Tips for the parenthood-rollercoaster ride

(Sponsored post by Waterwipes)

What a rollercoaster parenthood is! However, a quick scroll through social media would often have us believe that we’re the only ones sitting on this hair-raising ride. It seems like comparison is king and we often feel like we’re the only ones winging it. I’m going to share my top parenting tips, both as a Psychotherapist and as mum of three.

In May, I was honoured to be asked to host and talk at a parents breakfast organised by WaterWipes for its new #ThisIsParenthood global project. Not only have I used WaterWipes’ super pure wipes for all three of my children (bye cotton wool and water), but I was really touched by the #ThisIsParenthood documentary, produced by the talented BAFTA nominated Lucy Cohen. Have you watched it? Here’s the link if you haven’t – grab a cuppa and a spare 15 minutes. The documentary shows a rare and candid insight into the realities of family life with a newborn, detailing some of the challenges that punctuate this crazy, special and map-less time. When WaterWipes showed us parents the footage during the breakfast, there wasn’t a single dry eye…I think due to the fact that, ultimately, we are all just trying to do our best! Sometimes we feel like we are scrambling around in the dark, sometimes we’re winging it, sometimes we’re smashing it (momentarily for me at least), but #ThisisParenthood.

WaterWipes yearns to shift the conversation around parenthood by encouraging us parents to be more open about the highs and lows that come with it. As a Psychotherapist, I am hugely supportive of this initiative as openness and honesty are the turning points to every single one of my clients’ stories.

A global study by WaterWipes revealed:

  • 55% of parents feel like they are failing within the first year (British parents being the second highest country (62%)
  • Almost a quarter (24%) feel like film, TV and advertising contribute to this
  • Nearly half (42%) of UK parents feel the pressure to be a ‘perfect parent’ on social media
  • Nearly half (41%) of UK parents feel they can’t be honest about their struggles due to fear of judgment
  • A huge 50% of parents admit to putting a brave face on rather than being honest about their experience
  • UK mums are twice more likely than dads to feel pressure to be a perfect parent from social media (51% vs 27%)
  • 49% of UK parents feel as though they cannot relate to the parenting images they see on social media
  • Across the world. 68% of parents wish there were more honest representations of parenting on social media

If only these results could shock me…but sadly, they didn’t. I receive messages on social media from 200-400 parents a day who feel like they are failing, or like they are alone in their struggles. Like WaterWipes, I am desperate for us to call a truce on this whole pretence. Yes, of course we will continue to share the highs, the smiles and the cute snaps. However, in order to shift this culture of toxic comparison, we all need to be a little more mindful that what we see, isn’t all there is.

Working with WaterWipes for #ThisIsParenthood was such a pleasure, and for those of you who couldn’t join us on the Instagram live, I thought I’d share the words I spoke:

 

My story

After my textbook pregnancy, birth and then newborn experience with my first little boy, I enjoyed the coffees and the relatively calm play dates. We laughed about our incessant Googling (ps. Dr Google is NOT your friend) and shared our thoughts on routines, and our moans about lack of sleep.

However, my experience with my second was vastly different. He came hurtling into the world wailing, and didn’t stop for a solid nine months. Undiagnosed silent reflux, tongue-tie, and less sleep at night than a nocturnal mouse – I fell into a messy post-natal depression. As a therapist myself, it challenged me greatly that despite all of my training, I couldn’t seem to find the strength to pull myself out of the black hole. It was at this time, during our largely wakeful nights, that I downloaded Instagram. I scrolled mindlessly through images of happy mothers, seemingly thriving newborns with scrumptious chubby legs. I compared their lives to my grey eyed, constantly crying (him and me), chronically sleep deprived (him and me) existence, and the sense of failure felt even greater. With my first, I felt like I was winging it. With my second, I felt like I couldn’t put a single, faltering step right.

I made it through, and the key to that was the moment that I couldn’t hold up the pretence any longer. It was the moment I put my hands up and said #ThisIsParenthood for me. This is MY parenthood. And I found that my openness inspired the openness of others, and suddenly, I wasn’t alone anymore. And that changed everything.

So, I’ll share the words I shared at the breakfast. Why do we often feel like we’re failing? And what do we do about it?

 

Why?

Why do we often feel like we’re not enough? Why do we get so drawn into the half-stories of other people’s portrayal of their parenting experiences and feel led to believe that in comparison, we’re not doing quite so well?

From the conversations we had around the breakfast table at the brunch, I was so reminded of the truth that we’re all just trying to do our best at this parenthood lark, yet we all feel like we’re failing. Why? Expressions like ‘I hated myself for working’, ‘mum guilt’, ‘mummy fail’, ‘helpless’ were thrown around under pictures of our plates of pancakes and greek yogurt, as if they were permanent fixtures of our vocabulary. Are we really failing? Or are we just trying our best but being insanely hard on ourselves?

