wrong with them. But I firmly believe that these feelings of grief are ok to process through. I’m content with where I am right now. But I’m also looking forward to growing into the mother I know I can be. And I’m ready to take this journey one baby step at a time.
What They Don’t Tell You About Postpartum Depression
6 Ways A Husband Can Support His Wife Through Postpartum Depression
What You Need to Know About Disenfranchised Grief
Grief is a response to loss. It’s characterized by feelings of sadness, hopelessness, depression, numbness, anger, and guilt. The goal of successful grief resolution is to reestablish emotional balance. Not everyone grieves the same things or expresses their grief in the same way. And then there’s what we call “disenfranchised grief.” (You probably know what it is, and you may have even felt it, but you might not know what to call it.)
Recognizing that loss comes in many forms has been one positive thing we’ve taken away from the pandemic. For example, loss of:
- A prom or graduation
- A dream wedding
- Funeral attendance
- Family reunions
- Other gatherings
People are more aware of “disenfranchised grief” now. Still, it’s helpful for us to think beyond the pandemic to other commonly overlooked losses. That way, we can support those suffering from them.
Understanding Disenfranchised Grief:
- Grief that isn’t typically recognized by societal norms and/or lacks cultural expression.
- Grief that is often minimized, invalidated, stigmatized, marginalized, or misunderstood.
★ Disenfranchised grief (DG) leaves individuals to process their loss on their own or in secret. They lack the supportive benefits available to people whose losses are more socially accepted, expected, acknowledged, or understood. Often, people tell those in distress, “You didn’t even know them that well,” or “Move on,” or “Get over it.”
Even if we don’t understand it or agree with it, it doesn’t make the pain any less. The pain is REAL.
Examples of losses that are frequently disenfranchised include:
- death of an “ex,” an absent sibling or parent
- loss of someone who was not a “blood relative”
- loss of a co-worker or pet
- an adoption that fell through
- loss of possessions, loss of location due to a relocation or move
- loss of mobility or health, loss of a body part
- infertility, miscarriage, stillborn child
- incarceration of a friend or family member
- deaths due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, suicide*, or overdose
- loss of personality due to dementia, etc.
Frequently, the loss itself may not be disenfranchised, but the manner in which an individual grieves may be.
Those around them may criticize the length of their grieving process or the form their grief takes. Societies and cultures can have “unwritten rules” when it comes to grief. People often question, criticize, or invalidate expressions outside those “rules.” These things can complicate the grieving process.
For many circumstances that individuals experience, there is no “race for the cure,” support group, lapel ribbon, hotline, celebrity fundraiser, foundation, or “public awareness” campaign. There may not even be a Hallmark card for it. This doesn’t mean that feelings of grief are invalid or illegitimate.
Often, people don’t even know they are experiencing DG, let alone know how to work through it.
Instead, people have a tendency to minimize or invalidate their loss by comparing it to what a person (or society) believes is a “legitimate” loss.
Disenfranchised Grief. They say if you can name it, you can tame it. It might begin by being honest with yourself, admitting you’re grieving, and not feeling guilty about it.
Stop faking smiles. Then find some support. The people around you are probably more than willing to help you. They just might not recognize your “outside the box” loss.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help or to utilize resources like The Grief Recovery Method.
For those of us who may know someone experiencing DG, support might begin by expanding our definitions of “loss” and “grief.” We can follow up by making ourselves available to those who are hurting and grieving. We can listen and empathetically validate their sense of loss.
About 2.5 million people die in the United States each year. They all leave an average of five grieving people behind. Not all those grieving people grieve the same.
If we can expand our perspective on grief, we can expand our support to those who are grieving. People are hurting, and we can help.
*If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, there are a number of websites and organizations with excellent resources for you. HelpGuide is a great place to start, along with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
OTHER HELPFUL BLOGS:
How to Help Your Child Deal With Grief
6 Things You Can Do to Help a Child Who Is Grieving the Death of a Parent
4 Ways You Can Help Someone Who Is Grieving the Death of a Loved One
How to Help Someone Who Is Grieving the Death of a Spouse
Supporting a friend who’s grieving the death of a loved one is often awkward. When they are mourning the passing of their spouse, it’s especially tough. What do you say? What can you do? How do you provide support without being intrusive, offensive, or just saying the wrong things? While there is no pain like losing one’s husband or wife, knowing some things about the grieving process can inform you how you can help someone grieving the death of a spouse.
