Stepmoms, do you like who you’ve become?

Stressed StepmomI hear from a lot of stepmoms that they don’t like who they’ve become. They say that they used to be so happy and alive. They were friendly and funny… they really liked themselves. But not so much, these days.

This is what happens when we spend too much time shoving our feelings down, ignoring our needs and doing too many things that we really don’t want to be doing.

If you can relate to this, you’re not a bad person. You’re human. You’re a caring woman who has put the needs of others above hers – but you pay a price for that.

Bet you didn’t know there is such a thing as OVER caring. I know, ridiculous, right? Caring is so wonderful, how can you OVER care? Well, you can over care when you’re no longer giving because you want to give, but giving because you:

  • think you should
  • feel forced to
  • are trying to control a situation
  • are trying to control other people
  • are attached to a specific outcome

What happens when you over care is you start to get angry that others haven’t returned the favor. Or that things haven’t turned how you wished they had. Or that you’re living a life that you’re no longer satisfied with. You’ll know you’ve arrived at over care because you’ll be on edge, contracted, getting triggered by every little thing. And it will be hard for you to find anything about your family that you enjoy.

What started out as a good intention has turned into something you resent – and everyone around you knows it. Your family doesn’t win when you over care. Kids can sense your resentment of them and your partner isn’t blind to your contempt.

The antidote? Stepping out of over care and into love. Love for yourself, which means understanding that your needs ARE important, and that you first have to be good with yourself before you can be available for others. It means stepping back from doing the things you resent, at least until you can get enough perspective and a full emotional tank to work from. Then, when you’re back on track, you’ll either decide that you’re ready to step back in and take on only what you can feel good about, or you’ll decide other action is needed. Either way, you’ll be doing it with love, for yourself and others.

One of my favorite exercises we do at our Stepmom Retreat is helping women remember who they are. Because it’s from this place of love and authenticity that you’ll find your strength to move forward into happiness.

And when you’re happy with yourself, you’ll make decisions that serve you well and consequently serve those around you well. So step back. Take inventory. Decide who you want to be. And move forward, one small step at a time.

© 2016 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Stepmoms, your feelings matter too

Stepmom feelings matterHave you ever had a difficult situation with your stepchild and thought to yourself “Well, I shouldn’t really complain. It’s harder on my partner because it’s his child, so I’ll just keep my mouth shut”? Like somehow you weren’t allowed to be upset because you’re not the mom or dad? If so, you’re not alone.

When there’s a serious situation going on with a child – mental or physical illness, addiction, serious behavioral issues, etc… – stepparents’ feelings are often invalidated or ignored because they’re “just” the stepmom – or dad’s girlfriend.

Sometimes this is truly how others are treating us, sometimes it’s just our perception of how others feel about us and other times it’s our own self-imposed “rule” we didn’t even realize we had.

It’s Not a Competition

There seems to be a belief that because you’re not the biological parent, you can’t possibly be suffering as much as they are, therefore you should just keep your chin up and mouth shut.

I believe in most cases this isn’t an intentional diss by others. In fact, it can be quite subtle. It can be in the way that an extended family member might ask you how your partner is holding up, or states “it must be so hard for him,” but doesn’t ask how you’re doing with it. Not acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, it’s been difficult for you too.

And sometimes it’s our own beliefs that prevent us from acknowledging our pain. Our internal dialogue telling us to be strong and supportive, that now is not the time for us to acknowledge or process our feelings. And then before we know it, the crisis is over and we’re moving on to the next.

Honoring your experience

Just because someone else’s pain seems to be more intense or they are biologically closer to the person having/causing the issues, it doesn’t mean your experience doesn’t matter. Maybe their suffering is for their child, and yours may be a combination of pain for what their child is experiencing, but also for the effect it’s having on your life; the intrusion, the upheaval every time he has an episode.

You may not even realize you’ve been holding it in, until one day someone sits down with you, looks you in the eye and says “Wow, that’s got to be incredibly difficult for you. How are you holding up?” And then it hits you, “Um… yeah, actually, it’s been horrible.” And you realize no one has ever said that to you before.

