The Emotions of Infertility: Going From Anger to Gratitude
November 25th, 2020 | 12 min. read
Inherent in infertility is disappointment. In fact, the process is steeped in disappointment. Seeing the evidence every month that it hasn’t happened is a visual reminder that once again, no pregnancy.
The Difficulties of Infertility
There’s a predictable fast flood of feelings that accompany the menstrual flow or the pregnancy test that confirms another month of “not yet.” They are disappointment, frustration, anger, hopelessness, despair, or even betrayal. A lot of us cycle through those feelings and develop a loss of confidence in ourselves, our partners (if there is one), our bodies, and our doctors if we’re in treatment.
And let’s be completely clear here: these are normal and natural reactions to a disappointing result. You’ve been yearning, hoping, dreaming, and planning for this; it’s perfectly normal and even expected to feel disappointed.
In over thirty years of being a Patient Advocate, I have seen almost everything. Excitement, despair, hope, clinical depression, rage, exhilaration. All expressed in so many different ways. Descriptions of not being able to get out of bed for days at a time, being unable to talk to even the closest of friends and family, forgoing a baby shower of a beloved sister, wanting to divorce a truly loved husband. I believe I’ve heard some version of it all.
What I have never, ever, not once, consistently NOT heard?
“Woo hoo, my IVF cycle didn’t work! So excited I get to do it again.”
Nope, that’s likely not your reaction either. (Anyone out there who’s felt that way, please let me know!)
Acknowledging the Hard Feelings
So, yes, there’s the response, the initial reaction to not being pregnant. You feel that first flush of anger, disappointment, frustration, and so many other feelings that are deeply uncomfortable yet painfully impossible to avoid.
Many times, we shelter under the familiar cover of anger. We hear something that’s not what we want or expect or think is fair, and anger floods in. Tamping that feeling down to make it polite, to instead give a civil response, often means that it comes out sideways later on.
Then what? Anger can often be exhausting, leaving us feeling spent, in need of recovery. If we’ve expressed or even if we’ve suppressed that anger, guilt, or shame can follow closely behind.
For most of us, killing the messenger only feels good in the moment.
How then do we handle these reactive feelings? We don’t want to explode all over people nor do we want to shove our feelings down, to bubble up at some other equally unappreciated time.
What do we do?
Writer for Psychology Today, Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD, mentions a couple of my favorites, like hitting a ball or dancing your anger out. Anger can be put into action, so that you can literally move it out of your body.
Me? I love hitting a pillow. I also love finding a place where I can scream as loud as I want. Stomping my foot. Going for some higher level of exercise - wind sprints come to mind.
Literally, move it out of your body.
Shifting Perspective - Are You Ready?
So, you work the anger out of your body. You may feel a little tired, in a good way, especially if you’ve physically moved anger out of your body. You may be left feeling truly sad. Honor that too, please.
Having a good cry can be beneficial to you.
WebMD quotes Stephen Sideroff, Ph.D, “Stress tightens muscles and heightens tension, so when you cry, you release some of that. [Crying] activates the parasympathetic nervous system and restores the body to a state of balance."
Finally, as the feelings are being felt, learn more about those feelings. If you’re a geek like me, you might enjoy looking at the feeling wheel and start noticing that feelings are more complex than anger. You might realize that the feeling is frustration (that it hasn’t worked again), or humiliated (your body has let you down), or jealous (everyone is pregnant but me). Identifying these other emotions may lead to a better understanding of how you’re feeling, giving you better language to understand yourself and to express yourself to others.
You’ve now experienced your primary feelings. The ones that come unasked and are even unwelcome.
Now you have some choices about shifting perspective and choosing how to see your situation.
Gratitude can be a new perspective, based on secondary feelings. Secondary feelings are how you want to feel. Not how you think you “should” feel, but what you would like for yourself.
Being realistic is one approach, but it’s not the only approach. Feel free to dream big here. Let your heart and mind go where they most deeply want to go.
Do you want to feel calm in the chaos? Is that a big ask?
Can we feel gratitude when the resentment, frustration, and pain are overwhelming? Does that feel like too big an ask?
Let’s unpack it.
Start With Small Gratitude Steps
Notice what’s around you. The route to mindfulness is through observation (and slowing down). What you notice is what leads to gratitude.
A few very accessible examples:
- When I turn the switch on, the lights come on (or when you ask Alexa!)
- Hot water for a shower today
- There is food so that I’m not hungry
These are not little things, and this is not about lowering expectations. This is about appreciating what there is in your life that often gets overlooked. A personal favorite of mine is that my car starts every morning (so far!). Imagine any of those things not happening and that will show you how important they are, as basic as they may seem.
In noticing the most overlooked aspects of your life, as listed above, it may reveal other places that have also escaped your attention. A few possibilities are relationships that are working well, adherence to an exercise regime, having a job that’s stable, overall health (infertility aside), or a home that you enjoy living in.
Not little. Not insignificant.
Changing the direction of your gaze can help shift your perspective.
Finding the Gratitude System That Works for You
You have options!
Writing things down is a time honored way of acknowledging something meaningful.
- Maybe it’s in a paper journal, writing things out in long hand, on lovely paper with a colorful pen.
- Maybe it’s on your phone or computer.
- Send yourself to sleep in a loving way. Write three things you’re grateful for before you go to sleep. See if this affects how you fall asleep and how you wake up.
The simple act of writing or typing reinforces your observation and gratitude.
Take a picture of something that you find beautiful. There is beauty in your life, seeing it can sometimes feel almost impossible. Immortalize it in an image that you can look at whenever you need a reminder of beauty.
- Look around your house for something that delights your eyes. Take a picture, put it in an album on your phone and label it, “Beauty.”
- Combine picture taking with a walk. Bundle up if it's chilly, so that being outside feels refreshing (not freezing!), and look closely at what you’re walking past. Take the picture and put it in your Beauty album.
Challenge! Infertility is a direct hit to our sense of self-worth and confidence. Try this one: take a selfie, with or without filters. See if you can look at that picture and see that you are beautiful and worthwhile.
Reaping the Rewards of Gratitude
- As you add to your gratitude practice, calculate how much of your day you are now focusing on the beautiful, healthy and loving things you have in your life.
- Pat yourself on the back! Shifting perspective and cultivating gratitude is work and takes dedication. Please remember, you are so worth it.
- Research done in 2019 has shown this: “Gratitude may provide an impetus to personal growth and encourage women to construct meanings from their experience of infertility. These, in turn, may relieve stress arising from relational, social, and life priorities domains (e.g. social, relationship, and sexual concerns, and need for parenthood).”
- Lean into those who are experiencing similar feelings and situations. Let a perfect stranger become a new best friend!
Sharing What You've Found - A Gratitude Group
We’re here to help. From now until January 17th (my sister’s birthday, a person I am truly grateful to have in my life), we’re offering a special place to share gratitude. A place where you can tell others what you’re grateful for and hear what others have to say. Interested? Email or FB message me, Lisa Rosenthal. email@example.com or join the FB page.
We want what you want. To be authentic. To be happier. To be present in our lives. Let us help you with that!
Let us help you commit to a gratitude practice.
With 30+ years experience in the fertility field, as well as navigating her own infertility, Lisa has dedicated her life to advocating for and supporting those struggling to grow their families. Her work includes serving as Illume Fertility's Patient Advocate, Strategic Content Lead, and founder of Fertile Yoga, as well as advocating for those with infertility at RESOLVE and other organizations.