Remember what grief is.
Grief is usually associated with pain, and nobody wants to see their friend hurting. So we typically respond (often subconsciously) with the hope of taking away the pain. I think that’s why many people try to say comforting things that turn out to be awkward. They’re trying to alleviate the pain that simply cannot be alleviated at that time. It’s the necessary process of working through a loss. A person who experiences loss has to grieve because that’s how you work through the loss. Remember that every person grieves at their own pace, in their own time, in different waves and intensities of emotions. Supporting someone who’s grieving the death of their spouse means walking with them in their grief at their pace.
Sometimes your silent presence is the only support your friend needs at the time, especially at the beginning of the loss.
Often, grieving family members are in a state of shock the first couple of weeks (and sometimes longer). When my dad passed away, I honestly can’t remember anything that was said to me at the funeral. But I do remember who was there by my side, and it still means the world to me today. Presence often speaks volumes.
In the following weeks and months, be proactive to reach out.
After a week or so, people distant from the loss have moved on, unaware that the grieving spouse is far from it. This is when they may find themselves most alone, ironically, when they are more open (and less in shock) to talk with others. Continue to check in with your friend regularly. Set a reminder on your phone. This could be a good time to ask how they are holding up, how they’ve been feeling, and what you can do to help (questions that typically don’t make much sense in the first few days of the loss).
Understand a person who loses their spouse will always be in some state of grief. It doesn’t mean they’ll always feel pain.
But they’ll be processing life without this person for as long as they live. Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries will always prompt memories. A song, a scene on TV, or a particular meal will cause emotions to well up, even years down the road. As a friend, be conscious of this. Don’t be afraid to ask about what these things meant to them and their spouse. Allow them to share as much as they’d like. Processing loss is often done through these kinds of situations, memories, or objects.
Finally, remember: grief is uncomfortable. The process is rarely easy. And it’s going to be uncomfortable for you, the friend who wants to help. Supporting your friend means wading into the discomfort and the pain with them, sometimes in silence and sometimes with encouragement, knowing that the process is healthy and intensity won’t last. That is being truly helpful, and I commend you for your loyalty to your grieving friend who is dealing with the death of their spouse.
Other blogs you might find helpful:
How to Prevent Depression from Affecting Your Child
I was a depressed child.
It’s sort of a long story. But that part of my life prompted me to better understand mental health and how to prevent issues with depression, especially when it came to my own kids.
Because let’s face it—when our children hurt, we hurt.
And there’s a certain balance we have to strike as parents: we have to understand there is always the possibility for depression to rear its ugly head in our kids, while at the same time remembering there are practical ways to decrease the likelihood that it will.
I want to give you three skills you can teach your children.
Skill #1: Know Thyself.
As parents, it’s good to understand some of the risk factors involved with depression in children:
- There is a history of depression or other emotional struggles in the immediate family.
- The child experienced any earlier traumas or chronic illness.
- There is substance or alcohol abuse in the family.
These factors increase the chances that a child could experience struggles with depression.
No need to freak out here. Nor is there reason to try and diagnose anything. We simply need to be aware of the possibility and let that motivate our diligence to maintain good mental health in both our kids and us.
It’s good for younger kids to begin to understand their feelings. Help your child put a name to their emotions. Feelings are still a new thing for kids. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat with my own children, talking out just what it was they were feeling inside: I’m not mad, maybe a little sad, kind of embarrassed, but I’m not sure.
When your child can name feelings, they can begin to manage them.
Skill #2: Care for yourself.
The Big-3 of self-care practices are sleep, exercise, and diet.
Be sure your kids are getting plenty of rest at night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 9-11 hours of sleep each night for 6 to 13-year-olds.
Kids also need plenty of physical activity and outside time. This is important for physical and brain development that directly affects emotional regulation. Sunshine boosts serotonin in the brain, which counteracts depressive states.
Avoiding processed sugars and having a cleaner diet also helps kids regulate their moods while improving sleep quality and activity levels.
Skill #3: Connect with those who love you.
The CDC says connection is a key to protecting the mental health of kids. Do what you can to keep your relationship strong. (Here are some conversation starters to help you connect!)
Be sure you are spending plenty of quality and quantity time with your child. Engage with them in meaningful conversation. Include them in your world. Remind them every day how much you love them and that you’ll be there for them, no matter what. Encourage them to come to you when they need you. When they know you are on their side, your child will be much more empowered to manage strong emotions like depression.
