Another key idea from ACT is that part of what distinguishes humans from other animals is language. Language allows us to have an internal dialogue about our experiences. When children learn to talk, they develop associations between words and objects. For example, they learn the word for cow. They instinctively then want to categorise their experiences but can over generalise often in their efforts, so they might call dogs, cats and horses cows too. That same human language habit can lead to distress for us as adults too. We see associations with our experience automatically and everywhere.
When I miscarried I found other people’s pregnancy announcements tough to take because it triggered my own associated memories of my loss and my fear that I might not conceive again and that even if I did I might miscarry again. I then felt guilty for not feeling happy for others. My instinct was initially to avoid potential triggers – to take a break from social media and social situations which might include pregnancy announcements or happy pregnant mums. The trouble with that is, even then there’s still pregnant women on TV and smiley babies in advert breaks. Reading a book still can include an unexpected pregnancy story line. At work, people might bring the subject up – especially to me as a recently married woman who had been open about wanting a baby soon prior to miscarrying and particularly given I hadn’t shared my pregnancy news due to the “wait to the 12 week scan” convention. So I found it impossible to avoid pregnancy and baby references while still living my life and pretending to be normal. Another approach I tried to avoid distress was to act as if all was well – the trouble with that was it felt like there was a huge barrier in the way of my relationships with just about everyone – I felt disconnected and alone in my grief. I remember crying all the way on my drive into work and all the way home, because it was the only time I could release my grief without impacting someone else.
Another key idea in ACT is about how dropping the struggle to avoid feelings can set you free. Again metaphors can help illustrate. Imagine your distress is a monster and that monster is pulling you to a cliff edge with a rope. Avoidance of distress might have you pull harder on the rope to get free, but the monster just pulls harder back, so you get stuck – and sore. And tired. So what else could you do? You could drop the rope. Accept the monster (aka distress) will be there and go ahead anyway with your life – minus the avoidance effort.
For me, this way of thinking led me to gradually tell other people in my network about my miscarriage so I didn’t have to pretend to be normal as often – which in turn made me feel ok more often and more connected to others when I didn’t. I found it helped to give myself permission to feel sad, even when it was triggered by other people’s happy news, and tried to congratulate people anyway – even if it would take my emotions time to catch up. I also allowed myself a social media break as from an online support group I found, it’s common to find that tough after miscarriage and alright to have time out from anything that makes it harder without adding value. Those things that do add value on the other hand- relationships, family, work – are often more important than avoiding distress. To me, anyway.
Hold a piece of paper in front of you while trying to have a conversation with someone else – does it make it easier or harder? That’s a bit what it’s like when trying to avoid thoughts and feelings, or to keep something secret from people you’re close to.