Coping with disappointment during IVF – A simple, three-step guide

Hi everyone – Eric here again with another in my series of posts on dealing with some of the challenging emotions of going through IVF. Over my past few posts, I’ve spoken about dealing with fear and dealing with stress. Today I’d like to talk about dealing with a feeling I had a lot during the process, and that feeling was disappointment.

Even when your treatments or efforts to get pregnant are ultimately successful, (and for most of you that happy day will come, just hang tough!) there will inevitably be disappointments large and small along the way. From your “numbers” to retrieval to implantation, there are dozens of things that need to go just right for an individual IVF cycle to be successful, and in many cases, that just won’t happen on the first try.

So wherever in the process those failures come, (and as Cathy has written about, the later they come, the more heartbreaking they are), you should plan, and be prepared emotionally for the process ahead. Like the anxiety, fear, envy and even shame that we’ve spoken about in earlier posts, disappointment is simply a part of the panoply of emotions, good and bad, that you will have to navigate on your IVF journey. Don’t worry though, that’s exactly the point. If you know and understand that this is a likely, often necessary, part of the process, you can face those moments with much greater clarity and fortitude.

So, in keeping with my series of hopefully-useful “news you can use” posts, let’s talk through three simple, concrete steps I use to accept, handle and move through disappointment.

Step 1 – Awareness: I touched on this a moment ago, but the first step in defanging the monster of disappointment is to understand it’s coming. Humans are biologically wired to fear the unknown and to be disquieted by surprise. If you go into the process hopeful and optimistic about the ultimate outcome, but fully aware you may suffer setbacks along the way, they become less of a crushing defeat and more of a known obstacle to be surmounted as you continue on.

For Cathy and I, whenever we face a process we just know is going to stink, we acknowledge going in that there will be rough spots. When those rough patches inevitably come, we say, “yep, this is one of those times we talked about” and we hold hands and drive on. By greeting it as a known and expected enemy instead of a sneak attack, our defenses are inevitably stronger because there is no surprise. I know this may sound strange, but by acknowledging ahead of time that these things will come, we’re better prepared to say not, “I’m so crushed” but, “Is that all you got? Bring it on!”

Step 2 – Ownership: While that attitude is very helpful, that doesn’t mean the disappointments won’t come, and when they do, they will still hurt. The best way I know to deal with that hurt is to own it. Don’t suppress it. Don’t hide from it. Acknowledge it. Talk it out, cry it out, sweat or run or shadowbox it out of you until you collapse. Remember that all emotions and feelings are rooted in physiology, in the chemicals in our brains and our bodies. The chemicals that cause and are caused by those negative emotions will circulate in you and keep doing damage until you give them room to run their course. Whether you hug your family, cry with your partner, pray to your creator or go hit a heavy bag, whatever form that catharsis may take, acknowledge that you’re bummed, that it hurts, and give your body some physical outlet to accept and process those negative feelings and the chemicals that cause them.

Step 3 – Thankfulness: I know first-hand that when you’re in the IVF cycle, and maybe things aren’t going exactly the way you’d hoped, it’s easy to get bogged down in what’s not working. Believe me, I know the feeling of “nothing is going right, and our life will never be happy if we can’t have a have a family” and so on. In other words, it is easy for the focus on the fertility struggle to become all-consuming.

But as unoriginal as this may be, there’s a reason Cathy and I keep coming back to acceptance and gratitude. Even on our worst days, and we’ve written candidly about many of them here, I could (and did) remind myself of the blessings in my life. In fact, I would write down my “five things for the day” in a little notebook because (brain chemistry here again) writing things down increases the “reality” of those feelings. By making them tangible in the real world on that piece of paper, science says they actually become more “true” to your brain. Here’s what my daily note might look like on one of those disappointment days:

Even though today was really hard on the IVF front, I know:

a) Cathy and I are (except for our reproductive boy/girl bits!) healthy and have a great relationship
b) My parents and the other people I love are all healthy today
c) The bills for the month are paid and there’s a little money in the bank
d) We have a peaceful, comfortable home and food on the table every day
e) We have good jobs and steady pay and work we enjoy with people we like

As obvious as these things seem, it is very easy to take them for granted. But these are blessings, and when any one of these things isn’t true, you realize just how important they are. It may be a bit cliché, but explicitly counting your proverbial blessings can be a powerful antidote to being overly focused on the disappointment.

So understand going in that, while you will ultimately succeed on your journey, there are going to be bumps – big ones – along the road. By knowing that going in, owning it, working through it when it happens, and remembering all the other things that are right in your world, you’ll find the bumps aren’t as tall, or as rough, as they seemed at first.

I don’t know if that will help you, but I do know it really helped me. Ask questions, talk about what works for you, or just let us know how you’re doing in the comments below.

Good luck!

– eric

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