One last thing: your kids need your example. You want your child to have confidence that they can work through emotional struggle. This is difficult for a kid to come by if you don’t regulate your own emotions, care for yourself, and seek help when you need it. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help for yourself or any family member who can’t seem to shake depression; we all need help like this at times.
You know what it’s like to struggle with your emotions. We know our kids will wrestle with theirs at some point. It’s part of life. Let’s be sure our kids are equipped to handle their feelings, so their feelings don’t handle them. Begin some skill-building this week and keep it going. And don’t forget to stay connected!
Is Your Child Depressed?
As a parent, you’re constantly looking for things that can harm your child. Remember the “baby-proofing” you did? If you’re anything like me, you actually got on the floor to scope out things that could potentially harm your little one. Well, as they grow, so does your intuition. Maybe you’ve got a “gut feeling” that something is going on, which can be more challenging to handle. You start to see new behaviors or don’t see actions you’re used to seeing. You may wonder, “Is my child depressed?”
Facts on Childhood Depression
It’s common for kids to feel all kinds of emotions due to family situations. For example, a loved one’s death or moving away from friends and family may cause sadness and grief. But because there’s a range of severity in depression, it’s essential to know the difference between simply being sad and being clinically depressed.
According to the CDC, 3.2% of children ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with depression. Your child’s pediatrician can be an excellent resource for you.
How You Can Help
First, strengthen your relationship with your child by communicating. Instead of doing most of the talking, ask questions and listen to what’s happening in their lives. Be curious about their friends, school, and social media. If your child has been through any significant changes, give them space to process. Still, continue to monitor what they watch on television or streaming services and what they search for online. Pay attention to their sleeping and eating habits. (Read How to Prevent Depression From Affecting Your Child.)
Signs to Look For (from CDC website)
Depressed children show several behaviors that are pretty consistent and persistent over time. According to the CDC, the actions include:
- Feeling sad, hopeless, or irritable a lot of the time
- Not wanting to do or enjoy doing fun things
- Showing changes in eating patterns – eating a lot more or a lot less than usual
- Showing changes in sleep patterns – sleeping a lot more or a lot less than normal
- Having a hard time paying attention
- Showing changes in energy – being tired and sluggish or tense and restless a lot of the time
- Feeling worthless, useless, or guilty
- Showing self-injury and self-destructive behavior
(Please note: This list is ONLY for your awareness, Some of these symptoms may be part of normal development. Think growth spurt, hormones, etc.) This list is not for you to diagnose to confirm or deny what your “gut” feeling told you.
How to Get Help
Perhaps you’ve monitored your child and kept an eye on their screen activity/social media. And now, you recognize that they have shown behaviors from that CDC list over time. What do you do?
First, call your child’s primary care provider. Your child’s doctor can help rule out any physical causes like low Vitamin D, anemia, or something else. Your pediatrician may do a behavioral screening.
If nothing physical is going on, seeking out a mental health professional who specializes in children might be your next step. Your pediatrician can recommend what to do and where to go from there.
Parenting is the most challenging job on the planet. You feel totally responsible for another person. You feel the need to protect your child from anything that can hurt or harm them. But when you can’t do that, you may feel guilty, like it’s your fault that this thing happened or that you’re a terrible parent.
I’ve been there, too. But here’s the deal: we can’t control or prevent anything from happening in our child’s life, no matter how hard we try. If there’s a problem, the best thing we can do is get them the help they need.
As you begin this journey, your child needs you to be their touchstone. Surrounding yourself with loving, supportive friends and family can build up your strength, but if it comes down to it, seek your own professional help. Continue to care for your own body by making sure you’re exercising, getting enough sleep, and eating right. You have what it takes to support your child.
Sometimes life just seems to be getting harder. For many, most days feel like slogging through thick fog and it’s really hard to see the road ahead.
Perhaps you or someone you know is really struggling at the moment and you’re wondering if the sadness is due to a single life circumstance or if something bigger is going on like depression or some other mental health issue.
First, let me just say, you’re not alone! We’re living in a moment in time where everything—marriage, parenting, work, socializing with friends, even the most normal things—seem more difficult than they should be for many people.
Second, regardless of whether you or someone you care about is sad or dealing with something else, the good news is, help is available.
