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Mental Health

New Moms: Thinking flexibly

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Author: Anxiety Canada


The responsibility of caring for a new baby can feel tremendous and daunting.

Doubts and new fears can creep in and fill you with worries. You may wonder: Why am I having these scary thoughts all the time? Why do I worry so much, even when I know it’s not helping? How can I stop imagining the worst-case scenarios?

In this section, we hope to answer these questions. We will also offer you tools to understand how your thoughts can affect your anxiety—and what you can do to feel more in charge.


Tool 1: Understand the nature of thoughts

Our brains are meaning-making machines. We are constantly trying to make sense of the events in our lives. Much of this processing happens outside our conscious awareness. These thoughts that constantly stream in the background are called Automatic Thoughts.

Although sometimes we are unaware of these automatic thoughts, they can still have a powerful impact on how we feel, and what we do. Let's see how Annie and Lily's automatic thoughts influenced their reactions to the same situation.

Situation: Partner was 20 minutes late in coming home.





What if he got into a car accident? He's probably badly hurt, or worse. That's why I can't reach him on the phone!

He's probably caught up in traffic. He usually calls to let me know when he's running late, but he probably forgot to charge his phone last night.


Very anxious, panicky

A little concerned, and slightly annoyed

Body symptoms

Racing heart, tightening chest, breathing faster

Stomach slightly tense

Annie felt anxious and panicky. She repeatedly called her partner's cell phone, listened for ambulance sirens, and looked out the window. She also called her mother for reassurance.

Lily felt a little concerned and slightly annoyed. She decided to carry on with what she was doing while listening for the door.

Actual outcome: Both of their partners arrived home safely shortly after and explained that traffic was bad and the phone's battery was depleted.

Annie and Lily reacted to the same situation very differently because of the different meanings they had given to the situation. Both of their reactions made complete sense given what they were telling themselves. Annie's scary interpretation increased her anxiety and led her to behave anxiously, while Lily's calmer and more probable interpretation did not increase her anxiety much and she was less distracted.

These examples demonstrate that our thoughts do not have to be true to impact how we feel. Our thoughts can have a strong effect even when they are unrealistic and extreme. Thoughts can feel true, even if they are actually not a true reflection of reality.

Just because a thought feels true doesn’t make it true. Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are not facts.


Tool 2: The truth about worry

Everyone worries from time to time, and many people consider themselves worriers.

Worries are usually a "what if" question about something bad happening in the immediate or distant future. These anticipated bad outcomes can sometimes come true, but are often quite unlikely to happen.

Although we might wish it wasn't so, the fact of life is that there is no such thing as worry-free parenting. It is natural to have some worries about your baby and your future. Many parents find that they continue to worry about their children even when their children are old enough to have children of their own!

If you are a first-time mom or mom-to-be, parenthood can seem particularly intimidating.

After all, there seems to be so much you don't know and endless possibilities of things that might go wrong:

  • What if my marriage doesn't survive?

  • What if I'm not a good mother?

  • What if I can't make enough milk?

  • What if my baby has a serious birth defect or gets really sick?

Even if this is your second or third time being pregnant, you may still worry about things:

  • What if this birth doesn't go as smoothly as the last one?

  • What if I don’t love all my children equally?

  • What if I can’t handle taking care of one more child?

All of these worries are understandable.

Most of the time, worries aren’t much of an issue, especially when they seem under control and don’t cause too much distress or interfere with daily life.

However, worries become a bigger problem when they happen almost every day and seem excessive and uncontrollable. Constant and excessive worrying is not only exhausting, but it can also damage relationships and lead to many unhelpful behaviours that get in the way of daily life (for example, excessive checking, asking for repeated reassurance from others).

If you find you worry more than people around you, regularly jump to the worst-case scenario about many things, and find it hard to stop, then you may have generalized anxiety disorder. You might want to talk to your health care provider and possibly seek some professional help.


Benefits of worry?

Is there a part of you that believes your worries serve a good purpose, despite the time and energy it takes out of your day?

When we think on some level that worrying is helping, we tend to worry more.

The following are some common ways that people think worry is beneficial:

Worrying shows I am a caring person.

If you believe this, you might think, "I worry about my family because I love and care about them" or "People know me as the worrier; I'm the one who worries and cares for people."

