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How to Free Yourself from the Pain of High Expectations

Imprisoned

“Suffering is traumatic and awful and we get angry and we shake our fists at the heavens and we vent and rage and weep. But in the process we discover a new tomorrow, one we never would have imagined otherwise.”  ~Rob Bell

During my pregnancy, I was the poster child for prenatal health. From taking my supplements and participating in birthing and breastfeeding classes to doing downward dogs up until three days before my birth, postpartum depression never crossed my mind.

I am married and financially and professionally successful.

I hungered to be a mom.

I have a robust community of friends.

I do not fit the stereotype of who is at risk for postpartum depression.

And yet, less than six weeks after giving birth to my daughter, I found myself sobbing and shaking on my bedroom floor in the middle of the night—incapable of getting up, incapable of taking care of myself or of my daughter.

To understand how I found myself in this position, it’s important to understand what happened leading up to my birth.

From the moment I found out I was pregnant, I began designing the vision for how I wanted to bring my child into the world.

This was going to be my greatest creative act.

I would labor at home as long as possible so that I could take baths and walk in my meditation garden.

When I finally arrived at the hospital, I had an iTunes playlist (think Yanni, Jack Johnson, and Snatam Kaur) that was to play while my husband rubbed lavender and frankincense essential oils over my body.

I did not want any pain medication. After all, my husband and I trained in hypnobirthing so that he could help me manage my pain.

I created a lengthy document listing my desires as well as what I most definitely did not want. I posted it in multiple spots in my hospital room and provided a copy to my obstetrician and each nurse who attended to me.

As you have probably guessed, my birth did not go according to plan.

From the moment I was told that I needed to be induced because my daughter was in fetal distress, I watched myself move from protagonist to bit player in my birth story.

Cervical ripening. Pitocin. Ruptured membranes. Epidural. Each of these medical interventions I abhorred the thought of I found myself submitting to as my labor stalled and my daughter’s breathing become more erratic.

Twenty-seven hours after my induction, I gave birth. Only, I did not feel bliss or even gratitude. I was emotionally exhausted, disappointed, and anxious about what would come next.

Within a day of my beautiful and healthy daughter entering the world, my cat of thirteen years exited it. As I grieved his passing, I found it difficult to bond with my daughter, particularly as she struggled to latch and my attempts at breastfeeding became futile.

My fragile emotional health ultimately compromised my physical health. After a lengthy upper respiratory infection and weeks of postpartum insomnia, I began to feel like a dark, unfamiliar force had taken over my body. And I had no will to do anything about it.

Fortunately, my mother and husband rallied to my rescue. They ensured I received the multiple forms of treatment needed to get back to me while my daughter was provided the nurturing that I could not give her at that time.

By five months postpartum, I felt whole again. I felt connected to my daughter. Fortunately, she felt connected to me.

I felt excited about my own and my family’s future.

Postpartum depression forced me to question everything I thought I believed about what makes me happy, what I want my life and work to look like, and what makes me feel worthy to receive love and happiness.

I am grateful for these lessons, even though the process to them was painful.

While I now know that I was unconsciously equating my success and self-worth with my birth experience, strangling one’s self with an unrealistic benchmark for success is most definitely not just a woman’s issue.

I do not want to allow myself to become prisoner to my expectations ever again.

And I do not want you to become a prisoner to yours.

Most of us struggle with how to create an ambitious and achievable vision for what we want for ourselves without getting our identities wrapped up in achieving them.

Whether we strive to scale a business, negotiate a salary increase, payoff debt, buy a house, or take a family vacation, the key to having aspirations that fuel us, that make us feel good, is shifting our expectations about the outcome.

First, we want to create goals for how we want to feel as we pursue what we are seeking to achieve.

Prior to postpartum depression, I had never realized that in both my personal and professional life my goal setting always revolved around achieving something I could check off a list. And unfortunately, whether or not I checked off that thing on my list, was in large part not in my control.

As a result, my feelings often operated by default rather than by design, and they were directly connected to my outward achievement.

If we want to set ourselves to do well and feel good, we have an opportunity to set expectations for how we want to feel going through the process of achieving our vision.