Sad? Depressed? How do you know the difference?
Glad you asked!
Feeling sad and down about things like job loss, finances, marital issues, a child giving you a run for your money, or a breakup is normal for a period of time. But, when you:
- Can’t seem to shake those feelings and you begin to feel hopeless and desperate;
- It feels impossible to think clearly;
- Making a decision seems out of your reach;
- Work is consistently challenging;
- Things that used to bring you joy in life don’t anymore;
- Food doesn’t interest you or you are eating way more than normal; and
- You’re either not sleeping enough or you are sleeping all the time and still feel like you don’t get enough rest.
These are like blinking caution lights warning you something is not right. There are some things you might be able to do to help move you to a different place, though.
Here Are 5 Ways to Work Through Depression
1. Surround yourself with a supportive group of friends.
Not necessarily people who are experiencing the same thing you are, but people who seem to be mentally and emotionally healthy right now. Ask them to walk this road with you and help hold you accountable for changes you’re trying to make.
2. Create a new bedtime routine.
Lying in bed watching television or scrolling through social media doesn’t count as rest. Stop all screen time at least an hour before you plan to get some shut-eye. If silence makes it hard for you to sleep, download a white noise app or purchase a white noise machine. Maybe you could try a simple fan in your room. Don’t use your bed for anything other than sleeping… and well, those things that you typically do in bed (like sex). Otherwise, keep your bedroom as kind of a safe place where your body knows it’s time to relax and rest.
3. Get moving.
Exercise has been shown to be one of the BEST ways to combat depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise releases feel-good hormones that can make you feel better about yourself. It also can help you get out of the negative thought cycle that feeds depression. Exercising on the regular can give you more confidence, it’s something you can do with others and it is a super positive way to cope with and manage depression. Don’t forget, being outside, getting enough vitamin D, drinking plenty of water, and fueling your body with healthy foods are all powerful weapons for fighting depression.
4. Pay attention to how much news and negative information you take in every day.
Remember, the motto for the newsroom is, “If it leads, it bleeds.” Their whole goal is to be sensational to draw you in. The more you are drawn in, the more it will affect you. It’s a vicious cycle. Your brain doesn’t know it’s the fifth time you’ve seen information about the plane crash, murder, latest political blunder, or car wreck. All of this impacts you mentally and physically whether you realize it or not. Put a time limit on how much news you watch. The same applies to social media.
5. Eliminate as much stress as possible.
Think through all you have on your plate. Is there anything you can let go of for a while to reduce the stress in your life? If you can’t let go of certain activities, can you ask others to help you?
In addition to doing all of these things, be bold and ask for professional help. Plenty of counselors are providing telecounseling and Zoom sessions right now. If you don’t know where to look for help, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline is 1-800-662-4357.
If you’re worried about someone you care about, don’t be afraid to step up and say, “I see you. How can I help?” Guiding them through all the above is a great place to start if they’re open to your support.
Photo by Inzmam Khan from Pexels
What is your teen asking you about the future? Do you have answers?
“What am I gonna do about school and soccer, Dad?” my 14-year-old son asked me. I didn’t know. I’d been asking myself the same questions for weeks and didn’t have any answers. It feels like new information comes out every day that undermines my decisions. Everything feels tentative. The future feels like a collection of shreds and patches.
The last few months have left the foreseeable teen future uncertain. Your teen may be feeling a lot of anxiety: What will school look like? Will I be able to get a part-time job, play sports, play my favorite instrument in the band? What about prom and graduation?
And don’t forget their favorite part of school—seeing their friends. There’s so much unknown for them to process.
Don’t forget, they are old enough to wonder about your adult future and the family’s future. You may feel secure about your job situation, your finances, the health of family members—and something like divorce may be totally out of the question. This doesn’t stop your teen from worrying about those things.
All of these unknowns can easily translate into anxiety, stress, and depression for your teenager. (They can for us adults, too.)
When it comes to the important things in life, we all prefer certainty to uncertainty. But our adult brains are developmentally better suited to live with some uncertainty than our teen’s brain is. Their brain is still developing and processing so many unknowns (that they are invested in) can be particularly difficult for them. How can we help them?[Read this blog that describes what is happening to teens developmentally.]
1. Model The Behaviors And Attitudes You Want For Your Teen
- Self-Care: Tending to your physical health and emotional health.