Worrying helps me to solve problems.

Examples of this belief include: "If something is wrong, I need to think about it a lot so I can fix it" and "When I worry about my problems, I am more likely to solve them."

Worrying motivates me.

If you believe this, then you might say to yourself, "Worrying about being a good mother motivates me to read more parenting books" or "If I didn't worry about how I look, I would never go to the gym and become a lazy slob!"

Worrying protects me from feeling bad later.

If you believe this, then you probably think worrying better prepares you for catastrophes. Like if you worry about bad things now, you won't be so upset if the bad thing actually happens. An example of this type of belief: "If something bad happens to my family and I didn't worry about it beforehand, it would come as total shock and I wouldn't be able to handle it."

Worrying prevents bad things from happening.

If you have this belief, you might think, "I am less likely to do things a bad mother would do because I worry so much about being a bad mother."

If you identified with one or more of these beliefs, you likely believe that worrying is useful to you in some way. This might come as a surprise, even causing you to ask, "How is this possible? I hate lying awake worrying!"

Sometimes our beliefs can be buried, hidden even from ourselves. One way to tell whether we believe in something is to carefully observe how we act. Our beliefs and behaviours are closely related (see Tool 3: Your Anxiety Fingerprint).

You can see how you can easily get caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy: what we believe influences how we act, and how we act can reinforce what we believe.


Has worrying really been helpful to you?

Rethink the usefulness of worrying

"Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength." —Corrie ten Boom

Whether you have known all along that you believe worrying is useful, or just learned that you do, it is worthwhile to think carefully about whether your worries are really helping you in the ways that you think they are. Here are some questions that you can ask yourself:


Questions to help you rethink your beliefs

Worrying shows I am a caring person.

  • Do I know caring people who don't worry as much as I do?

  • What else besides worrying shows that I care?

  • If I care about something, what actions can I take to show this instead of worrying?

Worrying helps me to solve problems.

  • Am I spinning my wheels by going over my problem again and again by worrying, or am I actually doing something to solve it? (For example, worrying about not knowing how to handle a newborn versus reading helpful books or attending a baby care class.)

  • Do I know people who are organized and prepared but don’t worry as much as I do?

Worrying motivates me.

  • Am I confusing worrying with actually doing something about my problem?

  • Am I really more motivated when I worry?

  • Does my worrying get me so anxious, I actually get very little done?

  • Has worrying ever prevented me from doing the things I actually want or need to do?

Worrying protects me from feeling bad later.

  • If something bad did happen, would worrying really help me be less upset?

  • When something bad has happened in my life, was I really more prepared to deal with it because I worried about it beforehand?

  • How does worrying make me feel? How upset am I feeling now because I am worrying?

Worrying prevents bad things from happening.

  • Has anything bad ever happened in my life even though I worried about it?

  • Can I test how much worrying prevents bad things from happening by worrying one day and then NOT worrying the next day, and seeing what actually happens on those days?

You may also want to ask yourself: What has worrying cost me?
  • Has worrying affected your relationships? Are people sometimes annoyed with you or concerned about you for worrying so much?

  • How much time, effort, and energy do you spend worrying? Is it worth it?

  • Has worrying affected you physically? Are you tense all the time, often tired, or do you have trouble sleeping because of your worries?

  • What else could you be doing with the time and energy you are spending on having the same worries over and over?

Is it possible to get the same result some other way?

For example, can you be a caring mother and not constantly worry? Can you be organized, prepared, and motivated without worrying all the time?

If you are convinced your worries are not helpful then you can learn new skills to manage your worrying. Check out Managing Worry for tips on managing excessive worrying.


Tool 3: Your anxiety fingerprint

Anxiety impacts our bodies, thoughts, and behaviours

This diagram shows how these components relate and interact with each other in a given situation. (For more details, see What is Anxiety?).

your anxiety fingerprint

Given the power our thoughts have over our body, emotions, and actions, it seems like a good idea to get to know what we think really well. But how do we catch those speedy, sneaky, often unconscious thoughts? Many people have found keeping a Thought Diary helpful. Tracking and writing down your anxious thoughts might sound like a real pain. Why would you want to record the upsetting and scary stuff going through your head? And, even if you did, when would you find the time to do it?