Your experiences and emotions are real. And they deserve to be acknowledged and processed in a healthy way. Even if your partner is too busy with his own pain to be there with you in yours, at the very least take some time alone for this. Or find a good friend (or community) who understands and can be there for you as you express your resentments, anger, pain, hatred, etc… without invalidating you by stating that the parent’s pain must be worse.

Sharing your experience with your partner

Although he may not have the bandwidth to handle it while in crisis mode, when the dust settles, have a conversation with your partner and let him know that you just need him to listen to your experience of the situation and how it affects you. Because it does. If there’s something he can do to make it better for you, ask him for that. If not, tell him you just want him to listen. Remember, his default thinking is probably “how can I fix this?” So if there’s no fixing to be done, let him know that.

For example, “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you and I’m happy to talk about that. But right now I’d like you to listen to how I experienced the situation – what it was like for me. I understand you may not want to do anything differently and that you’re doing the best you can – but I at least need you to have this information.”

If you don’t take the time to really work through your emotions and process your pain, you’re basically invalidating your importance and you run the risk of repressing powerful emotions that need to be released. And we all know those repressed emotions like to surface at the most inopportune times. A dirty dish at a holiday dinner ends up eliciting a reaction that’s really the result of all the crises you’ve endured in the past few years.

How to Honor and Move Through Emotions

There are many ways to acknowledge your feelings and experiences. Below are a couple of ways I’ve found that work really well for most people.

  1. Journal. Write down all your thoughts about the situation. Write down everything, even the thoughts you’d be too ashamed to speak. If you’re worried about someone finding your journal, burn it afterwards. What’s important is to let out what’s been festering inside of you. And of course be gentle with yourself. No judgments here. There’s no good or bad, just honest thoughts and feelings.
  2. Notice your emotions. Are you angry? Sad? Frustrated? Resentful? All of the above? Let the emotions flow. If you need to hit a pillow, do so. If you need to cry until you have no more tears left, do it. Those are healthy expressions of healthy emotions. Then bring your awareness to your body and notice how and where these emotions show up. Maybe a pit in your stomach, a headache, a backache, an aching in your chest, a lump in your throat. Then gently place one hand on that spot and take a breath. Imagine you’re breathing into the tension where your emotions are sitting. Do this until you feel the lump/ache start to dissipate. You can do this for as long as you wish.

What’s important here isn’t that others are validating your feelings (since we can never control that), but that you are validating and honoring them.

It’s great to be a supportive partner, but you must find the balance between supporting others and supporting yourself. Regardless of what any outsider thinks, you ARE affected by the actions of everyone else in your family. And your experience deserves to be acknowledged and tended to with love.

© 2016 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

Interested in working with me? Click here to see how I can help.

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Stepmoms, there is nothing wrong with you

Stepmom feeling normalThis is a short blog post with one purpose, to let you know that you’re OK. That you’re normal and there’s nothing wrong with you. Whatever it is you’re thinking or feeling about your experience as a woman dating or married to a man with kids, it’s not unusual. 

A little perspective 

A common theme among my stepmom clients and the stepmoms I connect with in the StepmomHelp.com Facebook community is that they think there’s something wrong with them because they’re challenged by their situation.

They think they should be able to handle this easily, but the truth is that many have started experiencing anxiety and depression and their stress has manifested in physical ailments. They also feel an overwhelming sense of shame in regards to their thoughts and feelings about their situation and their inability to deal with it effortlessly.

The vicious cycle

Due to the shame, these things aren’t often talked about openly, which causes more shame because everyone thinks they’re the only ones struggling. They feel  isolated, assuming they’re the exception to the rule and that everyone else is handling it easily. But the truth is if there are stepmoms out there who are breezing through it, they’re the exceptions.

I guarantee you, if you’ve thought it or felt it, regardless of how “awful” you think it is, so have thousands of other stepmoms before you, including me!

It’s easy to make yourself wrong for your struggles, but you’re not wrong. You’re just experiencing what most normal, healthy individuals experience when they’re in a situation as inherently difficult as a stepfamily.

Asking for help

That doesn’t mean things can’t be better for you, of course. But first you have to come out of the proverbial closet. Reaching out for help isn’t for the weak, it’s for those who are strong enough to say “Right now I can’t do this on my own and if I want things to change, I need to change something.”

