This post is based on an Instagram Live interview with Riverbend Clinician and Reproductive Mental Health Specialist Nikki Walther and Lauren Devine, MSW. Join us for Riverbend Therapy Chats each week on Instagram Live (@riverbendtherapy) as we discuss mental health topics and answer your questions.
2020 has been a year full of the unknown: A global pandemic has thrown our health, work, and routines into uncertainty; the impending election means that the next four years hang in the balance; a summer of wildfires, floods, and hurricanes is wracking our nation. Some days, it feels not so much like the ground has shifted under us but like there is no ground anymore.
It’s not just this year, though; the unknown is part of being human. An unexpected diagnosis. The sudden loss of a relationship. A new phase of life. We may try to fortify ourselves against the unknown by scrutinizing every possible outcome, by making plans and being prepared, by being relentlessly optimistic and positive. But still, we’ll find ourselves facing it again and again throughout our lives.
Although we can never prevent the unknown, we can learn to manage it, to stand our sacred ground in seasons of uncertainty. Managing the unknown does not look like the planning and prepping or militant positivity I mentioned above. It is both softer and stronger than that; it is about making space, giving yourself permission, and approaching uncertainty with grace.
On this week’s River Bend Therapy Chat on Instagram Live, our clinician Nikki Walther, LPCC, and Lauren Devine, MSW, discussed their personal and professional experiences with managing the unknown, especially as part of a fertility journey.
No aspect of experiencing infertility is easy. We’ve talked before about how isolating infertility can be, how much grief it can bring. But Lauren, who is in the midst of her fertility journey at the moment, identified managing uncertainty as one the hardest part. And there is a lot of uncertainty to manage—tests and procedures, appointments and injections, waiting without knowing.
In the face of so much unknown, many people try to control as much as they can in the hope that it will influence the outcome. But grasping for control is a bandage over the huge wound of uncertainty that accompanies infertility. The truth is that with infertility, like any experiences with the unknown, there’s often very little we can do to change what happens.
But, like we talked about last week, even if we can’t influence the outcome we can change our experience by learning to manage the unknown. Nikki and Lauren discussed some strategies they’ve both used in their own fertility journeys:
1. Be Present
Lauren was having dreams in which she was trying to accomplish a task and something kept getting in her way. Her therapist suggested that this was an indication that she wasn’t making enough space for her feelings, and gave her the homework of trying to be present and sit with her feelings—not just once, but repeatedly checking in with herself and acknowledging and accepting whatever emotions came up. At first, as she put it, “It was terrible. It was a lot of tears, a lot of hot bathtubs, a lot of journaling.” But as she practiced being present—which can look like mindfulness, self-reflection, writing, prayer, or meditation—she gave herself permission to feel the weight of her experience. Once she truly acknowledged her feelings, she found that she was better able to accept the unknown, relinquish control, and find moments of joy.
2. Withhold Judgment
A big part of learning to be present with your grief is accepting that however you feel is OK, and that you are where you are in your journey. This is easier said than done, but one way to begin to do this is to try to let go of self-judgement. Perhaps you’ve just lost a pregnancy and you don’t feel as sad as you think you “should.” Perhaps you feel that your fertility journey hasn’t been as painful as someone else’s and so you “shouldn’t” feel as sad as you do. Perhaps you feel like you “should just” be able to move on from an experience with infertility that was years or decades ago. Whenever you notice those “shoulds” and “justs” popping up in your thoughts, recognize that as unhelpful self-judgment and tell that voice, “It is OK to feel exactly how I feel, to be exactly where I am.”
3. Start Small
Learning to manage the unknown will likely take some time. Begin by recognizing all the small ways in which uncertainty is already part of your day-to-day life: When you wake up, you don’t know how your day will go. When you meet a friend for lunch, you don’t know what you’ll talk about or how you’ll feel after. Learning to see and embrace these smaller gray areas is practice for accepting larger and more painful uncertainties.
4. Manage in Your Own Way
Whether you’re walking through infertility or facing some other experience of the unknown, recognize that it’s OK for you and your partner to deal with that uncertainty differently. Perhaps on a day when grief is weighing heavy on you, he or she won’t be feeling it, or vice versa. Recognize that although you are experiencing the unknown together, you are both uniquely on your own path of learning to manage it. Discuss what you need to feel supported and how you can help each other learn to manage uncertainty. Then extend grace towards your partner when he or she processes the unknown differently than you do.
5. Have Hope for the Experience
Last week, we talked about how hope is a muscle that can help you build resilience. And while that is true, it can be unhelpful to hope for a specific outcome; part of managing the unknown is recognizing that you can’t control what happens. Instead, have hope for your experience. Hope that you’ll be present and can sit with your feelings. Hope that you’ll let go of fear and celebrate the victories or joy that come. Hope that you’ll grow comfortable with the gray area.
One of the best ways to manage the unknown is with the help of a caring and supportive community. In September, Nikki will be starting an eight-week Infertility Support Group. It will be a space for women who are experiencing or have in the past experienced infertility to share their stories, feel known and heard, grieve, and connect with others who have walked a similar path. You’ll gain a wide range of tangible resources and skills, like how to own your story, build resilience, manage stress, connect to your partner, relate to others, manage the unknown, and more.
To learn more about the group, which starts September 10th, check out the Groups page on our website and fill out an interest form. If you have questions—any question!—you can send us an email or message us on Facebook or Instagram. If this group isn’t right for you, we encourage you to share information about it with anyone you know who has experienced infertility.
Can you give yourself permission today to be present with the full weight of your experience?