Silent Sorority

Infertility Survivors Finally Heard

March 12, 2015

No Wonder I Was Such a Head Case

A recent piece in The New York Times headlined It’s Not Always Depression gave me the chance to play amateur psychologist.

Join me on the couch as we explore emotions and how they affect the way we view ourselves or feel on any given day. To make this even more real, take yourself back to when your world was rocked to its core.

I’m now back in the days of the year 2003.

Inhibitory Emotions

Our quest starts with this nugget from Hilary Jacobs Hendel, the author of The New York Times piece:

“…it helps to know that there are basically two categories of emotions. There are core emotions, like anger, joy and sadness, which when experienced viscerally lead to a sense of relief and clarity (even if they are initially unpleasant). And there are inhibitory emotions, like shame, guilt and anxiety, which serve to block you from experiencing core emotions.”

Go on … how does that make you feel?

Well apparently, that’s the point — experiencing shame as a result of infertility and failed treatments led to not feeling.

So let’s do a little more digging here.

Okay. At its core shame is “believing we are unworthy of love and belonging or not good enough.” Worse still, the consequences of shame are low self-esteem, diminished self image, poor self concept, and deficient body-image. According to the experts, shame itself produces self-doubt and disrupts both security and confidence. It can become an impediment to the experience of belonging.

Add in a few more inhibitory emotions that come to life in darkness — a little guilt and anxiety

See also  Born With Us vs. Them Tendencies, We Can Overcome Differences

Whoa. It’s no wonder that many women come away from infertility as emotional head cases. (Sorry, that’s my unscientific term to describe how I felt for an extended period of time plodding through darkness.)

Negativity and Perceived Defects

From the psychoanalyst and psychology community, I learned that shame arises when one’s ‘defects’ are exposed to others, and results from the negative evaluation (whether real or imagined) of others; guilt, on the other hand, comes from one’s own negative evaluation of oneself, for instance, when one acts contrary to one’s values or idea of one’s self.

And what happens to those experiencing chronic shame and other inhibitory emotions?

According to Hendel, her patient…

“blames himself for what he is feeling and concludes that there must be something wrong with him. This all happens unconsciously.”

Okay now we’re on to something…a breakthrough, perhaps.

This therapist is a proponent of something called accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy — recognizing what is happening and how to manage the experience. The answer, she says: “somehow they need to recover themselves.”

On the Road to Recovery

Yes. And let’s not forget what author Tracey Cleantis and Dr. Marni Rosner have both raised in their work.

Per Tracey, “simply naming and voicing how we feel, we can change how we feel for the better.  ‘Hello, anger, I am really feeling you.’ ”

Marni described in an interview with Social Work Today:

“We can help women work through the trauma and shame of infertility so it doesn’t get ‘stuck’ in their bodies and minds by assisting them in developing a narrative around their infertility. This involves identifying all the losses—social, identity, ancillary—and helping clients articulate what the losses mean to them. This is fundamental in helping to integrate the loss into one’s life story.”

Excellent. And now over to you dear readers, what do these concepts and approaches elicit for you?

Updated 3/23/2015: In a poll of readers, you shared the prevalence of these emotions: sad (several mentions), alone (several mentions), angry (several mentions), hopeless (several mentions) along with lost, unempowered, rageful, desperate, jealous, misunderstood, withdrawn, bitter, bereaved …

p.s. I would also like to add a shout out to my friend Cathy Broadwell who writes about her infertility experience in this piece, Listening is An Act of Love.

See also  What Will Life Be Like if IVF Fails?
Psychology 12 Replies to “No Wonder I Was Such a Head Case”
Pamela Tsigdinos
Pamela Tsigdinos
Writer, blogger and, oh, yeah, infertility survivor. My memoir, Silent Sorority, tells the whole story. There's a movie in there somewhere. Given the quirkiness needed to relate it all I'm thinking Jennifer Lawrence would be a good fit.


12 thoughts on “No Wonder I Was Such a Head Case

    Author’s gravatar

    need to click over to read the NYT piece, but this idea of inhibitory emotions has me thinking. Guilt, shame and anxiety are common emotions anyone living with infertility face. But the idea they are blocking one from feeling sadness and grieving isn’t something I put together until now. That in order to heal, you need to be able to circumvent these inhibitory emotions in order to address the core ones.

    And now you’ve really got me thinking. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

      Author’s gravatar

      Yes, Cristy. Lots to consider here. These two categories of emotions laid out so plainly rang bells for me. I recall such clarity in my anger, for example, but such confusion associated with shame. It was only in letting go of the shame, fear/anxiety and guilt that I could once again truly feel alive. It is hard to do but what a night and day difference.

