Ep. 28 | Ann Douglas – Finding Strength In The Storm Pt. 2
- Finding our default settings for stress
- The importance of self compassion
- Why uncertainty can lead to blame
- Wrestling with ruminating worries in our minds
In this second of her two part episode, author and parenting specialist Ann Douglas continues her discussion on mental health with a focus on self compassion. Through her own journey with Bipolar disorder, and as parent to four (now adult) children with their own mental health needs, Ann speaks from both practice and wisdom on Parenting Through the Storm (her recent book). She says, “When you treat yourself with self compassion, that spills over and allows you to treat others with compassion; to feel connected rather than separate from the rest of society.”
Ann DouglasAnn Douglas’s bestselling book series - “The Mother of All,” created the launch for what is now over 30 beloved literary guides for parents navigating the complicated waters of child growth and development. Many of her most influential books grew out of her own need to process and understand challenges within her own family life.
Through her books and speaking, Ann shares from her childhood and her mother’s frightening struggle with the hallucinations of Bipolar Disorder, and how that legacy of mental health continues with her own mental health challenges - and those of her (now adult) children. In addition to her acclaimed writing, Ann is also the weekend parenting columnist for CBC radio offering parents resources, support and hope.
Ann Douglas: Official Website
Ann Douglas: LinkedIn Profile
Transcript: Episode 27 | Ann Douglas – Finding Strength In The Storm Pt. 2
Rachel Cram – You talk about there being default settings for stress. And that we uniquely respond to stress. Some people detach. Some people worry. Some people get angry. Some people eat.
Ann Douglas – Yeah, absolutely. And you know what I’ve figured out over the years is, social support is key and so is exercise. It took me until I was 50 years of age to actually see that there could be mental health benefits to walking on a regular basis. And now I’m that obnoxious person who wears a fitness bracelet and gets her steps in every day. But I have found it has been the most effective thing for me.
Rachel Cram – And, you’re saying for everybody, right? That there are somethings that are
Ann Douglas – almost universal. Yeah
Rachel Cram – Yeah. Because as I’m reading your book I’m thinking different people resonate with different strategies of care.
Ann Douglas – It’s a case of experimenting with the ones that will work most for you, or that are most practical in your life. We’re all going to have things that work or don’t work.
My cousin Karen, her stress relief is doing cross stitch. To me that would be torture. That would just ramp my stress right up. But she says sitting down to write something? No! Just pull her fingernails off!
Rachel Cram – But writing for you works. Which is perhaps one of the reasons you have 30 books.
Ann Douglas – Yes exactly. And when we went through the stillbirth, I wrote a 8500 word journal that was like a stillbirth diary of family journeying through stillbirth and coming out the other side. So that was my process to make sense of all those feelings in the moment.
Rachel Cram – “Our brains don’t function at their best when we’re feeling stressed.” That’s a quote from your book. And then you suggest techniques for stress management. Can you share some of those techniques? Some coping skills?
Ann Douglas – A really good strategy is to question that voice in your head. So if you have a voice in your head that saying, “It’s all your fault. You’re doing it all wrong.” How can you reframe that in a more helpful way? And sometimes again, it’s like the social support piece, talking through those feelings with a friend. And they can say, “You’re being really hard on yourself. And here’s what I see. I see a parent who’s really committed, who’s moving heaven and earth to try and make things better for their kid. And who yes, today got grumpy and snapped at their kid because they were completely depleted and who is going to hit the reset button and go back in the trenches tomorrow and try to do better.”
Rachel Cram – We blame ourselves don’t we?
Ann Douglas – Yes
Rachel Cram – It is one of those natural defaults that we fall into.
Ann Douglas – Yes. Because it’s safer to blame yourself because then you have a cause and effect kind of thing happening. “Of course my child is struggling because I’m a terrible parent!” OK! No problem. Solution. Cause and effect.
As opposed to, “My child is struggling and I have no idea why and I have no idea what to do.”
Your brain does not like uncertainty, so it would rather have you being mean to you than you just wondering, “What the heck is going on?”
