Over the past week, our sessions have touched on a myriad of tender moments: the unknown terrain of labor, the exhausting new baby time, potty training, navigating toddler sleep, sudden loss of a dear one, work transitions, life transitions, grieving a pet, heart ache. All of these – often varied – human experiences still feel, in some ways, tied together with a common thread.
When we are in the thick of it, these challenging experiences, and the emotions that follow, can feel like they will last forever. We feel trapped in our thoughts: we will never sleep again, this child will never sleep again, the deep grief is unfathomable and will take over, the broken heart will never heal. These thoughts sabotage our innate ability to cope, problem solve, breathe, and rest.
What helps pave the windy path through the depth and uncertainty of this terrain? In our experience, it is the process of creating “temporary time frames” and “experiments” as we navigate the unknown. By doing so, instead of dwelling on the perspective that “this will be forever,” we remind our brains that we can do this (fill in the blank) for one night, or for three days or for three weeks. It is manageable and we are capable.
Let’s take the classic example of sleep deprivation during the postpartum days and weeks. For many, solid sleep is hard to come by; this compounded exhaustion can create a slippery slope towards mood dysregulation, anxiety, and feeling generally awful. When we sit with mothers in this sleepless postpartum land, there is often a backdrop of hopelessness, a sense that this is how it will always be. We hear, “I will never get sleep again”, or “I have no idea how to get through this”. When new mamas share their feelings, it is often with absolutes, the perspective of “always” and “never” in their outlook.
At these junctures, the most useful resource in the toolbox seems to be to slow down the process, and to help mamas create an experimental plan for “just tonight”, or for “just this temporary period of time”. Employing this strategy, we have observed a few positive outcomes:
(1) The period of time and the commitment seems so small that there is a little bit of give in the thinking – it doesn’t feel too threatening and is worth a try.
(2) With even a little bit of increased sleep, the mama feels better and able to problem solve for the next segment of time – the next day and night. One goal at a time.
(3) The mama often feels a bit of agency and control over her life, and a bit of resilience to navigate the next few days. There is more room for problem-solving and for perspective-taking.
Let’s look at this idea in regards to grief, especially when a loss or struggle occurs that feels overpowering. Many of the women with whom we have worked are able to manage the depth and complexity of profound loss by slowing down, and by defining a small time frame in which to attend to the feelings, and to themselves.
For example, making a plan for today or the next two days in the face of loss feels more possible and manageable than trying to figure out how to manage the rest of the month or year of life. A plan for the day may include: I will rest, eat, feed my children, and feel my grief. Tomorrow, I will rest, walk and nourish myself, and feel my feelings. That is all. Then it is time to make another temporary plan.
In times of challenge, when we shift perspective from “I can’t do this”, “this is impossible”, “this is too much” to “I can do hard things”, “I didn’t choose this but I can move through this slowly or thoughtfully or in segments”, the difficulty feels a little less daunting, the progress a little more possible, and we feel a little more fortified for the journey.
So before you find yourself in a new unfamiliar turn of the labyrinth of life (which will happen!), grab a sticky note and write down this sound bite:
“This is temporary…”
Remind yourself to slow down the experience, break it down into manageable parts, and take it one breath, one moment, one hour or one day at a time. And then set your plan for another day. And then another.