We are hardwired to compare ourselves with what we see in others. If we don’t have an inbuilt belief that we are ‘enough’ as parents, then we will naturally look outside of ourselves to get a measure of how we are doing. The issue is, what we see around us is often isn’t the full truth. We compare our behind the scenes, with what other people curate and share of their lives. If I compare my wobbly morning with someone’s #blessed photo of a serene breakfast with spotless kids, of course I’m going to find myself lacking. We so easily see other people’s snapshots and assume that that’s how their life is.

I remember that during one of my hardest parenting times, I strolled down the street pushing a double buggy towards a playgroup, wearing super-sized sunglasses in the blazing July heat. Any onlooker might have thought ‘Wow, look at that mum of two small children. She’s smashing it!’ The reality was that my glasses hid my tear-stained eyes, and nobody witnessed the conversation I’d had with my husband moments before. As I sat on my kitchen floor with two screaming children, I told him that ‘I can’t do this’. I meant it.

If we’re all in the same boat, how can we make sure that we stop feeling like we’re sailing alone? I’m going to share three tips that could shift this for ourselves. Because, really #ThisIsParenthood. It’s brilliant, and hard, and messy and wonderful.

 

What now?

Openness

Openness inspires openness. I remember meeting with my antenatal friends. The first time someone said that they were finding it hard, or arguing with their husbands over night feeds, or finding the bonding a struggle…it opened up a conversation. Sometimes there was an actual visible air of relief as people started to talk about the not-so-fun, challenging parts of parenting. One person’s disclosure gave the rest of us permission to share our true experiences.

Take little risks of openness. Be the conversation starter if you can. I always encourage my therapy clients to engage with at least two friends, family members or professionals who understand the reality of their circumstances. Talk to those who have a history of being kind and understanding towards you. It can feel challenging to start the conversation at first, but it gets easier, and often it inspires others to open up too.

 

So often, we fear that if we portray anything other than the highlights, we’d become a burden to people. Think of how honoured and how much closer to someone you feel when they open up to you! It’s an acceptance of love and friendship, and you’re just as worthy of the support of others as they are of yours.

 

Accepting support

Ask for help where you need it. Whether it’s practical, emotional, professional, online, offline, paid, unpaid. Asking for and accepting support is a statement of worth. You have to believe that you’re worth the support of others, which is why I encourage people to take little steps with this. It gets easier. It’s vital to thriving. Sometimes it really does take a village.

 

Self-care

Self-care is important. It’s not always about the huge gestures – the manicures, the long workouts, the massages. It’s also about attending to and meeting your basic needs. Listen to your body, look after it when you’re hungry. Drink water, get an early night when you can. It’s the little gestures that build up your self-worth. You wouldn’t let your child go hungry or thirsty, because you value their needs. You also need to value yours.

Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s about fuelling the car and respecting that it can’t function if it’s empty. Neither can you. I used to feel that self-care was indulgent and I didn’t feel worth it. Now I can clearly see how my family fully benefits from me not being burnt out and resentful of anyone who gets to pee alone!

 

So.

#ThisIsParenthood: it’s a wild ride, but we’re in it together. We really are. Sometimes it might feel like we aren’t and it might look like we’re the only ones covered in baby goo, with bags under our eyes, but we are not alone. The more shoulders we find to lean on, people that we can share the highs and the lows with regardless of how different their experience may be, and the more we talk openly about the realities of OUR parenthood journey, the more we will start feeling part of something bigger.

I’ve shared my #ThisIsParenthood story on Instagram. Have a search of the hashtag on Facebook and Instagram, and join in the project!

“I don’t want a boy” – The secret shame of gender preference

I met a girl in the park on a lunch-break walk one day during my first pregnancy. I was feeling the wrath of the hormones and was wrapped up in a straining coat. She was pushing a double buggy, looking a bit knackered around the edges. She made some friendly small talk. ‘When are you due? Is it your first? Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?’

‘I don’t want a boy’. My mood stripped me of the ability to spit out a more socially acceptable response. Her eyes widened and I held my breath in shock of what I’d just said. We chatted awkwardly and then parted ways. How dare I want a girl, when so many people don’t even get a baby at all?

Whether you were or are hoping for a certain gender like me, or didn’t mind at all, gender disappointment is common. A quick Internet search reveals anonymous forum threads on the ‘secret shame’ of gender preference, and even sonographers and midwives will admit they’ve seen tears shed over gender reveals.