One of the reasons I love my job so much is because I get to give stepmoms hope and show them that, at the very least, when they improve themselves they improve their experience of the situation.

Connecting with the masses

This is a simple exercise you can do any time you’re feeling down on yourself for feeling down.

Close your eyes and imagine yourself connecting with all the thousands of stepmoms around the world who are also struggling. Then imagine opening your heart and sending them love and compassion for everything they’re going through. Then send yourself the same love and compassion for your experience.

The bottom line is you’re not alone and you’re not unique in the struggles you face or your thoughts and feelings about those struggles. You are completely normal (and fabulous!), just like every other stepmom in the world.

© 2016 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

Interested in working with me? Click here to see how I can help.

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The Power of an Apology

ex-wife apologyI will never again say never. Wait. What? Nevermind.

Something unexpected and beautiful has happened that felt surreal for a while, but now that I’ve had time to process it I’m ready to share.

After about 5 years of conflict and 1.5 years of basically no contact, I recently received an apology from my husband’s ex-wife. It contained no justifications, no excuses, no blame, nothing but a pure, sincere apology and a request for forgiveness for every “angry word and hurtful message” she ever sent to me.

“Stunned” doesn’t begin to describe what I felt at that moment. Shock, relief, gratitude, dumbfounded… that was some of it.

And a surprising feeling of being freed from a burden that I didn’t know I was carrying. It felt like a ton of bricks had just been removed from my heart. Only I didn’t know they were there, until they were gone.

I thought I had done a good job of forgiving her without an apology, but I couldn’t have known how differently I would feel after actually receiving one.

The thing about an apology is it’s an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. With that gift in hand (and I DO see it as a gift) I immediately softened, lowered my guard and was able to look back at our situation with a new perspective, with more compassion and a clearer picture of how difficult things were – for everyone – at that time. It’s not an excuse, just an explanation.

For those of you who don’t know anything about my experiences, you can get a glimpse here.

With every change (even positive change) we experience a loss

After the initial feeling of shock and elation started to wear off, a feeling of uneasiness crept in. It took me a while to realize what it was: a feeling of loss – which really confused me. I should be feeling nothing but happiness, right? Then I finally figured out exactly what I felt I was losing: the certainty I had about her. The predictability of her behavior and who she was in our relationship. With certainty, I had put her in this box of being “high-conflict” and being incapable of ever changing.

But with that apology, all of the things I thought I knew about her and our situation flew out the window. It left me feeling very confused. After all, I had written a book about how to deal with the conflict. I work with stepmoms on a daily basis to help them cope with such situations. Does this invalidate all my past work?

Do circumstances matter?

I have no idea what prompted the apology. Why now? I can make assumptions all day long, but in the end it’s none of my business and it doesn’t really matter.

I do, however, believe circumstances must have played a part. I’ve always believed at any given time we’re all doing our best. All of us are different people in different situations at different phases in our lives.

So if everything aligns just so to create the perfect storm, our best might be a 3. But when circumstances change for us, we have the opportunity for our best to be a 10.

Boundaries

As I’ve said, I may never know what brought upon this change. But I do know for sure that for my husband and I, not communicating with his ex for over a year was extremely helpful. It forced an interruption in an unhealthy pattern and gave us all a chance to reset.  Perhaps needs that were getting met through the conflict were forced to get met elsewhere.

Hindsight

Not because of the apology itself, but because of the space the apology created within me, I’ve been able to use everything I’ve learned (professionally and personally) since then to explore the ways in which certain things could have been handled differently. How my husband and I could have approached situations in a different way that might have led to more collaboration and peace instead of more conflict.

We couldn’t have known that then – but when you know better you do better, right? So I’m grateful to be able to use my knew insights to help other stepfamilies who are having their own difficulties.

So what’s the moral of the story?

It’s a funny thing, the timing of this apology. I had just completed a new coach training where they teach that we should elevate everyone. And although I love that in theory and it really resonated with me, I felt conflicted about it because of my experiences. And then I received the apology. It was like the Universe’s way of saying “Told ya so!”

