Transforming Difficult Feelings

Making a decision to have an abortion is often an intense process that causes people to pause and reflect on their lives. Although it is difficult, this can also become an important opportunity to make important changes, to grow as people and to find meaning in this experience.

Just as there is no right or wrong way to feel after any big life decision or experience, there is no right or wrong way to feel after an abortion.

Experiencing depression after deciding not to continue a pregnancy is rare –depression after an abortion is far less common than after giving birth.

Many will feel:

  • a strong sense of relief after an abortion;
  • relief mixed in with sadness, grief, anger, fear, regret, guilt or shame.

It is important to acknowledge these feelings if they come up. Burying or avoiding emotions may cause them to stay with you longer.

When we are going through difficult times in our lives, it can help to simply feel our emotions and to be honest with ourselves about them. We can seek a middle ground in which our emotions are neither buried nor acted on in harmful ways. This can take practice and support. If we find ourselves repressing or expressing strong emotions in ways we do not want to, we can simply remind ourselves that we are learning, take a breath and try again.

Sadness and Grief

Some of the most common emotions that people experience after an abortion are sadness, grief and/or a sense of loss.

  • This is especially true if you believed an abortion was the best choice in the circumstances, but you wished that those circumstances were different.
  • you may also be more likely to experience these emotions if you felt a connection to the pregnancy or the potential child it might have become.

Even if you were quite sure about your decision, you may still feel sad and might not even fully understand why.

Sometimes these feelings are caused at least in part by a drop in pregnancy hormones, which can affect you emotionally for a few days to two weeks after the procedure.

Sometimes your feelings are less about the abortion itself and more about the circumstances surrounding it. You might:

  • be grieving the end of a relationship or a lack of support from someone close to you;
  • simply be wishing you did not need to go through this experience;
  • be feeling sad that being pregnant was not the happy experience you had imagined or hoped it would be.

You might also feel old losses surfacing, triggered by the new ones. When this happens, you can feel:

  • afraid that your sadness or grief will never end;
  • scared that you will become seriously depressed.

However, when sadness and grief are present, acknowledging these emotions is often the best way to move through them, especially if you have the support to do so safely. Sadness will fade with time, and there is no cure for grief but grieving.

Grief and loss are often described as being like ocean waves, washing over us powerfully at first and then becoming gentler as the tide recedes. Eventually, the time between waves will grow longer. Waves may continue to come at times, particularly when we are reminded of our loss, like:

  • at the time we might have given birth if we had continued a pregnancy;
  • on the anniversary of an abortion;
  • when we have children in the future;
  • when other difficulties occur in our lives.

When this happens, you may need to allow tears to come, reach out for support, be kind to yourself and remember why you made the choice you did. We are all likely to feel sad and to grieve many times in our lives. However, if our sadness or grief seems overwhelming or unmanageable it may be that we need support to heal. If time passes and you are not finding any relief from your sadness or it is negatively affecting your life, then you may want to consider reaching out to the clinic where you got the abortion, a crisis line or a counsellor.

Creating Closure

Closure provides us with a sense of resolution by remembering and honouring the experience while also letting it go. It may not make everything completely better, but it might help us to move forward in our lives. When we consider what we have been through and how we have changed as a result, we can take what we have learned with us while releasing some of the more painful parts of the experience.

Closure is a symbolic act, such as a ritual or ceremony. Examples include:

  • writing something down like a letter or list of your reasons, that you can tear up, burn or put somewhere to read again later;
  • floating flowers away or cleansing yourself with water;
  • planting a tree or scattering seeds in a field;
  • making or purchasing a special piece of jewelry to wear or finding something significant to carry with you.
  • Some people also have a ‘closure day’ where they set aside time to reflect on and feel their emotions.

It can also just be a decision – that after a certain amount of time you will honour difficult feelings or thoughts as best you can and move on in whatever ways feel possible and healthy.

Anger and Resentment

Some of us feel angry at the time of or after an abortion. Often our anger is directed at the person we got pregnant with. You may also be angry:

  • at yourself;
  • at a doctor who failed to give you the information you needed to prevent pregnancy;
  • at people who were unsupportive or pressured you to make a certain decision;
  • at the world we live in.
  • Sometimes you may not even be sure why you are angry – you just feel frustrated or irritable.

