Mark Twain reputedly said, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some which actually happened.” I’ve always liked this quote because it highlights in a few simple words the harm we can visit upon ourselves by worrying about things that haven’t come to pass, many of which are unlikely, and many of which we can’t control anyway.
Infertility treatment is fraught with this type of self-inflicted, excruciating what-if-ing. “What will the tests show?” “Will this egg fertilize?” “Will implantation be successful?” and on and on. I remember being completely at sixes and sevens with the uncertainty at every stage of infertility discovery, diagnosis and treatment.
What I needed, and didn’t have then, but hope to offer now, is a concrete technique for reducing and bounding those out-of-control feelings. Now don’t get me wrong, this is no panacea that will make infertility a day at the beach, but what I think this advice can do is give you some tools to be more focused, more controlled and more able to accept the unknowns along the way.
This technique dates back at least to ancient Greece, but has most recently been popularized under the label of “fear-setting” by author Tim Ferriss in several of his books as well as a Ted Talk titled “Why You Should Define Your Fears Instead of Your Goals.” Ferriss, a bipolar depressive who has struggled with episodic mental health crises throughout his life, called this technique “the most reliable safety net for emotional free fall” that he has ever found.
Gee, I thought. Is emotional free fall, maybe, something that might occasionally be known to happen, you know, just now and then, to people struggling with infertility perhaps?
OMG Sign me up!
There are two key elements to applying fear-setting in this context. The first is to examine your fears, open-eyed and in detail, and lay out what life would look like if they came true. By unpacking, studying and naming what you’re afraid of, you may just gain some measure of both comfort and control. Oftentimes, it is the unknown or the undefined that is more frightening than what we actually fear.
I know this isn’t easy to do, heck it may not even be easy to read about doing, but ask yourself what is scariest to you about infertility and the treatment process? Your answer might be, “the fear I might never have a family.” I mean that one’s pretty obvious right?
But if you’re truly honest, it might be “I’m terrified of surgical procedures” or “I don’t know how we can afford treatment if it goes too many rounds” or “I fear feeling left out if I’m the only woman in my family who has no children.”
Whatever those fears are, and every one of them is legitimate and understandable, have the courage to be honest about them, to name them and hold them up to the light. If you do, you can then say, “OK, if we don’t have children, or it takes a long time, or I have to undergo many scary procedures, what specifically can I do to address, mitigate or reduce the impact of those events?”
Could you read about people who have faced the same challenges and overcome them? Can you begin changing your spending habits to help address treatment costs? Could you even – if “the worst” were actually to come to pass – find couples who are childless despite their best efforts, and ask them what life is like “on the other side” in case you find yourself there some day? (I know one childless couple that now leads a pretty incredible and blessed life, full of adventure and joy and service to others, and you can ask us about how we got here just by writing to us on Facebook or this blog J )
This brings me to the second point. As you look straight and honestly into the face of your fears, make a clear distinction between things you cannot control or influence, and things which you can. Then, focus all your attention, effort and emotion on the latter. As Tony Robbins would put it, “Take massive action!”
By focusing on things you can control and then defining clear actions to take regarding them, three important and useful things happen:
- You become an active participant in the process, which can help reduce feelings of being buffeted about by capricious fate, totally out of control of your destiny.
- By identifying those things you can do to help improve the odds of getting pregnant – get more rest, improve your diet, lose weight, whatever – you actually get the benefits in the rest of your life. Use your baby-chase to motivate some positive change!
- If it should come to pass that your treatment is unsuccessful, then at least there are no if-only’s, no woulda-shoulda-coulda to haunt you after the fact. There is some comfort knowing you identified what you could do, and then did all you could.
Look, I’m not saying this is easy, and there’s no question that many of the things we worry about when facing infertility are real and legitimate concerns. But it’s important to recognize that a lot of our anxiety can be rooted in the ambiguity, the fear of the unknown.
Sometimes the boogeyman under the bed is really just the dog’s tail thumping on the floor, so take control, define a path forward and take action. Control, clarity, purpose – what Ferriss calls “an operating system for thriving in high-stress environments.”
That sounds pretty good to me.