A therapist’s advice on what to do when our inner critics take over
Our guest expert for Coping 101: Ask a Therapist was Thunder Bay psychotherapist Michelle McKitrick, who shared her wisdom, compassion and advice with us live for one extraordinary hour in February 2022.
Here we share an edited excerpt from our discussion on how to deal with the major mental and emotional battles that can come with parenting through separation and divorce.
unhitch: How can we cope with some of the big feelings that come up, like with the distress and guilt that comes out of moving out of our homes, from feeling selfish about your choices, from feeling like we’re abandoning our kids and disrupting everyone’s lives. There is so much wrapped up in all that; how can we deal with it all?
MM: To answer this, I would divide this into two parts: let’s talk about distress first, then we’ll tackle guilt.
Distress and flight, fight and freeze
So when we talk about distress, it’s diffuse physiological arousal or DPA. What ends up happening is that when your body, your brain, your lived experience notices a subtle look, a subtle voice change, or when something shifts in a conversation or your relationship, your brain picks it up immediately.
The centre brain then fires off a message, it sends cortisol, the distress hormone, through your body that says “We’re in trouble here, five alarm fire!”. And then DPA happens: increased heart rate, pupil dilation, respiration, increased blood pressure, sweaty palms, upset stomach etc. The body is now on high alert. And when that happens, we go into flight, fight, freeze. We all know this feeling.
The important thing is to remember that when you get into a distressed situation, your frontal lobe goes offline for a while. It’s like the command centres in the brain, the parts that know what to do and how to respond, they kind of go offline. And that creates a lot of emotional distress and emotional processing about what you are experiencing.
So the first thing you need to do, and that is super important, is to be able to recognize that you feel different. For example, “My body is on fire, I’m really hot, I’m really anxious, I’m super overwhelmed, I’m in a fog.” Those are good indicators to say, “I’m in trouble here and this is really distressing”.
We don’t make our best decisions with anyone in our lives when we are distressed. We don’t say the things we mean or how we want them to be heard. We need to bring the DPA down, the arousal down, so we can bring the frontal lobe back online, decrease the stress, and give us a moment to breathe and have access to our faculties again. Then we can be more conscious about what we say and what we mean.
Breathwork: the fastest way to reset
There are tonnes of strategies out there to bring DPA down. The quickest way to get there is breathwork. By far, the fastest way to reset is breathwork.
Everybody talks about mindfulness, breathwork, yoga. And yes, just do it! Just practice it, because it works. If you practice it on a day-to-day basis, bringing your distress down and feeling calm becomes easier.
I use two faithfully in my practice. One is 4-7-8, taking a big breath in for a count of four, inhaling for a count of seven, and slowly exhaling for a count of eight. And the other is Box Breath (inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four) and trace that box in your mind as you breathe.
And until you get on top of your own distress, managing all the other things that come with uncoupling, like finances and dealing with the kids and worrying about what you will do on your own, they will put you in the overdrive of distress. You are not going to be able to manage those things well until you deal with your distress.
And these are good strategies, depending on how old your kids are, to encourage them to use too if you sense that they are distressed, if they are having those big feelings. And to get a sense of where they are, just get down on their level, talk to them eye-to-eye, hear what their feelings are without providing any education at all. It’s about just listening to their feelings and letting them experience the process of sorting out all the different things they feel and giving them time and space to do that.
It will leave you feeling more grounded and connected to your child, and it will also give you a sense of them on your radar, about where they are emotionally. There is time to process and offer assurances and calming strategies later, and that is important too (telling them “It’s not your fault, I’m always here for you, I love you” and breathwork etc.) but the first step is listening and getting a sense of where they are.
Guilt and narrating our own lives
Okay now part two, guilt. So what is guilt and shame? Shame is saying “I’m a bad person”. Guilt is saying “I’ve done something wrong”.
When you think about guilt over uncoupling, what have you done wrong? As soon as you start with the construct that you have done something bad by leaving or making a decision, you have already started the narrative in the negative construct. It has already begun with “Look what I’ve done. Look what I feel bad about.”
I often say in my practice that you only get to go around once, and you don’t get big do-overs. So when you look over the life you have had to date, are you living your best life? One that allows you the opportunity to offer your children the best of you?
And the best of you is in fact the “good enough” parts. Not the rockstar, always on the ball parts where we burn ourselves out. So when you think about how you narrate your uncoupling process, think about the one sentence you can use. And when you do that, is it one that is about wellness and shifting the responsibility to having a life that you have a responsibility to live well?
There is this piece about owning what we want to allow to take up our life. The moment you start to think about the uncoupling process, there is a responsibility to start thinking about what you deserve, and what you don’t deserve, and what you believe would be healthy for you.
How does your narrative start then, about this first chapter in uncoupling? How does that sentence start? Because the moment it starts with “I feel badly about upending my children” it’s already opened as a theatre to guilt.
And if you are with a partner or you have an ex who has the skill to leave you feeling responsible for the decisions you’ve made, to make you feel guilty, then that is the second part of guilt. So now you have to ask, “Am I going to allow others to define for me how I’m going to feel about myself and my decisions?” And if you are not sure how to answer that, think about how you would offer advice on that to your own children, if they were adults. Can you offer yourself what you would want for them?
So as you think about guilt, assess for yourself, where is your beginning? What conclusions do you make about yourself? What is your inner critic saying? Is it saying “Shame on you. Your kids are going to be lost without you? They will have mental health issues and resent you” etc. What are all the things your inner critic is trying to convince you of? Pay attention to these. To how shaming that language can be. How negative that construct is. And think about how you would not say those things to your adult children that you love.
More resources for coping
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Michelle recommended these four books as good reads for coping, to “assist women with liberation” and to re-engage with our own sense of selves – integral parts of the separation and divorce process.