    Author’s gravatar

    As you say Pamela, lots to consider. And I’m with you that it’s only when I let go of the dark emotions that I came back into the light.
    The other major thing which helped me was to own and tell my story. What I know from Brene Brown’s work on shame is that it cannot survive being spoken. This is SO hard though, as our temptation is to secret keep. But when we do tell it in some small way to begin with with we take back our power and move forward.
    Thank you for raiding this difficult topic and being honest about your experiences, this will resonate with many others. x

    Author’s gravatar

    This all makes perfect sense to me. I often find myself overwhelmed by my emotions, to the point that I can’t articulate or express my feelings, and I just wind up frustrated.

    I am in the middle of Tracey’s book right now, and I agree with Tracey, Marni & Lesley, above, that voicing what we are feeling, sharing our stories, is a hugely important part of processing our losses and moving forward.

    Author’s gravatar

    The inhibitory emotion concept is interesting. And explains a lot. I think I’ve pretty much mastered shame, guilt, and anxiety as well as the “art” of not feeling. I guess I’m afraid to place myself in a position of vulnerability where I can let it all out. and the inevitable aftermath.

    Author’s gravatar

    This is interesting. I have heard the guilt/shame dichotomy expressed as “I did something bad” versus “I am bad.” Guilt is thus a spur to necessary behavior change (we all do things that fall short of what we can do); shame is merely self-harm. Mapped onto infertility – guilt has no place because we don’t have the option of changing the outcome by our deliberate actions (our present behaviors do not cause infertility, though past behaviors have a possible role in some cases – but, again, guilt is irrelevant, as we can’t change the past). Shame has a giant role. “I must be unworthy.” “God knows I would be a bad mother.” Etc. I know some people HAVE experienced guilt as a result of infertility (“I am denying my husband a family,” etc.), but I never have. My deliberate thoughts are clear – it’s the subconscious ones that actually rule my life that I can never seem to straighten out :).

    I should probably also have checked “other” – because for me, rage is top of the list, always and forever. And according to my therapist (and others), anger is only kind of a primary emotion – it’s actually a great deflection of pain. Oops :).

    Author’s gravatar

    I don’t know that the shame and guilt I felt – especially after infertility when I was entering the rest of my life in the no kidding zone – stopped me from feeling sadness and loss. I feel as if I had plenty of that! But I do know that once I let go of the guilt (and when that went so did the shame, as I think the two are often linked), it was easier to heal.

    Author’s gravatar

    I often wonder if I feel guilt and shame but have failed to recognize it as such. If anything the realizations that #1) this was not my fault and #2) that infertility is not some kind of reflection of me, universal or otherwise, have left me feeling indignant, among other things. And all that we did to try and conceive that didn’t work left me feeling leveled and un-empowered.

    Although I know this wasn’t my fault, I’ve done nothing wrong and that my grief is entirely justified, I’ve finally noticed I feel very threatened by the possibility that other people might think otherwise. Took me awhile to name that, and now I wonder what it means. Oh, and I’m also with Misfit in the rage club, and as of now, anxiety could be my profession, though I’m hoping that will dissipate with time.

    I sound like fun, don’t I?? Am grateful that a mindfulness practice I was introduced to a few years back taught me to refrain from judging these emotions and states too harshly, otherwise I’d be in some trouble right about now.

    Ahh, so much to unravel…..I had to laugh at “take yourself back to when your world was rocked to its core” – that was easy, for me that’s still NOW.

    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks, all, for sharing your thoughts and expanding the conversation. Along those lines, I want to share this latest piece — posted today — by Dr. Marni Rosner: Soap Won’t Wash Away Your Shame:

    You’ll find in Marni’s piece more food for thought. Would also encourage you to watch the TED talk by Monica Lewinsky, The Price of Shame. By coincidence I watched it yesterday.

    The concept of shame is getting lots of attention these days!

    Author’s gravatar


    First, I am overwhelmed with gratitude that you gave a shout out to me and my piece that I recently wrote, “Listening Is An Act of Love.”

    Second, to your piece here, I can definitely relate across the board as evidenced by these two examples:

    1) When I first started commenting on your awesome blog, Silent Sorority, I would not reveal my real name. I was too ashamed. What if someone found me there speaking my mind and talking about my negative emotions surrounding infertility?

    2) In my piece that you link to, I describe how my friend attempted to “silence” me when I spoke about infertility. How do you think that made me feel? Shame? You betcha. Sadness? Yup! Anger? right on! Guilt that I wanted to talk about it? Absolutely! Anxiety about the state of that friendship? On the nose! And that happened only a few months ago, after I thought I had done so much healing over the last few years.

    Indeed, writing about my experience has helped me to identity these feelings, and I hope at the same time, helped others understand or feel they have a place to turn, so that they can have a sense of belonging and kinship.

    Thanks for doing everything that you. You have helped me profoundly on my own journey.

    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks, Pamela, for posting a link to my latest blog – grateful, as usual. :) It’s interesting reading all the comments about what everyone is experiencing – not only the various emotions, but from where these emotions emanate or are induced.
    Glad you are still blogging, Pamela. xox

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