I’m so aware of the devastating stories of friends who have lost babies. So, of course, a healthy baby is what we yearn for above all else, right? However, this often means that any hint of gender preference get cast as ‘selfish and shameful’. It’s good to seek perspective, but it’s not good to silence feelings with comparison because then they will never be understood. It’s far more useful to explore where feelings of gender disappointment are rooted, as they are attached to real stories and explanations.

As a Psychotherapist with a passion for tacking taboo topics around motherhood, I made it a mission to get to the bottom of this shameful gender preference I felt. I wanted to understand why I had this aching desire for a girl. If I’m honest, many of my close male family relationships have been somewhat dysfunctional. I think I had a deep-seated fear that if I were to have a son, there would be a painful disconnection and that when he grew old enough, he would reject me too. In addition, my relationship with my mum has been one of the most positive ones in my life. So, I feared that I would fail to relate to a boy in the way that I would a girl.

I realised that in my mind, I had assumed that a daughter would enjoy the same things I did. But when glancing back at my childhood, I recall how my sister played ‘army’ with my brother in the woods, dressed in my Uncle’s old military camouflage, Meanwhile I played with dolls and covered the carpet with glitter glue in the company of Mum. Perhaps my heart yearned for a mini-me, but no girl would replicate the relationship I had with my mum.

Weeks later I went for my scan to be told that we were having a boy! We watched his little thumb sucking, alien like form. My heart sunk into my flip-flops with a huge, guilty kerplunk. I stuck on a smile, you know the one where your eyes don’t quite get the memo? I wanted to prove to the sonographer and my husband that I was a good, happy Mum. Slowly, my disappointment ebbed away and I began to daydream again, with a cheeky boy in place of the girl I’d longed for. By the time I swept Oscar out of the birthing pool, the sense of disappointment felt nothing but a shameful memory, replaced by adoration.

The second time around, crippling morning sickness led everyone to proclaim ‘it must be a girl this time’. However, back in the sonographer’s room covered in cold jelly, she pointed out the very clear boy parts. We laughed so much in shock that she struggled to continue her checks. I grinned at the joy of another healthy baby, but on arriving at a friend’s house, she gave me a huge hug and my eyes welled up. I flicked the tears away and stole a look in the mirror to ensure no mascara trail would give away that flash of grief. I may never have a daughter.

So now I have my two boys and my house is littered with miniature drills and footballs. I thought I knew what I wanted, but I got what I needed. These budding relationships have been healing in ways they will never understand

If you have a gender preference, consider the assumptions or fears that you might be harbouring as it helps so much to acknowledge them. Sometimes it’s necessary to have a grieving process for what may not be. This is okay and it is healthy! We can live out a life in our mind, projecting ourselves ahead to certain scenarios, painting an elaborate picture coloured with a desire to relive a past we loved, or a wish to do something differently to our own childhood experience.

Often, gender disappointment fades away quickly, at first sight of your wrinkled tot, or maybe as bonding deepens. But if there are continuing feelings that would benefit from some further thinking, then do so in therapy or with someone supportive. It might just be that you need to do a little more gentle exploration of the root cause of these feelings (like I did) in order to break free from that unnecessary feeling of shame or guilt.

Before I finish, I want to highlight in neon orange streaks the fact that it’s normal to have a gender preference. It’s the silence and the taboo that balloon it into a guilty secret. We all have our stories, histories and reasons, and some of them just take a little more making sense of than others. You’re not bad or mad you’re normal.

And you know what the funny thing is? As I write this, I’m currently pregnant with a girl! I was fully expecting to be a mum of boys. That’s my comfort zone now! I’m heading into unknown territory!

Contemplating pregnancy after PND

I have recently announced my third pregnancy! I am due in the middle of February next year. From the outside, it looks like we’re just completing our little family, but those who’ve followed my Instagram account and blog, will know that the decision to try for a third child, wouldn’t have been an easy one to make.

Since my announcement, I have had many a request for a blog post on pregnancy after PND. So here’s a blog article for those who’ve experienced post natal depression, and whilst their heart would like another, their head is filled with anxiety about feeling like ‘that’ again. It’s a long one, but it’s jam-packed with tips and insights.

 

My experience

When I first became pregnant, I had a history of depression, and a number of years of therapy and Psychotherapy training under my belt. I guess my medical records were a reflag for risk of postnatal depression as I was automatically allocated a Mental Health Midwife. She was sweet, but pregnancy and the early hazy months passed with little more than a hint of the baby blues and some overtired meltdowns. I coped, I socialised, I drank coffee at softplay and chatted sleep issues with buddies. ‘I’ve got this’, I thought. ‘I was made for this’. I was quickly discharged from the mental health oversight team.

I was pregnant by Oscar’s first birthday. I had an inkling as he blew his candles out on his homemade (slightly wonky) monkey cake, that next year he might be celebrating with a younger sibling. I was right.

