In my role as a stepfamily coach and the administrator of several stepmom support groups, I made a recent and painful self-discovery. I am guilty of a serious stepmom advice sin: telling a stepmom: “ Don’t take it personally” and I’ve said it many times to many women over my stepmom coaching career. Not until recently did I realize how serious my error was. And how incredibly hard “not taking it personally” is to do. Stepmoms aren’t supposed to take their stepchild’s rejection personally, or a high conflict ex-wife telling the stepkids to hate you personally, or when your partner undermines your discipline in front of the kids personally. I was recently in the midst of my own stepmom pain and thought to myself “stop taking it so personally, this isn’t about you”. But I couldn’t stop taking it personally. What was happening felt VERY personal. And the behaviour was directed at ME.
Here’s the problem. It wasn’t blatant. It was subtle, and in my opinion, that was more damaging. I could feel the rejection and it was very real. And it hurt. A lot. I couldn’t understand how I deserved this. But, I had to remind myself of something that I had repeatedly told myself in the past: I was a painful reminder to my stepkids that their family was over. Their family would never go back to the way it was. Marrying my husband and having more children changed their original family. It was hard to wrap my head and heart around the fact that my love and desire for a family, that was to include my stepchildren, turned out to be the very reason I was rejected. Here’s what I know; I didn’t deserve it. Not at all. And I always knew this wasn’t about me. I did in my mind at least. However, that wasn’t exactly true of my heart. So, then my next step was to figure out how to take what I knew in my mind and place it in my heart. Those two parts of my body felt at polar opposites to each other and that was going to be hard to reconcile.
I know that am a smart woman, but matters of the heart are harder to rationalize and figure out. In fact, our brains aren’t wired to be rational when our emotions are triggered. So, I was left to think of ways that THEIR behaviour didn’t impact me. I had to let their hurtful and disrespectful behaviours roll off me. I had to remind myself that how they treated me was a reflection of their lack, and their loss rather than a reflection on me. What were the necessary steps I had to make for me? When I read the following quote, I knew I had the answer:
The goal is to build up the wall of positivity so high around you that no matter what negativity comes your way it can’t get through and bounces off and no longer affects your well being. - Author Unknown
I had to do some research to know how someone else did it (here’s a great article to read ). However, I had to make it specific to stepfamily life.
But in the end, it was the hard, painful kind of stretch- yourself -out -of -your -comfort- zone work that I needed to do. Honestly, I’m not done with my personal work of following the tips below. In fact, if I am feeling vulnerable in general then I’m more prone to taking everything personally. Here’s what helped me; I hope it helps you.
1) A quick checkup.
Do they treat everyone this way or just you? If this is their pattern and how they treat everyone then it’s not personal. If it’s only you, there are 5 other steps to take to insulate yourself.
2) Approval denied.
We think we need their (the ex or the stepchildren) approval. We believe we need to know they are ok with our presence. If they like us we win. We equate their approval with extra validity in our relationship with our partner. It means we are approved as a part of the family, it gives us legitimacy like a check mark on the list of building successful families. But our happiness should not and cannot depend on their approval. In our minds we know we aren’t a threat to them but they haven’t gotten that interdepartmental memo. We also need our CEO – our spouses – to send an upper management memo that respect IS not an option. Seriously, approve of yourself first. Be strong in who you are and what you bring to your family. Own your awesomeness and own your power. A key to this, if you KNOW you have been respectful to everyone and their process of adjusting to the huge changes that blending brings, you are golden. If not, you have some work to do on YOUR end as well.
3) It’s about them not about you.
Very likely, jealousy or insecurity (or both) is at the root of this. How do people who do not value themselves value others? It’s not possible. And often, you reflect something that they lack. They have no control so feel that they have to take as much as they can get. You have something they want. You are a constant reminder that the relationship is over. That is a loss that has to be grieved. That takes time. And if they never get over it? Then that means you have to get around it. The following quote keeps that in perspective:
Hurt people hurt people, whole people heal people – Yehuda Berg
4) Take a deep breath.
Take 10 deep breaths. Replenish your bucket with self-care activities. Baths or exercise, a good book, journaling, catch a comedy, nature walks, prayer, meditation – whatever it is you need to build your wall of strength and create positive flow. And then actually do it: prioritize it, make it happen. EVERY. DAY.
Yes, stand your ground and be clear that their judgments, their criticism, their opinions, their values are theirs. My favourite quote attributed to many authors over time is “What other people think of me is none of my business” You do not have to listen to their opinion or buy into it. Clearly, they don’t care about yours. You can say what you will and will not allow from them. You do not have to deal with them at all if that protects your head and heart. In fact, just ignore. PERIOD!
6) Mantras and affirmations.
When you are in a calm state, it’s easier to “know” that this isn’t really about you. It’s a practice you need to do regularly (hourly if need be for the first little while) so that when you are emotional or triggered you already have your practice honed. Once it becomes a practice, you can focus and be centred in a matter of breaths. The quotes above can be your mantra. My other favourite affirmation isn’t actually an affirmation, it’s an ancient Hawaiian prayer. It’s the Ho’ oponopono prayer. It’s a powerful prayer that I have been using a lot lately. This is it:
“It helps me find peace within myself, which then extends beyond me, to those around me. I trip up a bit on the love part but think of it rather as loving energy/vibes.”
So, on good days you may have to use one or two of these tools, on the not so good days, a combination of all of them. Know that this is a work in progress. In fact, that is a guarantee. So, the most important person to be gentle with is you! We all know about the fluid nature of steplife. If you are doing the job you have to of caring for your own well-being and focusing on boundaries and positive re-framing, you are well on your way to letting the words and behaviors of others not affect you. That is where you will find your true peace and your true power!
Peace to you in your head, your heart, and your soul!
Ali Wilks has a BA in Psychology and an MSc in Human Ecology specializing in Family Studies. She is also a certified stepfamily coach, the owner and founder of Step by Step Mom – a stepfamily/stepmom coaching business and Wellness Editor at Stepparent Magazine. Her other job is with Children’s Services, since 1998, in Edmonton, Alberta. She is currently a trainer on Edmonton’s Caregiver Training Unit teaching classes on building skills, providing advocacy and support for foster, kinship and adoptive parents. These classes include building the essential skills in raising nonbiological children from the foster care system who present with special needs. Ali is a stepmother of 3 adult children (with a couple of grandkids too) and the birth mother of 2 beautiful girls.