Rachel Cram – So how do we recognize that about ourselves? How do we recognize that as a habit and how do we start to break that pattern?
Ann Douglas – Right. I think it starts by recognizing that this is a really human way of reacting and that a lot of us fall into this pattern. I’m thinking back to a couple of decades ago when my baby was stillborn and my brain wanted to know why that happened. And so I came up with a theory of what had happened. She ended up within a knot in her umbilical cord, so I said to myself, “Maybe it was that time I fell down half a flight of stairs. That might have been it. It could have tied the knot in the umbilical cord. Or maybe it was that time I was in a hotel swimming pool with the kids and I was doing somersaults over and over again. Maybe that’s when the knot got tied in the biblical cord.
So I went to the family doctor and I said, “Do you think it was this? Do you think it was that?”
And he said. “You know what? It could have happened when you were sound asleep. Lying in bed. She could have just rolled over and that could have been it.”
And I remember thinking it was such a sense of relief for him to give me that information because I needed someone to challenge that theory of mine in order for me to rewrite it and recognize that it wasn’t anything I did. It was just a terrible accident that happened and yet I had been craving that certainty.
Our brains do not like uncertainty, so sometimes we will rush to blame ourselves as a way of managing that uncertainty even if it means being really harsh and critical towards ourselves or blaming ourselves for things that weren’t even in our control.
So I think a big first step is to listen to the voice in your head. Ask yourself if you’re being really self-critical or if you could actually be a little fairer and kinder to yourself. For me learning about self compassion has been life changing.
Rachel Cram – Yeah and that started by choosing to speak the words of your head out loud to an expert.
Ann Douglas – Yes! Just having that conversation because if I had been too afraid and I’d kept all those dark thoughts in my head, that probably would have solidified as permanent truth in my narrative in my life story. Whereas having somebody challenge that was so helpful. You know, I’ve written that Doctor fan letters over the years just to express my appreciation because I don’t think that sometimes people who work with people in times of struggle recognize the life changing pivot that a simple sentence can make.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, it’s so great to appreciate people, like that. So, sharing those dark thoughts was important for clarity and for self compassion. And you’ve researched other techniques or awareness that we can have when those ruminating thoughts start to come into our minds.
Ann Douglas – Yeah absolutely.
Rachel Cram – Of blame or or self-doubt.
Ann Douglas – Yeah absolutely. I think a really big one is just to be aware that this is starting to happen. I can feel in my body like a tensing up that happens. And some people might find that they’re not breathing deeply enough, they’re not taking in enough oxygen. Or suddenly their back hurts or their fists clenched. Everybody will have slightly different manifestations but learning what your unique warning signs of stress are and then saying to yourself, “I am feeling stressed.”
Sometimes just acknowledging what it is you’re feeling, that can start to put the brakes on. And then you want to pivot to acceptance. Instead of saying, “Oh, everything’s fine. We’ll just march along. I don’t have time to be feeling stressed or sad today.”
You say to yourself, “This is the way I’m feeling. Today is a hard day,” and acknowledging that.
And I think another big one is just taking mini vacations from the worry. Saying to yourself, “For the next 20 minutes, I’m just going to put the brakes on that. I’m going to listen to some music that I find soothing.” And sometimes it really helps to just stumble across a song lyric or a line of poetry and it’s like an aha moment, that just captures what you’re feeling.
Rachel Cram – Do you have an example, like a ‘go to’ song?
Ann Douglas – Yes. Absolutely. For me it was this one line in Alanis Morissette song Thank U. And the line is, I may be botching this a little bit but it’s like, “The moment I let go of it was the moment I had more than I could handle. The moment I jumped off of it, was the moment I touched down.”
Rachel Cram – Such a great lyric.
Ann Douglas – It is. So I love that song, like that is one of my go to songs on the darkest of days.
Rachel Cram – Go Alanis.
Ann Douglas – Yes.
Rachel Cram – Go Canada.
Ann Douglas – I know, Canadian content. Yeah!
Rachel Cram – So we digressed a bit. What else would constitute a mini vacation from your worries? Do you want to finish that off?