Your thought diary

Despite the extra effort, many people have found keeping a thought diary very useful. Here are some things people who practiced using the thought diary said:

"Once I wrote my thoughts down, they somehow didn't seem as real or powerful anymore. I was able to look at them more objectively and decide whether to believe them. I was actually a bit shocked about what I was telling myself!"

"Writing my thoughts down freed up my mental space and helped me ruminate less. It's like I didn’t have to hold on to all the worries in my head anymore."

"I was surprised how much it helped me to better understand myself. Before this, I usually didn’t understand where my waves of anxiety were coming from. Even though it was kind of a pain, the thought diary helped me to feel more in charge. It was definitely worth the effort."

"Keeping a thought diary was a lot like keeping a personal journal, but in a more structured way. I got to know my patterns better and it gave me ideas about things I could do to change."

Would you be willing to give the thought diary a try and find out for yourself whether it would benefit you too? Don't be discouraged if you run into trouble identifying your thoughts or finding time to keep track of them. It isn't easy to start and takes practice. See Troubleshooting for tips to help you out if you get stuck.

A sample entry in Salima’s thought diary



What happened?


What did I say to myself?

Feeling (0-10)

What am I feeling emotionally?

Bodily symptoms

What am I feeling physically?


What did I do to cope?

Monday afternoon

Arman woke up crying after a short 20-minute nap.

What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I figure this out? I am just not cut out to be a mother.

  • Anxious 6/10

  • Sad 5/10

  • Irritated 7/10

Feeling pressure in chest and a headache coming on

Called mother again for reassurance after settling Arman down



I really can’t find the time to do a Thought Diary.

Life with a new baby is hectic, and adding one extra thing to do can seem impossible. The key idea behind keeping a thought diary is to practice paying attention to what you are saying to yourself and noticing how this self-talk affects you. You might find it helpful to use a small notebook or your phone to quickly jot down some notes shortly after an upsetting event and then reflect on them later, when you have more time. In addition, even though writing can make this task more effective, simply increasing your mental awareness is also very helpful. Make it a priority and check in with yourself a few times a day. For example, while you are nursing, washing the dishes, or doing laundry, take a moment to notice your thoughts and reflect on them. Brief moments like these can make a big difference.

I'm having a hard time identifying my thoughts.

It can be hard to catch our thoughts because they can pop in at breakneck speed. Very often we feel the impact of our thoughts before we notice thinking them! If you find it hard to spot exactly what you are saying to yourself, this is really common. As with any other skill, you can get better with practice. Give these strategies a try:

Be a detective. When you start to feel anxious or physically uncomfortable (e.g., heart racing, stomach clenching, or muscles tightening), ask yourself:

  • What did I imagine or tell myself just now?

  • What am I worried about?

  • What bad thing am I predicting will happen?

Separate thoughts from feelings. We may say things like this to ourselves:

  • I feel stupid.

  • I feel like I’m going to mess up my baby.

Despite the word "feel," these are actually examples of thoughts rather than feelings. Feelings are emotions and can be described in one word, such as fear, happiness, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness, and joy.

Notice different forms of thoughts. They can come in the forms of words or images. Images are as powerful as words at affecting our feelings and behaviours.

If you're stuck or unsure, take a guess. It is okay to guess. It might actually provide some clues about what you are telling yourself or imagining. Ask yourself: what would another mom tell herself or imagine if she were reacting the same way?

If you tried these strategies and still can't seem to figure out your thoughts, that is okay. Pay attention to what you are doing. As you can see from the Anxiety Fingerprint diagram, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are all connected.

Anxiety generates unhelpful behaviours that keep anxiety going. Checking that the baby is breathing every five minutes can feel better in the moment, but in the long run it can actually make anxiety worse, and keep you feeling distressed and exhausted. Learning to identify and change these behaviours can be even more effective than changing your thinking.


Tool 4: Recognize thinking traps

Of course we feel distressed when upsetting things happen, like when our baby is sick. However, sometimes we can get stuck in a pattern of feeling upset or anxious even when the situation doesn't warrant this reaction anymore. For example, we feel equally cautious and on edge when our baby is healthy, because the baby could get sick again. There is no relief!

