14 July, 2017

Negative Thinking in Infertility and Childlessness

Last year, I was reading an article and at the end saw a selected list* of cognitive disorders. I was immediately struck by the similarities of these disorders with the thoughts and behaviour of those going through infertility, and those who are grieving post-infertility. I’ve always found that recognising what I am doing and thinking is the first step to acceptance and change, so I thought it might be helpful to list these negative ways of thinking, along with examples of how our thoughts work against us, particularly for the infertile and involuntarily childless people (in the early years at least).

Mind reading: You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts.
“They think we didn’t try hard enough.”
“They don’t think I’m a real woman/man because I can’t have children.”
“They think our lives aren’t valuable because we are not parents.”
“We’re not real adults.”

The infertile or the childless will often mind-read. We think people assume the worst about our situation and judge us, thinking that we didn’t try hard enough, or that we were somehow defective and shouldn’t be parents.  Unfortunately we probably all have examples of people actually saying variations of these thoughts directly to us, or see them in the media, proving that that is what they were thinking. This leads to us imagining the worst about what people might say to us. I know I have.
Fortune-telling: You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. 
“I’ll be lonely and unhappy in my old age if I don’t have children.”
“Or my husband/wife will leave me and find someone who can have children.”

During infertility in particular, these fears are very real. And whilst there are many positive reasons for wanting children, I believe that as infertility becomes more and more real to us, fear drives us just as much as the desired outcome.
Catastrophising: You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it.
“I couldn’t bear it if I couldn’t have children.”
“My life will have no purpose without children.”

Unfortunately, our friends, family and wider society do everything they can to reinforce our catastrophising, so we have to look a little harder to find examples where our worst case scenarios don't end as a catastrophe. Fortunately, there are a growing number of No Kidding bloggers who are here to prove that our lives are not catastrophes!
Labelling: You assign global negative traits to yourself and others.
“I’m not worthy.”
“Childless people deserved not to have children.”
“All mothers look down on me.”
"I must have done something wrong to deserve this."
“I’m a terrible person because I can’t be happy for my friend who just announced her pregnancy.”
"Childless people are selfish."

Society so loves labels, that it is easy to buy into this. When we are feeling vulnerable, we also don't really question these assumptions. But we need to!
Discounting positives: You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial.
“She’s just pitying me, and doesn’t really care.”
“I’m not strong, look at how often I cry.”
"I'm not brave enough to end this journey without a child."

Positives so often seem to be a betrayal of our grief or our emotional distress, and so we discount them. A positive feeling even induces guilt, as if we don’t deserve to feel happy or grateful. Whereas they don't negate what we've been through, and they can show us how strong we've been to endure these stressful and disappointing experiences.
Negative filtering: You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives.
“My life isn’t worth anything if I’m not a mother.”
“I’m not a real woman/man if I’m not a mother/father.”
“Children give your life purpose.”
“I have nothing positive in my life without children.”
“I will never accept my childlessness, because acceptance makes it okay.”

This is extremely common during infertility. Our infertility becomes our identity, and it can be hard to see what else is good in our lives. Likewise when we first learn we will be forever without children.
Dichotomous thinking: You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms.
“My life is over if I can’t have children.”
“I will never be happy.”
“If I can’t have children, I will forever be miserable.”
"This has to work."
This is very common when trying to conceive and during infertility treatments (or even when pursuing adoption). Our eyes are on the goal, and it is all or nothing. We surround ourselves (in the virtual world at least) with people who are cheering us on, and any suggestion that the goal is not the only option can be seen as a betrayal.

What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers.
"What if my partner dies? I’ll be alone and sad and terrified."
"What if I can't get pregnant? I'll never be happy again."
"What if I can never accept this? I'll be miserable for the rest of my life."
I think this is a variation of some of these other categories - negative filtering and catastrophising, in particular. The answers aren't satisfactory because they don't match with any of our preconceived notions that are driving us, or have driven us, for so long, and with such intense emotions.
 Emotional reasoning: You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality.
“I feel like a failure because I’m infertile. Only a child will make me feel better.”

Even though there is ample evidence that people without children live positive, fulfilled lives, this isn't supported by the emotions we feel during infertility (or in early No Kidding mode), when they push us to extraordinary lengths (emotional, physical and financial) in pursuit of our goals. We then indulge in emotional reasoning to justify our actions and thinking (in exactly the way that parents might justify their choices when they are finding things hard).
Inability to disconfirm: You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted.
“But, but, but!!!” cries the infertile person, “my case is different. I can’t bear the thought of not having children.”
“You might be able to accept a No Kidding life, but I can never accept it.” (Also unspoken, “you obviously didn’t want them as much as I did.”)
“But, but, but!” cries the newly grieving childless person. “YOU don’t know how I feel! My case is different. There’s a REASON that I’m different from you, that I feel this so strongly.”
Providing evidence often doesn't help someone at this stage, because every fibre of their being is rejecting the premise that they will survive infertility, and that their lives can still be good without children. Their first instinct is to disagree, to refute. We see this in political debate too!

I wonder if any of this sounds familiar? It certainly did to me! Recognising that I was doing do this was the first step to changing the way I thought. The benefit of time is that we gradually learn over the years how to dismiss these negative thoughts, or in some cases, to at least balance them out. I certainly have, and whilst I was prompted to really do this by my infertility and No Kidding status, I’ve found it a valuable lesson throughout my life. So if you haven’t seen it, I’ll finish on a more positive note by reposting this graphic.

*   from Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J. F. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn’s Treatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders (2012)


  1. My counsellor gave me a list of these when we were talking about my anxiety and it was a REAL eye opener. I'm better now about recognizing them but still have a long way to go before I can silence that negative inner voice. Mind reading and catastrophising are my worst offenders.

    Also, we are home now and your postcard was waiting. Thank you!

    1. Glad it arrived!

      And yes, I'm really REALLY good at mind-reading! Much better now though at stopping it in its tracks.

  2. Excellent post!! Reframing our thoughts is a great strategy for coping with infertility. I learned to challenge some of my thoughts that were keeping me stuck as well.

  3. I love, love, LOVE this post. I am guilty of so many of these. I guess I should use a different word than "guilty," which puts it on me and is probably negative as well. :-\ This post came at just the right time for me, thank you.

  4. What a brilliant list. Even though I think I'm 'resolved' I still have many of these thought processes going on. Only this weekend when excluded from a big family event did I have a few of the Labelling and Negative Filtering ones. So helpful to read something like this: thank you.

  5. Sounds very familiar to me!! And yes, we all deserve better. Thank you for this, Mali! :)

  6. I learned to challenge some of my thoughts that were keeping me stuck as well.

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