Ann Douglas – Right. So just finding your own strategies. Like, “I’m going to lose myself in the business of an activity,” because sometimes that is even more therapeutic than trying to relax. You actually do a puzzle, solve a crossword puzzle or something, because your brain has to focus on that. It’s hard to think of the clues if you’re just worrying right. And giving yourself permission, because I think sometimes we feel guilty if we say, “My child’s in crisis! I should actually sit here and stare out the window for 20 minutes?” Yes you should, because you’ll be more refreshed and you’ll be in a better place to go back and roll up your sleeves and start doing all that researching and loving and connecting.
Rachel Cram – I think often we feel like this is just too much. Parenting alone is massive. And when you start to see something like a mental health crisis on the horizon it can just feel like it is going to be too much.
It’s so intense when it’s your child. I’ve heard this quote and it says, “When we have children we mortgage our hearts for the rest of our lives.”
Ann Douglas – Totally
Rachel Cram – And it’s a huge investment. But you also talk about, the reality is that you as a parent are your child’s, not only best bet, you are the bet for them. And that there is no point in waiting for a mental health fairy. And You have a really powerful story around that discovery for yourself.
Ann Douglas – Yeah. Yeah. There was one time when Julie was in crisis and we had to call the police because she was missing. And so Neil, my husband, went out with the police officer looking for her. And when they did find her and bring her back home, I remember having this conversation on the front porch, standing there feeling like my world was falling apart. And the police officer was lovely and so human, and he took me aside and he said, “If you’re waiting for some kind of mental health fairy godmother to step in and save your child, there is no such thing as a mental health fairy godmother. It’s going to take you moving heaven and earth to make things better for this kid.”
Because I honestly thought there was some outside expert who had all the strategies and resources and expertise. And then I realized that we were going to have to find those solutions and put together sort of a path forward for our daughter until she was able to carve out a path forward for herself.
Rachel Cram – And that becomes so complex because you’re a working person, you’re thinking these appointments are going to have to happen during the day, while I’m at work. And that means I’m going to have to tell people at work about this situation and ask for time off, which can stir into a whole nother realm of feeling.
Ann Douglas – Yes. That’s really hard for people to manage. It’s like a very stressful kind of juggling act. But I realized very quickly, whenever my kids were in crisis I was in crisis and I wasn’t going to be a lot of good to the outside world. So yes, I sometimes missed out on opportunities but I needed to protect some of my own capacity in order to be able to function and cope. So, such a juggling act.
We’ve come so far with stigma, we still haven’t come 100 percent. And people tend to be very judgmental of parents. So it could be really hard for someone to go to H.R. and say, “My child’s in crisis, they’re in the hospital. I need to take a few weeks off.” Because they’re worried that people are going to be whispering behind their back and saying, “Bad parent.” So lots of emotions for people to manage on that.
I think, if you can find one workplace ally, like one person who’s maybe walked a similar walk or has an aging parent with a health crisis, who can say, “It’s completely legit to have a family. We don’t have to put 110 percent of our energy into work and you have the right to have a life and you have a right to be there for your family members in a way that feels good and right to you.”
That can be hugely validating. Everybody’s going to find themselves in that situation eventually.
Rachel Cram – With realizing there’s no mental health fairy, there’s also the reality of navigating an emerging health situation in your own family; looking at this child maybe needing to be parented differently than the other children with maybe some different rules, some different expectations.
Ann Douglas – Yes. I’m laughing because our daughter Julie is like the rule police in the family. She was always very quick to point out how the rules evolved from child to child and
Rachel Cram – Which happens in any family.
Ann Douglas – Exactly. And we’d have to say these are Julie’s rules, those are Scott’s rules or whatever. And I’m sure all four kids could make the case that they got the short end of the deal and other people lucked out. But as parents you’re an improv artist. You’re thinking in the moment. You’re trying to figure out what to do in this situation while not being so free style that there’s no structure or consistency, because the wheels go off that bus pretty quickly too.