Below are some common unhelpful thinking styles that keep people "trapped" in distress. We call these "thinking traps."

It's common to fall into these traps every now and then for brief periods of time. But if you experience problematic anxiety, you might find yourself falling into these traps frequently and getting stuck in them.

Knowing your thinking traps gives you a quick way to know when not to trust what you think. We all do it sometimes, and recognizing when we are using them is an important step for releasing their hold on us. Here are some very common types of thinking traps.

Thinking trap and definition


Trap: Jumping to conclusions

We predict what is going to happen, with little or no evidence. This can include thinking that you know what others are thinking (mind reading), without any evidence.

I'm not going to the local new mom group because I won't fit in. Talking to other mothers will just highlight how little I know about being a mother.

Trap: Worst-case scenario

We exaggerate how badly something will turn out and how we will be unable to cope.

I can't stop comparing my son to other children his age. If I find that he is developing slower, I worry that he'll always be behind and won't be successful in life...and I won't know how to help him.

Trap: It’s all my fault

We take on too much responsibility and believe that if we have any influence over a negative outcome then we are responsible for preventing it.

It must have been my fault that I ended up having an emergency C-section. There must have been SOMETHING I could have done to prevent it.

Trap: Harsh critic

We impose harsh rules or labels on ourselves or others about the way we SHOULD behave and/or feel.

I SHOULD always be able to soothe my child right away when she is upset. I’m a bad mother for not being able to do so.

Trap: Black-and-white thinking

We think in extreme (or all-or-nothing) terms and view things as either perfect or a complete disaster or failure.

My son's birth was a horrible experience and I feel like a failure. I had an epidural even though I planned not to have one.

Trap: Confusing Thoughts with Actual Probability

We believe that thinking about a negative event or action actually increases the likelihood of it happening.

I get horrific images of my child catching some disease and being very ill. This is a sign that it's likely to happen and I need to be extra careful about cleanliness.

Trap: Confusing Thoughts with Actions

We believe having the thought about doing something undesirable is the same as actually doing it.

Whenever I feel frustrated with my daughter, I get scary thoughts about hurting her. What if these thoughts are trying to warn me that I could snap sometime and actually do it? I try to spend as little alone time with her as I can to make sure that I do not act on my thoughts.

Trap: If it "feels" true, it must be true

We use emotional reasoning—using our feelings as evidence that our thoughts are really true, even when there is little or no concrete evidence to support them.

I feel unsure of myself, therefore I must not know what I'm doing as a mother.


Tool 5: Consider more helpful thoughts

There are so many ways our thoughts can trap us in distressing feelings. Luckily we can learn how to get out of these traps.

Here are some tips.


Tip 1: Use the Thought Diary to help you capture your thoughts about situations that come up in your daily life. Once you know what you are thinking, you can start to identify Thinking Traps and begin the process of freeing yourself from them. Find keeping a thought diary challenging? Check out the Troubleshooting tips.

Tip 2: Take a step back and treat your thoughts as opinions you have about situations, rather than facts, even when they feel true. Recognizing thoughts as opinions helps to create some distance between you as an individual and your thoughts, therefore allowing you to look at your thoughts more objectively.

Tip 3: Be curious: observe what you think and consider different perspectives. After all, our thoughts are our perceptions about what’s going on, not necessarily what’s really going on. Consider the possibility that another person could have totally different thoughts about the exact same situation.

Tip Take a moment (e.g., take a few deep breaths, listen to music, light a candle – see Taking Care for more ideas). Thinking differently is hard work, especially when emotions are running high. Some people find gaining new perspectives easier when they give themselves a chance to do something soothing.

Tip 5: Don’t be discouraged if you did not feel much better after trying on the more helpful and balanced thought. The goal is not to have only positive thoughts and feelings. Having negative feelings and thoughts is part of being human. The goal is to learn to consider different perspectives and think flexibly. Increased mental flexibility has many benefits, including being less likely to stay stuck in thinking traps.

Examples of more helpful thinking
  • Am I ignoring information between the extremes? Are there some "greys" in the situation?

Thinking trap

Questions to ask yourself

Realistic thinking

Jumping to conclusions

I'm not going to the local new mom group because I won't fit in. Talking to other mothers will just highlight how little I know about being a mother.