My second pregnancy was different, not that it contributed to PND, but it wasn’t an easy start. Acute morning sickness made parenting hard as I warmed retch-inducing wheatabix for Oscar between rushing to the loo to be sick. I also had appendicitis which required emergency surgery and a truck load of drugs into my incubating body (cue the maternal guilt already kicking in).

Charlie came into the world in the very same pool as Oscar. Another long labour with a short and sharp ending. Textbook.

In a nutshell, we experienced undiagnosed silent reflux, tongue tie (twice…it can regrow, who knew?!), chronic sleep deprivation, horrendous feeding issues that I stubbornly battled through despite family begging me to stop (I felt it was the only single thing I could do for Charlie and I couldn’t bear to let it go). Meanwhile we were enduring a long-drawn out house move that wasn’t happening, a smashed up car, and other things I like to forget! All these things formed a perfect foundation upon which PND could thrive.

I rebuffed all offers for help and support, of cooked meals and the opportunity to nap. I’M FINE. I felt like a failure, and people offering innocent help gave me the incorrect impression that they too, thought I was failing. I felt my baby hated me, I hated me. I didn’t deserve him, or anything else good. I could barely string a sentence together, I stopped being able to hide my sore, red-eyes, and the terrified, weeping phone calls to my husband at work became a common occurrence. I went from thinking I could cope, to pretending I could cope, to believing I never could (here’s an article I wrote in my dark days)

On my 31st Birthday, I threw my hands up in surrender. You know what? I haven’t ‘got this’ at all. I went to my GP and wept as he asked about my bond with my baby.

I don’t need to go into vast detail of my post natal depression as this blog article is more about helping the future look a little more hopeful and less about the suffocating debilitation that post natal depression can grip you with. If you’re reading this article, it’s oh so likely you know that feeling, and for that, I give you the warmest and most compassionate hug. You made it. You might have dragged yourself through with faltering steps, but you made it mama.

In time, things changed. The sun slowly came through.

 

What helped me

There were three predominant factors to my recovery from PND:

1 – I forced myself to be open to a select few (namely a couple of close friends, my husband, my mum, my health visitor and my GP) about how I was feeling. ‘Forced’ seems like a strong word. But I really did have to battle against the fibres of my being, in order to open up. I knew something had to change. I was scared. Most of them, who’d seen me slowly unravel, weren’t at all surprised. In fact they seemed more relieved that the dropping of my weak façade meant that they would finally be able to step in, instead of watching helplessly from the sidelines. It wasn’t easy, but once I started talking, the words tumbled out in relief and slowly the shame ebbed away.

2- I started to accept that I am simply not created to do motherhood myself. Nobody is. Nor are you. I seemed to think I was an exception to the rule. I began to believe that seeking and accepting support of any form (be it practical, emotional, mental, physical) was not personal failure, but was in fact VITAL to good mental health. Letting friends be friends and family be family. Letting those who love me, love me in the way that I love them. Taking steps to learn to say ‘yes please’ instead of ‘I’m fine thanks’.

3 – I worked relentlessly at my cruel, bullying internal voice that was keeping me in that dark place like a millstone settling in the bottom of a lake. The voice that told me I was useless, hopeless, worthless. I did what I train others to do as a day-job! I started to challenge this voice with kinder and compassionate words that felt like lies at first, but slowly began to gain volume and power. These words are now stronger for me than my inner critic, and that, well that has changed everything. That has changed my life.

We moved house, Charlie’s reflux was medicated and improving, sleep was more plentiful, life became more do-able. I was in the swing of parenting two and working part-time in a job that I adore. So what next?

 

The ‘Shall we have another?’ question

As time went on, and as Charlie’s first birthday rolled around, the topic of trying for a third child kept cropping up. We’d always dreamed of having three kids. Tarun was one of three, I was one of three. Despite losing my sister to cancer before her seventh birthday, despite the fact I’ve lived through more of my life without her than with her, I still feel like one of three.

But this topic was loaded with abject fear. How would I ever cope? What if we had another reflux baby? What if the baby blues weren’t a fleeting tear filled couple of days, but months of deep dark blackness? I was scared of tipping my very new life balance that was filling me with purpose and contentment. For a long while, both my husband and I agreed that I was still healing from the trauma of that long, dark year, and that I needed more time.

I can’t say I ever got to a point where I proclaimed ‘Right. I’m READYYY. Let’s do this!’. And neither may you.

Charlie was nearing his second birthday, when I realised that the ground I’d covered had changed me. I was much better at seeking and accepting support, stronger at saying ‘yes please’ and ‘no thank you’ without fearing what people thought. I had become more naturally open, and my friendships more two-way streets (rather than me gladly offering support but refusing theirs). I had grown used to the concept of childcare and comfortable with utilising nursery. I realised that self-care habits had become an ingrained part of my life instead of a vicious internal battle. Little realisations like this, that the things I’d tried so hard to instil, had become a comfortable new normal for me, reassured me that whatever might lie ahead, I was more equipped with support than ever before.