So, I think we have to allow ourselves to be imperfect and to make mistakes and to figure out what will work over time and to be prepared to change our course or a game if we find that, what worked beautifully last week, this week not so much.
Rachel Cram – I know with my own children, they will frequently say, “That’s not fair. You let him do this.
Ann Douglas – At such and such an age.
Rachel Cram – Yeah that’s right. And the older ones can feel like, “Are you serious? I wasn’t allowed to watch that until I was 16 and you’re letting this young one watch this on TV at 10?”
So those conversations happen. But when you know it’s to do with a mental health situation, how transparent or how verbal are you about that with your children? Do you say, “Well your brother is having this because of his ADHD or because of their bipolar disorder?”
How much candor do you reveal to your kids?
Ann Douglas – I think we tried to be very upfront in the moment. So,we talked about the fact that, yeah we’re sending Ian to a private school right now because we’re trying to see if this is the solution. It wasn’t. He pivoted back to the public school system after a couple of experiments. Yet, we have to make that investment because if we don’t make that investment now his whole trajectory of development is going to not be what it could. Obviously we didn’t use that language talking to other children but you get the drift. We sort of let them know it was in the long term interests of the whole family for everybody to have an opportunity to do well. So it’s sort of like a sharing of resources, not like a recipe where everybody’s entitled to 25 percent in a family with four kids because that’s just not reality.
Rachel Cram – I think the worry I would have as a parent is some of my children may feel overlooked or invisible within the dynamics of our family life. Do you get a sense of that with you kids?
Ann Douglas – Over time, sometimes the kids did have questions or concerns, so we had to have tough conversations. Even when they were older teenagers, young adults, sort of reconstructing what had happened during earlier times in our family. I apologized to them for the fact that when our baby was stillborn I was a mommy zombie for about six months. I was barely keeping my head above water. I literally felt like I was emotionally drowning. And I said, “I wish that I hadn’t been that way in that moment because I know you guys were dealing with your grief and then you had a zombie mommy on top of it all.”
And even with the allocation of parental energies, we were very open about the fact that when Julie was in crisis she got about three quarters of our attention as parents, leaving tiny slices of what 8, 9 percent for the three brothers if you’re looking at that kind of pie graph picture. And luckily over time, I think the kids understood that we did have limited resources and we did the best we could in the moment. And they have said really kind and reassuring things on that front. So it’s sort like a sharing of resources in a family right.
Rachel Cram – I think often as a parent, I look to my children and think, “What will they be in therapy for that they have inherited from me, their family of origin?”
And the reality is I think, we all are going to need to sort out situations that happen in our family of origin.
Part of how you do your research for your books is you interview hundreds of families in different situations. I’m wondering if you can describe a family where that has gone really poorly as how they’ve navigated the care for their children in the midst of a mental health situation with one of their children or more and one where it’s gone really well?
Ann Douglas – Right. I think at the one extreme where things haven’t gone so well, there can be a lot of resentment and outbursts and you know, “Well, if he is going to get attention by acting out at school, I’m going to one-up him because clearly that’s the way you get attention in this family.” or “My brother needs a lot of attention. So I’m going to be the perfect child. I’m going to pivot to not causing mom or dad or the grandparents or anybody even an iota of worry. I’m just going to be the perfect child.” And you can see neither of those are very healthy.
But in terms of good outcomes in the sibling relationship, I remember one family in particular that I interviewed for Parenting Through The Storm, said that they thought that having a child with struggles in the family opened up a world of empathy for the siblings because they could see that life really was hard for this brother. And so they would be that kid who would sit with another kid who was on the sidelines in their classroom or who would not just look at somebody and say, “That person’s acting strange,” but say, “I wonder what’s going on with that kid?” and maybe say a kind word. So it’s not all a negative and it’s not all a cakewalk. It’s sort of somewhere in the middle right.
Rachel Cram – So what makes the difference between the two? What are the things that parents can do to land them in the camp of empathy with their children?