Had I done this during my pregnancy, I would have been lauding myself along the way for feeling healthy, creative, present, and so forth rather than pinning all of my success on the ultimate destination, the childbirth.

We know from neuroscience that our beliefs shape our thoughts, and our thoughts give rise to our feelings. We have an opportunity to decide we are ready to feel a particular way—i.e., grateful, inspired, or accomplished—and align our beliefs and thoughts accordingly.

Of course when we are triggered from something unexpected, upsetting, or downright devastating we are entitled to whatever emotional response is evoked. In these moments, we can observe our emotions moving through us without becoming them, or getting stuck in them, until we are back on the path we want to be on.

When we put our awareness on believing that the feelings we desire can and will happen, it empowers us to have moment-to-moment thoughts (even if there are some occasional interruptions) that support the realization of the feelings we are striving for.

This, ultimately, gives us a more solid base for realizing our expectations.

Second, we want to find a way to measure success that goes beyond yes and no.

To me, a successful childbirth was delivering my child without what I deemed were “unnatural” forms of medical intervention. I now realize how silly this goal was, given that it did not even address my daughter’s health.

Yet if I were to time travel back or at some point have another child, I likely would still strive to minimize many of the medications and procedures I experienced.

The key is the word “minimize.”

I would focus on minimizing medical interventions that were not needed for the emotional, physical, and spiritual health of my child and me.

That is very different, yes?

How can you create goals that allow success to be lived in the gray, very important space, between black and white?

Third, we must surrender in the wake of surprises and setbacks.

When we surrender, we make peace with what is, and we use our newfound awareness to expand our conscious capacity for how to move forward with grace and ease.

Note: This is not giving up.

When we have an expectation that clearly cannot be met, we may grieve the shedding or the reframing of the expectation, but we do not adopt embarrassment, shame, or guilt about what has happened.

We give ourselves space to awaken to the lesson, and then we incorporate it in how we move forward.

To recap, if we want to consistently preserve our self-worth and ensure our identity does not become enmeshed in our results, we begin by shaping expectations that set us up to be successful in multiple and holistic ways.

Then, we pause and pivot when expectations are challenged or outright dashed. We forgive ourselves for whatever role we played in the situation. And no matter what, we remember we are the protagonists in the story we choose to create about our lives.

Prisoner image via Shutterstock

About Alexia Vernon

Branded a “Moxie Maven” by the White House, Alexia Vernon is a motivational speaker and communication coach who leads transformational public speaking and leadership development programs including Influencer Academy, Your Spotlight Talk and Your Spotlight Workshop. She has shared her advice with media such as CNN, NBC, the Wall Street Journal, Inc., Forbes and Women’s Health Magazine. Connect with Alexia on her website, Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Ruqaiyah

    Postpartum depression is very real and it can make you feel unworthy. At least you had your mom and husband helping you. My husband used this time to avoid me, gaslight me, and made me feel more alone and take advantage of the situation that he wanted to mentally check out and not parent with me. I realized now that I don’t love him anymore for the salt he added to my wounds.

  • Alexia Vernon

    @Ruqaiyah I’m so sorry that you did not (are not) receiving the support you deserve. I hope that whether it’s family, friends, or community…you are able to cultivate a community of people who see you, will hold you up, provide you a shoulder to cry on, babysit, bring over food…all of the needs that don’t go away as children grow up. Sending you love and light…and hope!

  • MsMaeDae

    wish you all the healing in the world. <3 you are worthy.

  • Shirley Liu

    Very insightful;)

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  • Kellie Gillette La Belle

    I suffered from postpartum with my second. It took 12 years to put it behind me completely. Perfectionism was my trigger, a nasty habit that I carried with me my entire life. When I finally dealt with that, I emerged a gentler, more empathic woman. Thanks for article.

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  • Alexia Vernon

    @kelliegillettelabelle:disqus Thank YOU for your thoughts. I’m pretty sure you just helped me realize one of my triggers as well. I still experience the shadow of PPD nearly 1.5 years later, and like you, I suspect relapses into perfectionism play a role. Gentleness and empathy…yes, yes, yes!

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