So now, I’m pregnant. Nervousness and trepidation are woven through my excitement, but that is okay. That is to be expected.

This time my determination is more ‘I’m ready to do what I need to do to make it through’. Not in terms of expending every single ounce of my waning energy to battle through alone, but to call in the reinforcements, to go out and find the support I need, and to accept the support I have. It takes a village, and I am not a village no matter how capable I feel after a large coffee and a good night’s sleep.

 

My advice to you

So, here is my advice to you as you read these words with your own journey sitting heavily on your chest:

1 – Think about how you are now. How are you coping? How do you feel? Do you have residual or active depression that has not been properly addressed? Perhaps you need to invest in some personal therapy via your GP, or via the Find a Therapist page of the Counselling Directory. If you’re often feeling low, you deserve to address this sooner rather than later. And if you’ve experienced any level of trauma whatsoever, from what you’ve been through, please seek therapy in order to safely address this and enable you some freedom.

2 – Ask yourself how you feel and what you need. It’s likely that this has been a challenge for you. It is a challenge to any mum who’s focus is on the needs and feelings of their children, but if you’re going to be attending more closely to your emotional, practical, mental and physical needs, you need to ask yourself what they are. Get familiar with your needs, wants and feelings so that you can begin to act on them.

3 – Practice asking for and accepting help. Be it the offer of childcare for an hour so you can get some jobs done, or asking for a glass of water at your friend’s house when she’s forgotten to offer. Grow confident in stepping out to get your needs met. This is a hugely vital tool in the armour to fight PND. It’s not a comfortable task, but as your confidence increases and your needs are more likely met, you’ll find it easier I promise. This is so important.

4 – Carefully review your support network. Who’s there on standby, who’s standing in the wings? Who are the friends or family members that offer support? Does your hospital have a mental health midwifery service you can access? What did you struggle most with in your postnatal phase? What support might you have benefitted from had you been in a place to ask for and accept it? Have you found good online support? Is there a nice friendly network of baby groups and classes locally? What is around you already and what might you have to seek out?

5 – Take steps to speak with close friends or family members who you trust (if you aren’t already). Start letting them know how you feel in the little, day-to-day ways. The ups, the downs, the frustrations. If your usual response is to ‘keep calm and carry on’, this isn’t going to serve you well, just as it didn’t last time. Vulnerability is uncomfortable at first but entirely necessary for good mental health. Entirely necessary. Those first faltering words I spoke to a close friend, felt like shards in my throat, but now I speak more freely about my feelings. It gets easier as you get the kind and compassionate response that you’ve been denying yourself.

6 – Address your internal dialogue. If your internal voice is critical and strict, you need to really start trying to introduce a more compassionate dialogue over time. That critical and strict voice is the kind of cruel that will hit a girl when she’s down, and you certainly don’t need that. No matter what you think you deserve, you don’t deserve a little bully on your shoulder berating you and throwing petrol on the embers of mum guilt. You have to speak back to this voice. It might feel like a relentless argument at first, but imagine you were speaking those critical words to someone you loved. They need to be challenged because they are damaging. Retorting with a kind response (in the way you would to someone you love), feels unnatural and a little ridiculous, but never underestimate the power of doing this. In time, with work, the critical voice will be chipped away at and will slowly lose power. You need self-compassion. It’s a very powerful tool in the battle against PND.

7 – Consider practicalities and timing. There is rarely a ‘right time’, to try for another child but there can be ‘better times’. For example, Charlie has just turned two and is going to be starting our local nursery with Oscar next month. Therefore, I will be able to climb back into bed with the baby after doing the nursery drop off. I will be able to get cosy in my dressing gown and put on a box set, and recoup some energy. Last time I had a busy 19 month old and never once got to luxuriate on the sofa, but was instead rushing out to playgroups and feeding on plastic chairs in cold halls. What timing might be kind for your family and enable you best to get snippets of rest?

8 – Be kind to yourself. Take the pressure off. If the conversation of having another child fills you with fear, make a decision to leave that conversation on standby for a few months (we left it for six months), and instead, focus on implementing some of these points instead. Regardless of what decision you make and when, you’ll benefit from investing in these things.

8 – Talk this through with your partner. You need to be in this together. You need to be able to lean on them a little, and get used to leaning. Ideally your partner would form part of this support network, and keeping them in the loop about your true feelings and thoughts around another baby, better enables them to do this. 

Final words

I hope this helps you. There is still so much more I could say. I feel a podcast coming on (I’ve never done one before so you’d have to bare with).