  • What evidence do I have to support my thought?

  • Is there any evidence to suggest this might not be the case?

I can't really predict what’s going to happen. The first time is usually the hardest. But I don't have any evidence that I definitely won't fit in. It will likely get easier as I attend the group more regularly. If I don't try, I'll never know.


Worst-case scenario

I can't stop comparing my son to other children his age. If I find that he is developing slower, I worry that he'll always be behind and won’t be successful in life...and I won't know how to help him.

  • Am I assuming the worst-case scenario?

  • What is the more likely scenario?

  • Is there anything I can do to cope, if something bad did happen?

  • Have I coped with difficult life circumstances before? Am I underestimating my ability to cope with difficulties and challenges

I am assuming the worst here. I am not an expert in child development. I don't actually know for sure that my child is slower in his development in comparison to other children his age. Every child develops at his or her own pace. Even if my child is in fact a bit "behind" now doesn't mean he'll remain behind and not succeed in life. Although I can't imagine being able to deal with the worst-case scenario right now, I've always surprised myself about how well I rise up to challenges.

It's all my fault

It must have been my fault that I ended up having an emergency C-section. There must have been SOMETHING I could have done to prevent it.

  • Am I taking on responsibility for things outside of my control?

  • Have I considered other factors or people that might influence the situation?

  • How much control do I really have over this situation?

  • Am I holding myself responsible for something not entirely within my control?

I did the best I could to prepare for the birth, but no one has control over every part of childbirth, not even doctors. I can hold myself responsible for this, but is it helpful? I can't control what happened. The important thing is that both the baby and I are safe and healthy. It's okay that I feel sad and disappointed about it. It is probably more helpful for me to acknowledge how I feel and start focusing on the present.

Harsh critic

I SHOULD always be able to soothe my child right away when she is upset. I'm a bad mother for not being able to do so.

  • Would I talk to someone I care about this way? What might I say to them if they were in a similar situation?

  • Is this way of talking to myself or thinking about others helpful?

  • What would be a more objective or compassionate way of talking to myself or thinking about others?

It is unhelpful and unrealistic to expect that I should always be able to soothe my daughter right away. Sometimes she just needs to take her time to express how she feels. I am not a bad mother if she cried longer than I would have liked.

Black-and-white thinking

My son's birth was a horrible experience and I feel like a failure. I had an epidural even though I planned not to have one.

  • Is there a less extreme way of looking at this situation?

Although I planned on having a natural, drug-free birthing experience, the epidural was something I really needed to cope with the pain. I know it's important to let my "perfect birth" go. My labour was very long, and most women would have needed assistance with the pain at that point too. I have to remember I was in a completely different mind state then, and there was so much going on.

Confusing Thoughts with actual probability

I get horrific images of my child catching some disease and being very ill. This is a sign that it's likely to happen and I need to be extra careful about cleanliness.

  • How many times have I thought _____ and how many times has it come true? What evidence do I have?

  • Have I ever thought something bad might happen but it never did? What about something bad that happened but I never thought about it?

  • (When appropriate, try Anxiety Experiments.)

Imagining my baby getting sick is scary, but it's no more likely to come true than images or thoughts that do not make me anxious. My baby is likely to be just as healthy before I started my long cleaning rituals. I can take a small step to test this out. For example, for one week I can wash the crib sheets once every two days, instead of every day, and see what happens.

Confusing thoughts with actions

Whenever I feel frustrated with my daughter, I get scary thoughts about hurting her. What if these thoughts are trying to warn me that I could snap sometime and actually do it? I try to spend as little alone time with her as I can to make sure that I do not act on my thoughts.

  • Does having a thought equal to action?

  • Am I using a double-standard? If someone I knew well had the same thought, would I hold the same attitude towards that person?

  • If I were the prosecuting attorney and had to convince the court that someone is guilty, how would I do that? Would I need to produce hard evidence or simply argue how guilty I feel the person is?

Having these scary thoughts would be upsetting to anyone. But it does not mean that I will actually hurt my daughter or that I do not love her. When I shared these thoughts with a good friend, she was not at all worried that I would act on them. She also did not think less of me as a mother. She told me that she had similar thoughts when her son was young and that these thoughts are common for new

If it feels true, it must be true

I feel unsure of myself, therefore I must not know what I'm doing as a mother.

