I appear successful, but since having kids I feel I’ve lost myself | Family

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I have struggled with depression and anxiety since my teens and have had therapy and medication on and off since I was 17 (I am now 37). I’m aware of deep-rooted low self-esteem and shame. I feel worthless. I never want to draw attention to myself and have a paralysing fear of confrontation. I have managed to maintain a few close friendships, have worked in the past, and am married with two kids. So I appear “successful” on the surface.

Things really spiralled when I had my kids, specifically my youngest, two years ago. My anxiety went off the charts and my thoughts went very dark. Covid likely had an impact, too. My world has become small.

I have moved countries three times in recent years, a result of my husband’s job (I’ve been a willing participant). I decided not to work when we moved again and instead focus on retraining. But I found the process gruelling and the work placement stressful and overwhelming.

I love my kids but feel the life has been sucked out of me. With my first child I was doing further studies, which was difficult, but it felt as if I had an outside purpose.

I believe my anxiety is rooted in fear of judgment, that people will think me a fraud, and not a real mother: I don’t really cook, am not crafty, and am just generally a bit of an all-round loser. My eldest is four and has always been quite happy-go-lucky, but my fear is my kids will inherit my anxiety.

Both start in daycare/school shortly and I will get some much-needed free time. But I just don’t know how to live any more. I have completely lost myself. I do have a professional therapist who is excellent, but I’d like a different perspective.

I do sense a theme, one of displacement, disempowerment and overwhelm. What happened to you when you were 17? There is a dissonance between what you’ve done, and how you feel. What I see is a woman who has moved countries (each time uprooting herself, I could not do this), had children, worked, retrained, completed a placement, done further studies. I’ve done two of those things – if you are a failure, what am I? Your letter reminded me of those pin art models – the ones where you push a hand into blunt pins to make a 3D image. But what you’re doing is squishing down everything that’s good, to leave in relief everything that you think is bad about you. But you know, when you turn those 3D pictures around, there’s a whole different perspective.

I contacted Jo Stubley, a consultant psychiatrist in psychotherapy. Stubley explained that many of us learn over time that how we might feel about ourselves may not be how everyone else views us. “You seem to think everyone else thinks you’re rubbish [because you do], but they have a different perspective to you.”

Your inner critic is so strong that you have set a narrative for yourself that’s incredibly powerful. I wonder where this comes from? Whose voice is in your head telling you you’re not enough? Honestly, your children don’t care if you’re not crafty or can’t really cook; they care that you love them and that you’re there.

Stubley and I wondered who knows how you really feel? When we feel we are an impostor, we present a “false self” to the world, a version we think is more palatable. And it works for a while but it’s not sustainable, and it actually keeps people at bay, and stops them helping you. Do you present this side to your therapist? It’s really important that you are honest with him/her, maybe even show them the letter you wrote to me?

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Stubley wondered where your anger was? Squished right down? That might be exhausting. If I were you I’d be pretty miffed at having to move countries so many times and give up my job. No wonder you feel lost. There is a future for you, of course there is, but these massive feelings have to be processed bit by bit. Please tell your husband how you feel and/or your closest friend – they don’t have to be geographically close. Also: allow yourself to get angry and not turn everything inwards.

Use the time you have coming up to do what makes you feel good sometimes. It doesn’t have to be complicated, or a big thing. Asking yourself, “What do I need right now?” when you feel overwhelmed is a really useful exercise: it’s honestly saved my sanity these past few years. You might also find Julia Bueno’s book Everyone’s a Critic useful when it comes out in late summer.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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Conversations With Annalisa Barbieri, series 2, is available here.




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