We grow up with certain beliefs about ourselves and our lives and expectations that things should work out a certain way. Then, we change, our lives change, and we start to realize that things aren’t going as we had expected. This can be in our relationships, with our families, in our careers, or anything else.
How do we get to a place where we can think clearly about our lives, accept them, and then take steps to change what is not working?
Let’s take an example of a mom of an 11-month-old, who never thought she would need a break from her child, and especially never thought she would let her child watch TV so she could decompress. Now let’s say that the mother turns out to be pretty exhausted, having had no idea how exhausting it is to care for a child all day. Let’s say the baby has had a terribly fussy day, the mom is feeling lonely and isolated, and she is really at her breaking point. If this mother is not good at acceptance, she will do one of the following:
- She will turn on the TV for the baby. She feels bad about herself and needs a coping mechanism in her mind to deal with these negative feelings. So, she will say, “That’s not TV! That’s an educational DVD! That doesn’t count!” This is changing her reality to match her preconceived expectations. But she isn’t really fooling herself. She keeps thinking in the back of her mind, “Why am I using TV to babysit my kid? I never would have thought I would be so lazy.”
- She will not allow herself to turn on the TV because this would make her have to question her long-held beliefs about herself and what a good parent should do. So, she will keep walking around and around with her baby, possibly even on the verge of tears, and thinking of herself as a bad parent anyway, even though she isn’t using the TV. She wanted to use the TV, and she doesn’t have a smile on her face with the baby, and why should one fussy baby be so tough to deal with?
Neither of these two options helps this mother to cope with her situation in a healthy and adaptive way because she has not accepted her new life story. And her new life story is the following: “I am not a perfect mom. I am pretty bad with getting no sleep. I actually think that having the baby watch TV isn’t that bad, now that I am a parent, and not a pregnant person thinking about what it will be like to be a parent.”
If she can accept this new normal, she can even think about alternate coping strategies, such as, “I know I am terrible with getting no sleep, so I can take a nap when the baby naps in the morning instead of schlepping us both to baby music class.” Or, “I should find a sitter for a couple afternoons a week so I can take a nap or at least have someone else to hand the baby to.” Or even, “We are going to watch TV every day from 3-3:30 and I am just going to accept that is our new schedule, and hopefully it will take some stress out of my life.”
None of these new solutions would have entered the mind of this mom before she engaged in acceptance. She would be too busy pretending she wasn’t having a hard time, or castigating herself for having a hard time, or having a nervous breakdown.
Here is another example that I see frequently in couples counseling: a woman married a man hoping/assuming/expecting that he would settle down and stop wanting to party so much with his friends after they got married and had kids. Instead, he goes out nearly as frequently, leaving her to care for the kids and feeling lonely and resentful. She vacillates between two coping mechanisms to deal with her anger and sadness:
- Saying to anyone who will listen, “I’m totally cool with Jason going out at night! He has a tough job and needs to decompress! And he was always this way!” This would be wonderful if she meant it, but in this case, she doesn’t. She knows that she doesn’t too, and every time she says something like this to others, she ends up feeling even more upset and lashing out at her husband that evening, along with wondering why she can’t just really feel “totally cool with Jason going out” in her heart.
- Getting enraged and screaming at her husband, “What is wrong with you that you have no sense of responsibility? Don’t you know what it means to be a parent? Do I have to do everything around here? “This, as you might imagine, leads to a big blowup. It also leads to her feeling guilty, thinking, “What’s wrong with me? Why do I explode like that?”
Here is another time when acceptance can help. She can learn to accept that her husband still has the desire to go out and party, even with kids at home, and that she is not okay with this.
She previously wanted her life story to be: “After we got married, we both settled down and stopped partying.” But this is not happening, and if she accepts this, her new story is: “After we got married, I wanted to stop partying, and Jason didn’t, and I felt hurt.” This story represents reality, objectively, and does not cast anyone in the role of villain.
If this wife accepts this story, she can now look for solutions. One could be asking Jason to go to couples counseling about this issue. Another could be figuring out why his going out triggers her so much and why it was so important to her to have a husband who wants to stay home a lot (reasons for this may be rooted in her childhood experience in her family of origin). A third could be thinking outside the box: would she feel happier and less resentful if she, too, got time to go out with friends?
Each of these solutions would rewrite this woman’s life story in different ways. Now the story could be, “We went to counseling and figured out a compromise about going out versus staying home and we’re doing better now.” Or, “I realized that I associated going out with my dad, who was always going out drinking and was unreliable. So I didn’t want either of us to go out after having kids. But really I think I would like to go out more myself, and I also want to ask Jason to promise never to drive drunk, since that does really bother me.”
Allowing yourself to rewrite your life story can be liberating. You can finally be objective about what is and is not working for you, without shame or judgment. You can work on coming up with solutions to your problems rather than pretending they don’t exist or that they will magically resolve themselves. And most important, you can rewrite your life story into one that makes you feel proud.