Now that I’ve had some time to sit with it, I’ve gained some clarity on the things I was unsure of:

  • The past hasn’t changed.
  • Everything I’ve written on the subject still stands.
  • Thousands of women (and men) are stuck in high-conflict situations and the work I do with them and the tools I teach are still not only valid, but crucial for finding inner peace when faced with conflict.

But now there’s also… hope? And the belief that seeing the conflict as separate from the person could really serve us.

There’s also a knowing that anything is possible.

The past remains, but now our future will surely be different. And words can’t express how thankful I am for that.

© 2016 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

Interested in working with me? Click here to see how I can help.

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Stepmoms: stuck on the outside

Stepmom stuck outsiderHave you ever answered the phone and your stepchild says “Is my dad there?” instead of “Hi (insert your name here), how are you? Is my dad there?” Or maybe every single time the child asks a question or tells a story he only directs it to dad, as if you’re invisible. My personal favorite is when my husband and I were on the sofa and from the kitchen my stepson hollers “Dad! Want anything?”

Chances are, as a stepmom you experience this on a pretty regular basis, especially if your stepkids were older when you met them. If you don’t understand the why behind it it be can pretty painful. After all, who the hell ignores someone sitting RIGHT THERE?!

Why do I feel like such an outsider?

Patricia Papernow, PhD says that in nuclear families it’s normal for the kids to alternate who they prefer to go to for answers and comfort – sometimes mom, sometimes dad. The parent who the child prefers at that time is called the “Insider.” But in stepfamilies, it’s always the parent (at least initially) and not the stepparent, so she refers to this dynamic as the Stuck Insider (parent)/Stuck Outsider (stepparent).

Because the family of origin doesn’t include you, kids don’t have the instinct to say your name first or go to you for answers or comfort, or, in some cases, even say hello when they call. And being a stepchild, I can vouch for this. I did it all of the time, without ever noticing, until I became a stepmom and realized, “Oh crap! I never addressed my stepmom!”

It’s important you understand that it’s not about being malicious or purposefully rude to you. And it’s not about anything you’ve done (unless you really did so something awful), it’s more about instincts and the nature and dynamic of the stepfamily.

I’m not making excuses for bad behavior, and in fact I wouldn’t even call this bad behavior. A child can address only their dad and not be disrespectful to you. I’m not referring to eye-rolling or ignoring you when you speak to them or blatant disrespect. Those things need to be addressed in a conversation about manners, but not directing questions to you or not instinctively coming to you first is not something that needs to be addressed directly with the child.

What can I do?

  • Tell your partner to leave… for a few minutes: You might have seen the research that on average it takes 4-7 years for a stepfamily to feel and function like a family. That can be a LONG time to feel ignored. What you can do is create opportunities for you to be the Insider.

One of the best ways to do this is to get some alone time with your stepchild. Because as long as their parent is around and available, you’re stuck on the outside. But as soon as they leave, guess who moves up in rank?! You move to the inside, at least until dad comes back.These moments don’t have to be long, even a few minutes of connection will serve to increase your bond as time goes on. These moments should be fun, shoulder to shoulder activities where there’s very little pressure to interact directly, but you do interact somewhat.

Having a conversation about how school is going might be fine, but what would be better is to do something together that you both enjoy. For example, baking. Since you’re actually doing something, there’s not the pressure of sitting across from each other, making eye contact and being forced to come up with things to talk about. Instead you’re focused on the task at hand. The interactions are about the baking. If small talk naturally creeps in, great.

  • Don’t lose your identity: One of the fastest ways to lose your self-esteem and feel like crap is to give up everything you enjoy. Stepmoms often change their entire routine for their new family, thinking that it will somehow serve them. But that often backfires. Your new family cannot replace your oldest friends and the activities that nourish your spirit. So keeping doing the things that make you YOU.

Don’t lose hope

One of the biggest mistakes stepmoms make is thinking that how things are now is how they’ll always be. Because your family will take years to integrate, and because kids grow up and people and circumstances change, you can’t know what your future holds. I know plenty of stepmoms, myself included, who have arrived at the place where the kids finally call out our names first or come to us for support or questions.

And take comfort in that the little everyday interactions you have with your stepchild will likely serve to grow you closer as a family. But it takes years, so relax, take a breath and enjoy the ride.

© 2016 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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