Long-Term Stress Relief

Riding the Wave of Desire
Many times a day, there is probably a collision between the normal desires you have as a person and the realities of life with children. In addition to being lovable, fascinating, delightful, etc., kids are sometimes unavoidably frustrating. You desperately want them to just eat their supper, and all they want to do is smear it in their hair. You want them to come here, but they crawl away, or to hug Grandpa, but they hide behind your legs. Children grab hold of your life and oblige you to do one thing after another that is a million miles away from your personal preference at the moment. Meanwhile, long-term plans for your career or a remodel or a long vacation get postponed. Each one of your wants is like a wave that starts small in the mind, builds to a crest of action, and then subsides when it is fulfilled or you decide to let it go. When wants are frustrated, especially on a regular basis, it creates stress. Relief comes from knowing how to ride them lightly, and how to let go when it's time to move on.

There is nothing wrong with wanting itself, whether it's our most fleeting wishes or deepest values. At bottom, every one of our wants is positive, even if some might be expressed in a problematic way. For example. Rick had a client who was troubled by her overprotective need to have her five-year-old in sight at all times. Her compulsion was founded on a healthy desire to keep her child safe, and eventually she learned more reasonable ways to feel secure about his safety. At its core, her want was always positive.

But trouble comes when a parent clings too tightly to her wants. Children bring one surprise after another, disrupting order, cleanliness, schedules, and plans. They also make you more dependent on others who have needs and agendas of their own, such as your partner or nursery school teachers. As a mother, you probably have less control over your life than you've ever had, and accepting this fact helps prevent stress right from the start. As a mother of four-year-old twins told Rick: I'm not obsessive, but I like things tidy and I like knowing what's going to happen. The clutter and constant changes drove me crazy for a long time. Finally I realized I had to give up. Now I insist on my bedroom being neat and just do what I can with the rest of the house. I try to remember that the big picture is going fine with the boys and not get too caught up in the little details. And I use work as a refuge: at least there, things happen on time!

Pursuing healthy wants provides a positive model for children. On the other hand, many wants are unattainable or inappropriate, and we need to release them and shift to a different plan. Here's how:

Step back. You can observe a want just like you can observe a feeling. That bit of distance alone can lower the dial on your stress meter. You'll probably notice many desires, some nested within others, some pulling in opposite directions. Every aspect of this bubbling stew is normal, including the wilder or darker wants all of us have. In particular, you'll see how wants that are rooted in early life experiences can be transferred into the present; for example, you may find yourself yearning for things from your partner that you missed getting from your father.

This process of transference occurs for everyone, but it is intensified when you have kids because you are drawn into the kind of situations you experienced as a child. The problem is that wants that are normal for a child - like being the center of someone's universe - just aren't going to be fulfilled to the same degree in adult relationships. Through self-observation, you can separate the unattainable wants of a child from the adult wants that have a chance at being satisfied.

Try to be kind to yourself about any of your wants, but especially those that come from childhood. The stronger these young desires are, the more likely it is that they were not treated with sensitivity when you were little. They really should have been; every child deserves that kind of care. If you take an attitude toward them that is dismissive, cold, or shaming, you are doing to yourself what should not have been done to you in the first place. Instead, try to be like a good mom to the young parts within you, sympathetic and understanding, while gently making it clear that it's just not possible to fulfill those wants today.

Relax. Usually, the more important the want, the more it is felt in the flesh. When you relax your body, your wants become less insistent.

Release feelings about not fulfilling the want. Notice any frustration or disappointment about not getting what you want. You can let go of these much like you would any other unpleasant emotion.

Release the want itself. You could remind yourself of the reasons why it is not possible or wise to pursue it, perhaps even writing a note to yourself. You can say good-bye to it in your mind, out loud, to another person, or in a letter to yourself. You could imagine that it is draining out of you like water into sand. Fundamentally, you can just surrender to never having it fulfilled.

Move on to a new plan. This might be a small matter - like taking a break from trying to shovel peas into your toddler - or a fundamental shift in your deepest values. You can make the new plan feel solid by saying it to yourself, writing it down, or telling someone else. Focus on its benefits and imagine it going well.


From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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