“Wherever you go, there you are.” I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it took me a looooong time to understand that saying. Well yeah, I thought, of course I am wherever I am. And then it finally clicked for me. We bring our whole selves, the positive and the negative, with us no matter what circumstances we are in. I can fantasize about all the “if only’s.” If only money wasn’t so tight, I could relax. If only I found a different job, I’d be happy. If only I could lose five pounds, I’d feel good about myself. If only my baby would sleep through the night, I’d feel more in control. But here’s the thing…would those things help? Absolutely. Would they get you to where you think they’d get you? No, sorry.

Underneath each of those fantasies is the belief that you currently don’t have access to feeling relaxed or happy or good about yourself or in control. But that’s the thing about “wherever you go, there you are”: if you do not feel those things now, simply moving to a new circumstance will not get them for you. Because your current beliefs will still be with you. They will follow you wherever you are.

Not only are our beliefs sticky, they are extremely powerful. Our thoughts determine our emotions, which drive our actions, which in turn determine our outcomes. The most damaging belief I see in a lot of moms with anxiety is “I’m not a good enough mom.” If I believe this, it can cause me to feel helpless, sad, overwhelmed, and anxious. When I feel that way, I become withdrawn or act angry. This type of response leads to poor interactions with my kids, which further “proves” that I’m a bad mom and the cycle goes on and on.

Similar cycles can be created around other negative beliefs about myself, others, and the world: I’m unattractive. I’m a bad partner. My kids are always misbehaved. Life is too stressful. I’m not cut out for this. I will always feel this way.

Do you see how this cycle is driven by a belief about my mothering? That belief causes certain emotions that cause certain actions that cause certain outcomes that reinforce the original belief. This is what I’m talking about when I comment on how powerful our thoughts and beliefs are.

But you know what’s amazing? This same cycle, that’s usually a negative spiral, can be turned on its head and be used to create positive outcomes, feelings, and experiences. The key? Changing the belief.

Let’s take one that I’m particularly well-acquainted with: I’m not cut out for this. This thought would usually pop into my head anytime I looked at my calendar and saw a particularly challenging schedule ahead of me. My husband travels regularly for work. It’s not terribly frequent, but it’s a regular part of our monthly schedule. And somehow those few days always seem to land at the most inconvenient times. Days when I have a full client load, there’s something I need to get done for one of the kids, and then a few one-off appointments for me or the kids thrown in there for good measure.

I would see it coming down the line and immediately think “there’s no way I can handle all of this. This is awful.”

This thought would make me feel anxious, lonely, and scared. Once I was in that headspace, it was hard for me to think clearly. I’d waste a LOT of time ruminating about how overwhelming everything was. I’d get stuck thinking about how much better things would be if I could work less or my husband didn’t have to travel. And in all of that time, I wasn’t doing anything to make things easier on myself. This resulted in me not taking advantage of the bits of time I did have throughout the day to get things done. So by the time dinner and bedtime rolled around, I was way behind on my daily to-do list and seriously angry. This caused me to be short with the kids, which caused them to act out more, which resulted in me plopping down at the end of the night feeling like a failure with “proof” that I really couldn’t handle all of this. And it was pretty freaking awful.

See how I made my anxious belief come true? Magic!

After many months of this same cycle, I tried the experiment of shifting my beliefs around these times. I instead told myself “this will be hard, but I’ve done it before and I can do it again.” Notice I didn’t try doing a complete turnabout and saying “this is going to be easy peasy!” I went with something that felt like it was realistic, but turned the focus a bit more positive. I repeated this to myself over and over in the days leading up to my husband’s trip and throughout the days while he was gone. I purposely repeated it whenever I felt tension rising.

My emotions were quite different with this new belief. I felt a little apprehensive, but not scared. I felt a steady confidence. Not anything over the top, but just a “been there, done that” kind of confidence. And my actions changed accordingly. I noticed that I had more time and a clearer mind since I wasn’t busy thinking about how awful everything was. When the kids started screaming in the evening, I took a breath, repeated my new mantra, and continued on towards bedtime. At the end of the night I felt relief at making it through the day and felt like I was collecting data to prove that yes, it was hard, and yes, I was doing it.

Now I’m not saying this was some magical cure-all. I still prefer the weeks my husband is home. And I still have moments of anxiety and overwhelm when he’s gone. But it isn’t the same derailing experience that it used to be.

If you’re finding yourself thinking or saying negative things about yourself or your mothering, I’d encourage you to come up with a new belief to try out for a day or two. See how it feels. See how it changes your emotions, actions, and outcomes.

 

Carolyn Wagner is a psychotherapist specializing in maternal mental health and the founder of The Calm Mama Method. She helps moms who struggle with anger find calm by learning to tune into the messages their anger is sending and transform it into healing. Carolyn is passionate about serving the world by supporting moms. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband, three young children, and Boogie, their beloved black lab who does her best to stay calm amidst the chaos.