- Mindfulness: Deep breaths. Self-awareness. Focus.
- Critical Thinking: Decisions based on the most reliable information.
- Optimism: “We are going to come out on the other side even stronger.”
- Resilience: “We are going to take it one day at a time as a family.”
- Gratitude: “We still have a lot to be thankful for…”
- Service: “How can we help others who are struggling?”
These are all things that your young adult needs to navigate uncertainties they will encounter as future adults.
2. Acknowledge When The Future Is Unknown & When You Just Don’t Know
We want to have answers for our teens and they often expect us to have them. It can be tempting to try to “fake it” or give the answer we think will make them feel better in the moment. Besides being disingenuous, in the long run, it will undermine their confidence in you. You don’t want to be seen as a source of false hope and misinformation.
It is totally appropriate (and honest) to admit it when we don’t know. Saying something like, “I don’t have enough information yet to confidently make a wise decision about that,” doesn’t undermine your trustworthiness and reliability; It enhances it. Your teen can relax (hopefully) and know that when you do make a decision it will be based on the best information and what’s best for the family.
3. Become A Student Of Your Teen
Be on the lookout for the ways your teen might be struggling with anxiety and stress and depression. A very talkative teen may become quiet. A very quiet teen might become talkative. A normally social teen may become withdrawn. A teen that normally keeps to themselves might suddenly become a social butterfly. Look for any changes in their normal behavior.
Keep in mind that sometimes teens deal with difficult emotions in unhealthy ways. Be on the lookout for outbursts, disrespect, risky, or harmful behavior. Watch their eating and sleeping habits. As you address their behavior, be sure to address what the real issue may be underneath it.
4. Be Open And Create Space For Your Teen To Express Their Anxiety
Teens will often “show” you when they are struggling before they will “tell” you they are struggling, but there are things you can do to keep the lines of communication open:
- Make sure your teen knows you have an “open door” policy and that they can talk to you about anything, anytime.
- Take advantage of car rides and other times you are alone with your teen that don’t feel like you are angling for a “big talk.” Teens often open up when you are doing something else, like cooking or watching television.
- It’s okay to ask questions like, “How are you feeling about school this year?” Then practice active listening skills.
- Don’t “freak out” at what you hear. Keep that poker face.
- Don’t ask a million questions, probe gently, empathize, and be a good listener.
5. Recognize When You Are Out Of Your Depth And Get Your Teen Help
Anxiety, stress, depression, and anger are significant and often complex problems—especially in the lives of teens. It is totally appropriate and necessary for you as a parent to recognize when you have reached the limits of how you can help your teen. Don’t stop there. Reach out for help. Contact a counselor.
The unknown is, well, unknown. It is normal to experience fear and anxiety concerning the unknown. There are lots of things that your teen cares deeply about that are just flat out up in the air at the moment. Don’t feel bad that you can’t make the unknown “knowable” for your teen. Model how to face the unknown, be there for your teen, and keep putting one foot in front of the other until the unknown becomes known.
What to Do When Everything Feels Hopeless
I wish I could just give you hope. I can tell you where I’ve found mine, but you have to find your own. Now, I know you realize that and I’m sure you’ve looked for it and the pain multiplies when you look for it and come up empty. Nobody wants to feel hopeless. But when everything feels hopeless, hope is closer than you may think. Way closer. I know because I have gone from hopeless to hopeful and I understand that it’s an ongoing battle. But the battle is between my ears.
It’s a battle to control how I think.
I always pay attention to what disappoints or frustrates people and what makes them angry or sad. It reveals where they were placing their hope. You get disappointed, sad, or mad if your best friend doesn’t return any of your texts because you were hoping you meant more to them. You hoped you were best friends. And you invested some hope in that relationship. Now, you have a little less hope. You’ve become a little more hope-less.
Maybe you never framed it like that before.
There’s plenty going on in the world at the moment that can be disappointing, infuriating, or saddening. Makes it easy to feel hopeless. I was gonna list a bunch of things, but you live on the same planet. I’ll just share this, my adult son the other night looked straight at me and said, “Dad, it feels like the end of the world.” He was totally serious.
There could be plenty going on in your personal world that is keeping you from being hopeful. Your marriage or love life, parenting, your friends, and job situation. And let’s not leave out your worries about your physical health or finances.
1. Recognize where you are placing your hopes.
It’s been helpful for me to recognize where I’m placing my hopes and be careful about it. I don’t place my hope in things I can’t control.
