Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the cofounder of Harley Therapy Platform (UK Online Therapists), for advice on the things we worry about in private.
My sister has just told me she is seven weeks pregnant, while my partner and I cannot have children. We are going through the adoption process and I feel like our child and our current journey will be overshadowed by her pregnancy and a biological baby. I have upset my mum by saying she'll love her biological grandchild more than our child. My sister refuses to speak to me because I now can't face going to a baby shower for a friend this weekend and my mum is hurt by my accusation. How do I fix things before I destroy my support network and ruin our chances at adoption?
Let's start off by acknowledging the situation as it is. There is tension, it is stressful and this is not uncommon in any group setting, particularly families. With that in mind, you should ask yourself where you want to go with this. You indicate that it's important for you to alleviate this because you want to maintain your support network. So what can you do to try and alleviate some of the tension?
That could mean apologising if need be. Not necessarily – it's your call – but you might find it helpful, particularly with your mother. Then I think communicating to them how you feel and where you're coming from is key. That often is a really good tension reliever because we mainly see things from our perspective. So if you go out of your way to calmly explain your perspective and experience, they can hopefully see that you're going through your own sets of concerns that they hadn't necessarily considered.
This is hard to do, though, because it touches on areas of vulnerability. It's hard to admit things you're not proud of, especially jealousy. Saying that you want your child and experience to be considered as important, maybe even more important, is not easy. But if there's some way in which that can be illuminated, that can often bring people closer together.
You talk about being overshadowed or that you will be treated differently. I can't know what led you to believe that but it's important to recognise that as humans we are me-centric. Everyone looks at things from their perspective and no one has more insight into us than us. And so it's very easy to feel deprioritised or unimportant. The majority of us crave validation, recognition, inclusion and because of that it's very easy to feel 'overshadowed' by someone else's positive developments. So it's not untoward that you should feel this way. But if you want to change the situation, you have to look at the other person's perspective, just like you got them to look at your own. Maybe that's a thought exercise, imagining your sister's perspective. Or that could mean a discussion where you say: "Look, this is what it feels like for me. I want to know what it feels like for you and I really don't mean to be cruel, but you can understand that this has been on the agenda for me and my partner for a while." To try and close that gap will either come through understanding or through communication or both.
Most people suffer from some forms of jealousy at certain points. It's a valid emotion within the spectrum of feelings so it's something you should not push away, deny or try to prevent. But it's important to drill down into why we're jealous and come up with ways of thinking alternatively. It's what we do in cognitive behavioural therapy: challenging our often erroneous assumptions.
The other good way of managing jealousy I've found with clients is doing gratitude work. The more we're grateful for things within ourselves and other people in the world in general, the more we tend to see things 'cup half full'. You can even find ways to see others' achievements in positive ways.
Take, for example, competitive sport. On the one hand, rivalry can drive you to want to outperform others but it can also make you quite bitter if you lose. And that sour feeling might feed back into worse performance. Celebrating others' achievements not only supports them but lifts the mental strain on yourself, helping you perform better. You can still feel the need and desire for your own successes but someone else's don't have to detract from your own.
It is very hard to reach that point. We're very emotionally driven and will often respond instinctually without giving it further thought. Doing the work on your thoughts and behaviours and working on gratitude can shorten and lessen the intensity of that emotion.
Don't forget, you are also managing a lot of stress from the adoption process and it can be really hard to not have that impact other relationships, even if it's not talked about. Oftentimes our body will express that we're in a difficult state in how we talk to other people, how we carry ourselves and then other people will intuitively pick up on it. To manage it, I'd return to our good old theme of self-compassion. The more that we can accept that we're going through it, the more it gives us the space to manage those emotions rather than battle them. Finding ways to channel that stress into creative or wellbeing activities can also help. The more that we can express our emotions in whatever ways are suitable for us, the more likely that our stress and tension won't spill out into the wrong targets or those immediately around us.