Whilst I feel a little anxious about experiencing PND again, I know that having learnt to be more open, both about how I’m feeling, and in accepting support, my next postnatal stage simply cannot be the same as my last one, and that I am confident of.

You’re worth investing in these things. Regardless of whether you believe that to be true.

Anna xx

Ps – Feel free to drop me a line to book a coaching session where we can chat about this in further depth. Or, you might benefit from my Nice Girls course where many of these qualities are worked upon.

 

 

My Number One Anxiety Tip

I’m, going to share my top tip for those trying to address their anxiety. As you know, I LOVE a metaphor, so bear with me on this, it will make perfect sense in a moment.

My husband badly hurt his shins running a marathon. He couldn’t walk and had to temporarily re-locate to the creaky third-hand, musky scented sofa bed in our little London flat because it was ten yards closer to the bathroom.

He took medication. He saw physiotherapists. Nothing worked.

Soon after, we had a summer holiday booked with my parents and he still couldn’t walk unaided. We arrived at our stair-filled holiday home wondering how on crutches he was going to navigate the cobbles of the sweet Greek streets that surrounded us. My Mum happens to be a physiotherapist, and under her encouragement and guidance (and strict physio schedules…I mean he was gonna do what she said right? Mother in law and all!), he did certain exercises three times a day. It felt fruitless to begin with. These tiny little movements he had to make whilst gripping onto the crumbling wall of our apartment, over and over and over again as Dad and I watched on, sipping Sangria. Dull and relentless.

He carried his crutches home, walking totally independently.

It was the seeming relentlessness that did it. The tiny movements, over and over with tiring commitment. They seemed too small to be irrelevant, but over time, they changed muscle and sinew. Over time, the pain was replaced with strength. Over time, not overnight.

You know, you can try all the techniques and approaches for anxiety you like, you can dip your toe in the water of every single theory going…but what makes the difference is the seemingly relentless, daily application. THAT is what changes things, THAT is what will turn the anxiety from the raging bull into a small yappy dog that nips at your heels.

Let me use an example from my own life. My intrusive thoughts are anxiety driven, they pop into my head like a mini assault on my mind. Some days, I let them pass by, other days I turn the flash of fearful thought (usually someone I love dying) into a whole scenario, adding colour and words and feeling. Before I know it, I’m feeling a small stab of realistic grief as if the death of my child has actually happened, or I’m freaking out about how the hell I’d pay the mortgage if my husband died on the way home as I feared.

What works for me is noticing the thought and imagining it passing through my mind like a silk ribbon rather than a gripping, flesh-tearing fish-hook. It’s there, I’m not going to force myself to deny it, but it passes. I also use breathing to ground me and calm those physical anxious feelings (see this site). I try to practice it even when I’m feeling A-OKAY so that it’s a familiar tool on standby for when I need it. I have to use this imagery every single day. Sometimes a shed load of times. It’s my tool. It helps. I don’t ‘arrive’ at a point where I’m utterly anxiety free and go ‘WAHOOOOO. Seeya breathing techniques and imagery. Bye old friends’. No, I will be using techniques for many years to come, but the more I’ve used them, the easier they are to access at an earlier point (rather then when I’m down some anxiety hole where everyone I love has died and I’m the only one standing…oh I end up there sometimes, but less than I did)

Here are some tools that will be beneficial no matter what your circumstances are:

  • Learning to access the parasympathetic nervous system through breathing. This is undoubtedly a physiologically powerful tool that counteracts the stress and anxiety response in the body  – find out more here
  • Not waiting until you ‘feel’ worth it before you introduce acts of self-care. They can be as simple as making sure you’re drinking enough water and eating food that nourishes you. Self-care isn’t all about massages and  manicures. These acts directly oppose the critical and internal voice that often fuels anxiety.
  • Start small. Habits of a lifetime aren’t broken in a day. Small, continuous steps will get you there in a way that is more sustainable than short, sharp change.
  • Get used to asking yourself what you need. Within anxiety there is often a fear, a need and a feeling. Learning to identify them helps you in finding ways to meet them. The more you do this, the more sensitive to your needs and feelings you’ll become, and the easier it will be to acknowledge them. When my feelings are fuzzy and hard to determine, I ‘try on feelings for size’ by listing them until I feel like something clicks – ‘am I feeling, sad, lonely, angry, hurt, scared’
  • Be kind to you! Start challenging the inner critic/abuser/bully. If you’ve got a constant, cruel dialogue going on internally, it will be chipping away at your self worth and value. Start noticing how you talk to yourself in your mind and start thinking about how you’d respond to someone you love if they said those things. Start introducing a more compassionate internal voice. Read this
  • Speak to someone who might understand. Not everyone will, but someone you know to be kind and compassionate may be able to help you talk through some of you anxieties, introducing a kinder voice. Sometimes just verbalising what goes on in our minds
  • If you are finding that your anxiety is taking over to any extent, please seek an appointment with your GP, or a Counsellor/Psychotherapist to chat this through further.