Ann Douglas – I think some of it is probably beyond the parent’s control. It’s the developmental stage of a child when the crisis hits. It’s the temperament of that child. So those are tough variables to have a huge amount of control over. But in terms of your own reaction, I think finding ways to invest love and attention in the child who might otherwise feel short changed and letting them know that they don’t have to be that perfect child. They don’t have to prove anything to you. That they’re worthy of your love just by being there. And expressing appreciation when they do kind things for the sibling or when they make sacrifices. Because so many sacrifices may be required. If the sibling can’t handle the family dinner in a restaurant and you have to hit the eject button, that is hard for everybody in the family. And sometimes you don’t have the luxury of an extra parent to sit there and stay with the kids who haven’t had a chance to eat their french fries or something before everybody has to run out of the restaurant.
Rachel Cram – You said in your book Parenting Through the Storm, “Decades later we are still doing relational repair for events that occurred earlier, and I find that a joyful process.” That to me is just the reminder that it’s not all about this moment in time. There’s always a tomorrow to come back and revisit the past.
Ann Douglas – I mean, I think it’s the image of the relationship movie rather than the relationship snapshot. If your whole life as a parent is caught in this one clip, it might not be your favorite picture of parenting. But when you have the chance to talk about what happened in the past and reconstruct the narratives and talk about it from my experience versus your experience, “What was I thinking in that moment? What were you thinking? Did you misread my busyness and attention to your brother as a lack of caring? or that I loved him more? That wasn’t it at all! We were just treading water as a family.” Those kinds of conversations.
It means being vulnerable as a parent because your child might say, “I was deeply wounded by x y z,” and not for you to try to talk them out of those feelings but just to say, “I’m so sorry it was hard for you in that moment and I could see why you felt this that and the next thing,”
Rachel Cram – I just think, not becoming defensive, is a key to those heart to heart conversations.
Ann Douglas – Yeah, absolutely! If you’ve ever had an argument with your partner you know that getting through that process where everybody’s crying and upset and then you come out the other side and you feel so connected. It’s like, I totally see your point of view and you see mine. And now we’re recommitted to the relationship. That can happen over time in parenting as well, and what matters in a family I think is that you keep making the outreach and and making the effort if you are feeling that distance and you want to close it or you want to clarify an earlier misunderstanding
Rachel Cram – Yeah that takes a lot of the pressure off in the moment.
Ann Douglas – You don’t have to be perfect or else it’s done forever.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. I think it takes off pressure to know there’s going to be a time when you’re not in the middle of the storm and you can go back and look at it then and still bring some healing to it at that point in time.
Ann Douglas – Right. And in our family we laugh about how chaotic things were in those years. Things like, Scott going to school and coming home wearing socks as opposed to shoes one day because of his ADHD. He was just like on his own planet. They become the stories of family legend. So in the moment they’re so frustrating. It’s so embarrassing when the school calls you and says, “Your child doesn’t have shoes.” But you get through it and then it becomes something to talk about afterwards.
And sometimes the kids will ask questions like, “What was it like for you in this moment?”
And it’s a wonderful opening to say, “You know what? I was feeling overwhelmed. So if you were thinking Mom was losing it? Yeah, Mom was losing it cause she was really feeling overwhelmed by all these things at once.”
Or they only saw their own thread in the story and they didn’t realize that, meanwhile Mom and Dad were also dealing with this, this and this and you were only aware of your own challenges in that moment.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. There’s just a desire I think sometimes, to want to be the family or the parent that does everything just right. There’s buckets full of pride and pretense that you’ve got to give up to get to that humor, dark or light.
Ann Douglas – Yeah exactly. And I think for a long time I was a perfectionist. I think that was a little bit of a legacy from my childhood. Wanting control. Wanting order. And my inner control freak does visit occasionally, to say, ‘we want everything to be predictable,’ and so on but learning to say to myself ,“I’m going to make mistakes.
And just to be a little more compassionate to myself. That has been life changing. That takes the pressure off everything.
Rachel Cram – Learning to be compassionate towards ourselves. I think that’s a key, even to our capacity to truly be compassionate towards others. What do you suggest as a starting place toward self compassion?