  • Am I using emotions too much as a guide?

  • Am I telling myself that feeling anxious means something really bad is going to happen? Other than the feeling, what evidence do I have?

  • Have I felt anxious about things in the past and nothing bad came out of it? How is this approach working out? Has it helped manage my anxiety?

Feeling unsure of myself as a mother doesn't mean I don't know what I am doing. In fact, from my experience talking to other mothers, most feel the same way I do, even the ones I thought looked so competent. I need to remember that motherhood isn't an exact science and there is no one right way to raise a child. Feeling unsure is normal, and probably just means I care.

NOTE: While many people have found these tools to un-trap their thinking really useful, some people, particularly those who tend to overanalyze their thoughts, have not always found these tools helpful.

Give these above tools a good try for at least two weeks. The more effort you put in, the more likely you will see (and feel!) the results. If you don't find them effective, try Tool 6, R.O.L.L with Anxious Thoughts. You might find learning to let go of your anxiety-provoking thoughts a better fit for the way your mind works.

Remember, there is no one size that fits all!


Tool 6: R.O.L.L with Anxious Thoughts

We all have upsetting thoughts that we wish we didn't have.

It's natural to want to control these upsetting thoughts and stop them from coming. We do this in several ways. For example, we tell ourselves to stop thinking about something, or we dismiss our thoughts by saying, "That's silly, I'm being ridiculous." Sometimes we distract ourselves and get busy with something else. Or we tell ourselves positive things to feel better: "It'll all work out for the best."

Unfortunately, most people have not found thought-control strategies very helpful. Numerous scientific studies have shown that more we try to get rid of unwanted thoughts, the more these thoughts stick and increase in frequency and intensity. Trying to control a thought is a lot like trying to keep a beach ball underwater. The harder you push it down, the more it resists and wants to come up to the surface!

Instead of trying to control, reason with, or react to thoughts, let them enter and leave your mind freely, without engaging them or getting attached to them. Try R.O.L.Ling with your thoughts and simply let them be.

Imagine you suddenly have this anxious thought: "What if I drop my baby?" How do you R.O.L.L with it?

Recognize: When an anxious thought comes to mind, acknowledge and recognize it for what it is—a thought, nothing more and nothing less.

"I am having a thought that I might drop my baby."

Observe: Observe the thought with interest and curiosity. Notice it and its impact on your body and feelings. Just allow it to be, without judging, reacting to, or changing it in any way.

"I notice that my thought is predicting the worst. This thought makes me nervous and it's no wonder my stomach feels tense. I notice that I have the urge to get reassurance from my partner, so I can feel better. Instead of reacting to this thought, I'm just going to let it be and sit for a while with these feelings that are coming up..."

Let go: After fully recognizing and observing your thoughts, you can choose to let them go. You might find it helpful to imagine your thoughts as clouds floating in the sky; they float in and eventually change shape or disappear. You can just watch them float past you. Some people like to picture their thoughts as leaves flowing down a gentle stream. They come into your field of view, but if you don’t reach out and pick them out of the stream, they will continue to flow downstream and eventually out of sight.

"My thought about dropping the baby is scary. But it is just a thought, nothing more and nothing less. I am going to just watch the thought float by in its own time, eventually passing out of sight."

Important: Letting go of your thoughts is not the same as ignoring or pushing your thoughts away. You are recognizing and acknowledging your thoughts for what they are, rather than avoiding them.


Tool 7: Befriend uncertainty

Uncertainty (not being 100% sure about something) is a big trigger for many people. In the face of uncertainty, we often have thoughts like:
  • I can't stand not being absolutely sure.

  • I should always look ahead to avoid surprises.

  • I don’t want to decide in case it’s not the right decision.

We also do things to try to gain more certainty. We worry, for example, in an effort to figure out all the possible ways things could go wrong so we can be more certain of the outcome. But we know it doesn't work. We still feel anxious because there is no way of knowing exactly how things are going to turn out. There are no guarantees.

We also try to seek more certainty through actions like repeatedly checking things or constantly seeking reassurance from others. For example:
  • Are you sure we made the right decision on the car seat and it is the best out there?