I’m sure you might have a few to add to this list as it’s nowhere near exhaustive, but those are the ones I use the most.

But, my TOP tip for addressing anxiety is..

Start small. And keep going.

Even when it feels silly.

Even when it feels fruitless.

Even when it feels like nothing is ever going to change.

Even when you don’t truly believe it will help.

Keep going.

And if you forget? Or you have an anxiety filled day where things have taken over and not one coping mechanism has been accessed, be kind, DON’T beat yourself up. This is a process and it’s a tough one, and often a long one, but a wholly worthwhile one. Carry on. Carry on.

If you’re someone who likes imagery, find a metaphor that encourages you. I like to think of a motorway that has closed down! No cars are allowed, and they are forced to drive beside it on grass and mud. Wheels get stuck, flicking up mud and requiring pushing out. It’s slow and bumpy and downright annoying. Drivers glance at the empty motorway beside them, it’s so familiar, so easy, so smooth. BUT. Overtime, the wheels carve a new path. The ground impacts, the bumps are smoothed. The journey is getting easier. And as for the motorway? It’s has gradually run to ruin. The tarmac melted in parts by the summer sun and never addressed. Weeds poking through the lanes, tree roots tearing up what was once flat.

Whatever your battle is against and whatever your techniques are (as long as they are good, healthy ones), I want to encourage you to keep utilising them. Use them when you’re feeling okay, use them when you start to wobble. The deeper you are into the hole of anxiety, the more effort required to use the tools that pull you out.

Every time you speak back to that familiar, cruel voice that has you questioning life and future, pick up that tool. No matter how successful it was, pick it up again next time too. Yes, maybe sometimes introduce a new tool or an additional tool, especially as they slowly become second nature and less effort, but make sure you have SOMETHING to hand. I introduced breathing for anxiety, and then once it became almost second nature, I introduced a gratitude journal. And now that’s part of my daily life, I’m trying to drink enough water in order to tell my body it’s worth being hydrated no matter how many times I need to pee. See what I’m saying?

When I speak to coaching clients, I don’t make false statements. I don’t promise them that their worst fear won’t happen, I’m not God, I don’t have the insight. I’m not going to promise them that everything will be okay, because nobody can promise them that. But I DO promise them that if they pursue relentlessly, regardless of feelings, the tools we speak about, then the voice of anxiety WILL get quieter over time.

Sometimes change is about driving in the rain and suddenly realising that this would have made you panic a few months ago. Sometimes it’s about you having a nice long bath and suddenly realising that a few weeks ago, this would have felt like an utter, worthless waste of time because you weren’t of enough value to do something kind like this.

Find the tools that fit you, whether through therapy or apps, research or reading. Value your tools. Use them relentlessly and be kind to yourself when you forget, or they don’t seem to work. Keep keep going and change will come, slowly but surely.

Ax

The other side of tidy

IMG_2817My house is tidy. Pretty much always, generally tidy.

(I am having to claw my fingers in order to stop writing ‘I’m sorry’)

Obviously there are pockets of chaos when the kids have just emptied the toys everywhere, or the husband has been at the kitchen, but generally, my house is fairly neat.

Through instagram, I’ve discovered that there’s a mixed attitude towards tidiness. Some believe that I have hours to sort and tidy (not true), other’s think that I tidy purely for Instagram photos (not true). Some think I’m just presenting the tidy corners in order to communicate the best sides of my life and home (not true). I honestly don’t care about you seeing my mess, it’s just that most of mine is in my head!

If I’m utterly honest, I’ve felt shame about my tidy home. I make myself vulnerable daily in order to present the real and rougher edges of myself in the hopes I can challenge comparison and assumptions and empower people to do the same. However, a tidy house seems to call this to question. Is she really authentic and accessible if her house is neat? That’s not real life.

Isn’t it? But, what if I am being ‘real’ in my tidiness? What if you can have a tidy house and that’s just your ‘real’? What does that say about those who fight to keep on top of the mess that kids bring? Am I saying that they are failing? What about those who are content in the chaos of a family home that looks a little less like a show home and a lot more lived in? Does that say that they are wrong for not being compelled to chase around their offspring, whizzing toys back into their places and scrabbling under the sofa for the missing shape sorter cube. I’m not setting a standard here, I’m sharing life.

I want to tell you about the other side of tidiness.

So here’s the other side of my tidy..