Ann Douglas – I think with self compassion, part of it is recognizing when the voice in your head isn’t working. Do I really need to carry around a little inner critic that can just point out everything I’m doing wrong? Or do I want something different for myself? And I think if you can think about what you would say to a friend, that’s the easiest way to reframe it.
So saying, what would I say to Rachel? I’d be saying,“Rachel, you know I see so much love and caring and compassion and I see how hard you’re working on this and I really hear your frustration and parenting really is hard.” Like just being able to say those kinds of things to yourself.
Rachel Cram – Treat yourself as the cherished friend.
Ann Douglas – Yes, and also recognize that when you can treat yourself with self compassion, suddenly that spills over and allows you to treat others with compassion. And it allows you to feel ‘connected to’ as opposed to ‘separate from’ the rest of humanity.
So with self compassion, you say, “We’re all human. We’re all struggling.”
And so if somebody loses it in the grocery store you can say to yourself, “That person’s probably just having a really bad day. It’s nothing about that one roll of paper towels that fell on the floor that they felt the need to boot it down the aisle. It wasn’t about the paper towels, it was about the seven things that happened this morning on the way out the door.”
And even having that sense of compassion towards your own child where, my child is being difficult today. They are not being difficult in an effort to drive me around the bend. It’s just really hard to be a kid someday.
So I think if we can remind ourselves that parenting is ultimately about empathy. It’s hard to be a parent and it’s hard to be a kid. If we can recognize that then we see it’s a shared struggle and a shared opportunity.
Rachel Cram – Ann, as we start to wind down this conversation, I’m wondering, as you consider listeners who may be realizing their child or family member is struggling with a mental health concern, is there a key nugget of encouragement that you would want to offer?
Ann Douglas – Oh, I’m just thinking back about me 15 years ago; what I really needed to hear. I needed to know that things could get better.
You know, Julie, for the longest time my goals for her were a) live and b) finish high school. And I’m happy to tell you not only did she finish high school, she went and studied photography and she specializes in the beauty of broken and abandoned things. So where other people see brokenness she sees beauty. And I think that’s so significant given her earlier struggles.
Scott, he was that computer obsessed kid growing up, almost fixated on computers; that ended up being a strength in the end. He is working as a software engineer and is doing extremely well in his life and in relationships.
Eric, the fellow with the extreme learning disability, who I was worried would never finish high school; he not only managed to get through college, he went back and became registered as a chartered professional accountant and is running his own accounting practice and happily embedded in a relationship.
And Ian, my guy who, you know I remember seeing something awful from Google saying,
“Your child will never have a relationship and your child will never have a job.” Totally wrong Dr. Google. I’m happy to report that Ian is getting married in a couple of months and he has a great full time job and is doing well beyond my wildest dreams.
So every single day I am grateful for the fact that yes, we weathered some significant storms, but we also found our way to drier land or less stormy pastures.
Rachel Cram – You have a really powerful ending to your book Parenting Through The Storms, and I’m wondering, do you think this would be a good place to just maybe read that ending because I think that does wrap it up so well.
Ann Douglas – I would love to.
Rachel Cram – I don’t know if the word ‘wrap it up’ is right because it’s nothing about ending with a bow but it does give hope.
Ann Douglas – It does and I think that’s so critical. So here we go.
“As you can see all of my children are thriving in their own way. I couldn’t be prouder. But what leaves me feeling incredibly happy at the end of the day is the fact that we continue to be a close connected and loving family. We managed to weather the stormiest of storms; times that could have torn our family apart. That’s not to say that the storm clouds have receded permanently. I still keep a watchful eye on the horizon. I suppose I always will. But even if the dark clouds return, as they well might, and one of us ends up struggling with mental illness once again, I know we will continue to find our way together. We’ve come so far we’ve learned so much. We’ve been strengthened by the storm.”
Rachel Cram – Ann Douglas, thank you so much for your wisdom and your heart and your humility in speaking with me today. I’ve really appreciated this interview.
Ann Douglas – It was a great conversation. Thank you.