  • Are you sure you still find me attractive?

The problem is almost everything in life is uncertain because no one can predict the future.

We can make our lives a lot more enjoyable if we can "befriend" uncertainty, rather than spending more time and energy trying to fight against the inevitable.

So how do we get comfortable with uncertainty? Accepting it and building tolerance for it.

Accepting uncertainty

Demanding certainty can be a frustrating experience because we can NEVER do enough to be 100% certain. We need to make peace with the fact that uncertainty is part of life. The strategy of R.O.L.Ling with anxious thoughts could also help you to let go of your need for certainty and accept uncertainty as an unavoidable part of life.

How do we R.O.L.L with uncertainty? Let’s look at an example.

Recognize: "I notice how much I hate not having a guarantee that my baby will always be safe."

Observe: "It’s interesting to notice my need for certainty, a guarantee. This need is making me anxious and agitated. I feel pressure in my chest and I notice a headache coming on. I have the urge to do anything I can to fulfill my need to know so I can stop the discomfort. I'm just going to observe and sit with these feelings for a while..."

Let go: "My need for certainty cannot be satisfied no matter what I do. Being uncertain does not mean things will turn out badly. Uncertainty is part of life and I will accept it. I will let my need for certainty go." (Visualize your need for certainty floating past you like clouds in the sky.)

Learning to accept uncertainty will not make our need for certainty disappear, but it will save us time and energy when we let go of trying to control the uncontrollable.

Building tolerance

In addition to accepting uncertainty, another helpful strategy is to practice building your tolerance and comfort level with uncertainty. This means intentionally facing your fear of not knowing, over and over, until it feels less distressing.

Check out Increase Your Tolerance for Uncertainty for more tips.


Tool 8: Treat yourself kindly

Are you too hard on yourself?

Katherine wanted so much to be a good mother. It was the most important thing in the world to her. Because she cared so much, she often beat herself up whenever she thought she should have done something differently.

One day, she had a startling insight as she watched her older son being coached in soccer. The coach berated him for missing a pass. Her son stood dejected, tears in his eyes, and then announced later that he didn't want to play anymore. Later that night, she sent the coach an angry email that his approach was not the way to motivate and teach a child. Then she realized, "This is what I am doing to myself!" Perhaps being kinder to herself might actually help her be the kind of mother she wanted to be.

Can you identify with Katherine? Do you also talk to yourself like the merciless coach whenever you don’t meet your own expectations? How is this approach working out for you?

Adjust your expectations

Perhaps it's time to reconsider whether being hard on yourself has really been helpful to you. Here are some questions that might shed some light.

Are your expectations so high that they are either very hard to meet or unachievable?

  • I should NEVER feel frustrated with my baby.

Are your expectations in terms of black and white?

  • A job is not well done if I did not devote all my effort into doing it.

  • My diet is ruined because I ate a piece of cheesecake yesterday.

Are your expectations inflexible?

  • I can't leave the house until the bed is made just so.

Are you intolerant of failures to meet your expectations?

  • I'm weak and useless for feeling overwhelmed and anxious about motherhood.

Do you focus on what you haven't accomplished rather than on what you have accomplished?

  • So what if I didn't find time to cook tonight? I didn't cook the night before, and we ordered pizza.

In our experience, people who answered "yes" to most of these questions feel "bullied" by their high expectations. They are also more likely to feel irritable, anxious, depressed, and dissatisfied even after working very hard to meet their expectations. Sometimes they got so stressed about meeting their expectations that they ended up procrastinating or avoiding the tasks all together. Does this sound familiar?

If you found that being hard on yourself has cost you and would like to be more self-nurturing, these tips can help you on the path to greater self-compassion:

  1. Turn down the volume of that self-critical voice.

  2. Notice your successes.

  3. Act as if you are worth it.


Tip 1: Turn down the volume of that self-critical voice

We are usually much harder on ourselves than we would ever be with anyone else.

We berate ourselves in the hope of motivating ourselves to do better. But would you ever use these same cruel words to your child? If the answer is "no," why not? And why is it okay for you to speak to yourself that way? Learning to turn down the volume of our self-critical voice begins with the practice of talking to ourselves a little more gently. Here are some examples:

Critical self-talk

Compassionate self-talk

I'm useless. There are so many things I don't know about raising a child.