I moved to Loughborough University from my little family home. There had been five of us living in that beautiful three bed cottage, and then four after Emily died. Space was sparce and my room was a cosy box room with a window the entire length of my bed overlooking a green valley. There was no space for a chest of drawers but I didn’t care. My clothes were in my sibling’s room. I loved my little nook.

Anyway, I was dropped off at University with my bags and a case of cheap french sparkling wine (friendship bait). Everything was unknown. I laid out my new room with the bedding chosen during an exciting traipse around Dunelm. It was far more spacious than my childhood bedroom with much more storage in which to tuck things away. I stood back and felt a huge sense of calm at this new level of order.

Tidiness quickly became yet another outward expression of my perfectionism. It was a soothing way of controlling my environment amidst the chaos of getting to know life as a student, out in the big world. We went out, partied, studied (sometimes). Life was a chaotic haze, but my room was a sanctuary of order. I’d find myself a little edgy on the evenings my room filled with friends as they innocently (although sometimes teasingly) disturbed things from their places. I’d tell myself that once they’d gone, I could restore order and all would be well.

Neatness can be a soother to many people as it is to me. A way of soothing anxiety, stress and other uncomfortable feelings. It’s an assertion of control when control is somehow lacking in other areas of life (isn’t it always lacking somewhere?).

We moved home last year, so on one level my tidiness is due to the fact that I can just enjoy my home and relax a little more when everything is put away in it’s place. However, it’s not just about that. There’s a deeper need for order that I can identify. This Christmas we hosted 9 people in our home for three days. It was fun, but I found the chaos tough. This is such a difficult and sad tension for me, as hosting people in our home is one of those things that we just get so much joy from. But at the same time, there’s a part of me that finds the physical chaos and disruption unsettling. I tidied around people, I tidied gifts away mere moments after they’d been opened. I didn’t sit down a huge amount. I was like a buzzing bee sweeping away Christmas as it happened. I was bloody annoying.

However, there is a level of emotional chaos that often comes with lots of family in one place. My way of coping with this emotional chaos was to seek order in my physical environment. But keeping a tidy home around 9 people who are just enjoying the festive fun, was like throwing water out of a sinking boat with a thimble. I told myself that I could keep the kitchen as my ‘domain’ of tidy, and let myself tidy as freely as I wanted whilst trying hard to relax about the remainder of the house!

Tidiness is a relentless, perfectionist pursuit in a house where people, ya know… live. I cannot flop into bed after a dinner party until it looks like it never happened at all. It’s second nature, I barely even realise I’m doing it. Perfectionism can be seen as a blessing but really, it’s mostly a curse. It’s a driver and a motivator for excellence, but the goal of perfect will simply never be met and to continue working to meet such standard is utterly exhausting, like chasing a mirage of water in a hot desert. It doesn’t exist and it never satisfies. No matter how tidy my home is, it will never bring total order to the chaos of my mind.

So, yes, I’m tidy. Maybe you are too. Maybe you aren’t. Maybe you’re somewhere in between. Maybe you skid up and down the tidy spectrum dependent on energy and time and how much you actually care on any one day! That’s fine with me.

We can so quickly demonise or idealise qualities about each other that make us question our own lives or ways of being. Weight is another one I see often that gets both idealised and demonised in the same sentence. It can be as if someone who is slim and fit is quietly deemed self-obsessed or actually not that accepting of their own physical body, thus striving to change it. They can’t be ‘real’ because they are inhabiting someone else’s ideal and perhaps unintentionally body shaming others as a result. But if I feel those things about a beautiful girl in a bikini on my feed, that’s my response, my projection, my thinking, my insecurity, not her intention. It says more about me and where I’m at, than it does about her life choices and inner world.

Because when we single out and idealise a single quality in another person, we miss the whole of who they are. We miss the stories, the neuroses, the pasts, the reasons, the personality type, the dreams and drives. Those are what make the bigger picture. And in light of the bigger picture, that desirable quality becomes real and less idealised, and it keeps people accessible. 

Maybe we should challenge ourselves to accept that other people’s seemingly desirable qualities may be because their priorities are in different places to ours, or because their genetic makeup and personality are different. Maybe they have more time or energy, or it’s just the way they are wired. Maybe it’s the flipside of a character trait, or a symptom of a struggle for them, maybe it’s a coping mechanism. 

Whatever we see of people in Insta squares or in black and white on blogs, when we idealise certain qualities, we just turn them into a ruler to measure ourselves up against to tell us what we’re worth, or how we’re doing at being us. We’re all more beautifully complex than that which can be measured against someone else’s singled-out qualities. And the full stories, which we may never have the honour of hearing, would explain it all.

Note…

Neatness can extend into compulsive disorders, and OCD. If you are finding your need to be neat comes with an urgency in order to abate fear, then it’s definitely worth talking to someone further about this.