I don’t place my hope in my wife, my kids, my friends, or my family. That might sound strange. Don’t get me wrong. I love my wife, my kids, and my friends and family. They bring joy and meaning to my life. But I can’t put all my hope in them. Beyond it not being fair to put all my hope on them, something could happen tomorrow that changes everything. I can’t control them, but I can control myself. I can influence those relationships with my choices—I can use my best relationship skills so there will be a better chance of those areas of my life being healthy and bringing me fulfillment and true meaningful joy. But relationships involve two people, and I can only control one of them—me.
Now think pandemics, the Stock Market, tornados, some rando that drinks and drives, social unrest across the country, global politics—I don’t have any real influence with this stuff. Totally out of my control. Not getting any of my hopes up. So, they can’t take away any of my hope and make me hope-less.
2. Ask before you hope: Is this something I can control, influence, or is it totally out of my control?
Psychologists have some useful terms here: External Locus of Control (ELC) vs. an Internal Locus of Control (ILC). People with a strong internal locus of control believe their choices matter and affect their quality of life. People with a strong external locus of control believe that other people, their environment, or their situation are what accounts for their success or failure and ultimately—their happiness. You didn’t get that promotion you wanted. ILC people think about if they were qualified for it or that maybe they should have worked harder; ELC people blame management and their co-workers who kept them from getting that promotion. ILC people focus on what they can control—themselves. ELC focus on what’s out of their control—everything BUT themselves.
You want to place your hopes in what you can control. That really just leaves YOU.
3. Expectations are everything.
Weird question: have you ever picked up a drink that you thought was water, but it turned out to be Sprite or something? You know that little jolt you felt with the first sip? You know what that’s about? Expectations. Expectations are everything in life. Sometimes feeling hopeless is a sign that our expectations were way off in the first place.
We may have gotten our hopes up or put them in the wrong place.
I’m a huge movie lover. My town used to have a regular movie theater and a $1 theater. If I took my wife on a date to the regular movie theater, that’s $30 just for tickets. Add in drinks, snacks, and paying the babysitter and you have an expensive night out. One day, I recognized I expected more from those movies than the movies I saw at the $1 theater. I was more critical when I was more invested and had high expectations. I was way more likely to be disappointed by a movie at the regular theater than a movie at the $1 theater. It seemed that no matter what, a movie at the $1 theater was at least “okay” and I had a good time.
I had less invested at the $1 theater, so my expectations were lower and I was rarely disappointed. When I was spending close to $100 to see a movie with my wife at the regular theater, I had higher expectations, because I was literally more invested in the experience, and was “let down” by a lot of the movies I saw there. ✭There were even times I saw a movie at the regular theater and didn’t think it was all that great BUT I saw the same movie again a month later at the $1 theater (why not?) and enjoyed it so much more. I was less invested in it so I adjusted my expectations. I didn’t feel let down and I had a good time. But, it was the same movie. What changed? I did. ✭
Hope works in a similar way. Keep those expectations in check. Watch where you invest.
4. Train Your Brain.
Just like athletes rely on training, practice, and muscle memory to be successful in their sport, you have to train your brain and put in the practice and develop “thinking memory” or good thinking habits. This will help you be successful in the game of life. We have to be careful with what we look for in life because our brains will find it and give us the feelings that go with it. If you’ve trained your brain to look for what’s wrong or negative about everything—your brain will find it and give you the feelings that go with it. If you train your brain to look for what’s right, what’s positive about everything—your brain will find that, too, and deliver all the feelings that go with it.
✦ Some people complain that roses have thorns.
✦ Some people are thankful that thorns have roses.
So, how do you train your brain to see what’s going right with you and your life?
How do you cultivate healthy thinking habits? Start in one place, looking for one thing and then check out the feelings that come with it. Start with you and your life. Take a couple of deep breaths. Let yourself be calm and quiet and undistracted. Now think of five things you have that you should be grateful for and why.
I’ll get you started—you’re alive! Not everybody can say that. That should feel good. Now you keep going. What should you be thankful for? What are big and little tiny things you should be grateful for? They are there! Train your thoughts to look for them every day.
Keep a Gratitude Journal and spend more time there than on social media or watching the news.
I told you hope was nearby. Hope is closer than you think. Hope is how you think.
✦ National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 988 or 1-800-273-8255