This is normal. There is so much to know. Parenthood is a constant learning experience. No one has it all figured out.

I am fully responsible for my baby’s wellbeing. If something goes wrong with the pregnancy, it'll all be my fault.

I can only be responsible for what is realistically within my control. Blaming myself for things outside of my control is not going to help.

I'm so pathetic for feeling overwhelmed about becoming a parent.

Being a parent is not easy. I'm sure many other parents feel this way. I will focus on what I can do rather than what I can’t.

Deep down I'm a bad person who shouldn't be a role model to anyone.

I need to remember that while I have some weaknesses (and who doesn't?). I also have a lot of good qualities. My baby needs a real, loving, and self-compassionate mom, not an imaginary perfect mom.

I'm so stupid for making that mistake.

Everyone makes mistakes; what counts is what I take away from this experience. Making a mistake does not say anything about my intelligence.

I'm worthless. I don't have the right to ask for help.

I have as much right to ask for help as the next person. Given the big changes that are happening in my life, this is a particularly good time to ask for help.

Challenge yourself to "try on" compassionate self-talk

Intentionally speak to yourself compassionately to see whether this approach make a difference in how you think about yourself. Try it several times a day for at least two weeks. You may have been listening to your inner critic for a long time, even years. Maybe ever since you were a young child. It will take some time to adjust to the new ways of talking to yourself and for the more compassionate self-talk to feel familiar.

Supercharge the effect by acting as if you believe these thoughts!

How might you behave differently if you believed your compassionate self-talk? For example, if you believed that it's okay not to know everything about parenting in order to be a good parent, would you spend less time reading parenting books and more time enjoying your baby?


Tip 2: Notice your successes

Research shows that we tend to pay attention to information that confirms what we already believe and filter out information that is inconsistent.

We do this mostly on an unconscious level, and it helps make our world seem more predictable. But by doing this we often remember only things that are consistent with what we already believe to be true. This includes our critical beliefs about ourselves.

It's hard to feel good if you only notice the bad things

What does this mean for those who think, "I can't do anything right?" Believing that you "always mess up" has likely created blind spots that prevent you from noticing and remembering the times when you HAVE succeeded. You may also interpret successes as being flukes or "no big deal." Instead, you are constantly looking out for mistakes or signs of failure. You may even harshly berate yourself if you don't meet your own expectations. It's no wonder you have a hard time feeling good about yourself if you keep looking for evidence of how you have messed up and discounting what you have done well.

Learn to pay attention to successes

One strategy that can help is to gradually retrain your brain to pay attention to all the things you do well. For the next week, try to write down all your successes as they occur. Pay attention to any achievements, no matter how small or insignificant they might seem to you at the time. Notice achievements across a broad range of areas of your life, particularly the sort of things you might normally dismiss.

Here are some examples:

"It was an accomplishment for me to go for a 15-minute walk today even though I wanted to keep working."

"I spent the day in and enjoyed time alone with my daughter instead of filling our schedule with play dates because I think we are suppose to be ‘social’ all the time."

"I made a simple, healthy dinner tonight."

"I resisted the urge to redo the dishes after my partner washed them, even though it made me uncomfortable because I prefer dishes to be done a certain way."

"I don’t think anyone can do as good of a job of caring for our baby as I do. But I went out with some friends and gave my sister a chance to look after the baby."


Tip 3: Act as if you are worth it

When was the last time you did something nice for yourself?

A common side effect of not feeling good about yourself is a sense of worthlessness, as though you don’t have the same needs or rights as others and don’t deserve good things. We so easily forget to treat ourselves with as much love and care as we give to our families.

How could you overcome the feeling of worthlessness? There are many things you can do, and a good start is acting as if you believe that you are worth it. Do nice things for yourself and practise good self-care.

For example:

If I was worth it, I would...

  • ask for support when I need it

  • take a nap when I’m tired instead of doing housework

  • take a night off every other week to go out with my friends

  • get a massage

  • buy myself a little treat

  • get my hair done

  • say "no" when the request isn’t reasonable

  • not apologize for things that aren’t my fault

The possibilities are endless. What would you do?


About the author

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