This could simply be a reaction to the stress of the situation, to the change in hormones, or it might be a sign that there is something else bothering you.

Strong emotions are often trying to tell us something.

  • For many of us though, it can be challenging to get in touch with and honour our anger.
  • We may have very good reasons to be angry, but we are often taught to ignore and deny our anger.

When we learn to listen to our anger it can show us what is not working in our lives and give us the motivation to address it.

  • Acknowledging it can act as a wake-up call, revealing things that once seemed normal as being harmful or unfair.
  • It can give us the strength to free ourselves from situations that are hurting us or to demand change in our lives and the world around us.

Anger can also become a destructive force when expressed in certain ways. You may want to think of how you can use your energy in a positive or productive way:

  • Writing down our feelings or talking them out with someone you trust can help you to release some of the initial charge of anger.
  • At other times you might need to discharge your anger physically by working out, taking a walk, or hitting a bed or pillow.

Once you have taken some of the edge off your anger in a safe way, you can more easily take appropriate action that addresses the true reasons you are angry.

This is important, because when we allow anger to build up over time without dealing with it, it can become resentment or bitterness – a kind of ever-present anger directed at circumstances we think are unjust or someone we feel has done something wrong. If it is not addressed, this can become quite toxic for our relationships and for ourselves.

Although we need to listen to our anger, we sometimes have to look beyond it as well. Anger can be a cover emotion for a deeper feeling we are uncomfortable with, like sadness or guilt. We may need to let go of our anger to get at what is underneath. For example:

  • underlying anger at a partner who didn’t pull out or use a condom;
  • there could be hurt that they did not consider the consequences we would face;
  • disappointment that we did not (or were not able to) insist on better protection for ourselves.

Finding Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the intentional setting aside of negative feelings so that we can free someone from blame or guilt. You may need to:

  • forgive others who were involved in the pregnancy for their behaviour;
  • forgive yourself for what you did or did not do.

Forgiving is not the same as:

  • excusing
  • forgetting what has happened.
  • denying pain.

It is a way of finding peace.

Holding onto anger or resentment is sometimes justified, but can also at times make our own healing more difficult. At some point we may be ready to move forward in a way that only forgiveness allows. That said, forgiveness is always a choice.

  • Forgiveness does not have to happen right away (or ever).
  • You may need support to feel your anger and hurt before you can make the decision to forgive.
  • Forgiveness does not mean that you continue in a relationship in the same way.
  • You may need to say no to something you allowed to happen before.
  • You may need to find a way to remove yourself from the influence of people whose opinions or behaviours have hurt you.

Usually the most important and most difficult person to forgive is oneself. If we feel angry or disappointed with ourselves, we may need to allow ourselves to be human. We may need to accept that although we can choose to do things differently in the future, we cannot be perfect.

Luckily, life gives us many opportunities to start over and try again… If it helps, we can make an apology, maybe just within our own hearts, or by apologizing to someone we believe has been hurt by our actions. Most often though self-forgiveness is simply a choice to treat ourselves more compassionately, as we would a loved one.

Fear of Regret

It is commonly believed that regret is common after abortion but this is not actually true.

Regret implies a feeling that we made the wrong decision and that we would make a different choice if we were in the same situation again. Most of us will know that we made a good decision or that it was the best or only decision possible at the time. The passage of time usually strengthens rather than weakens this knowledge.

In the future you still may think about what your life would be like had you done something different. As with any major life decision, it is normal after an abortion to wonder ‘what if’ you’d made another choice.

However, dwelling on the ‘if onlys’:

  • “if only I did not have an abortion,”
  • “if only we didn’t break up,”
  • “if only I had had a baby”

can only cause harm.

If you find yourself preoccupied by these kinds of thoughts, you may need support in working through them so that you can make peace with what happened.

Sometimes our fear of regret comes from the belief that there is only one right choice, and that we will later realize that we made the wrong one.

  • The situations you are in when you make a pregnancy decision are usually more complicated than that.
  • There may not be a perfect choice in an imperfect situation, and there can be both positive and negative consequences to any decision.
  • What matters most is how you are able to carry your choices once they have been made.

Sometimes, when we do feel regret it is because things have changed in our lives and we are looking at our past decisions through the lens of our current situation:

  • Perhaps some of the reasons why you chose an abortion in the past have changed or are no longer an issue.
  • Maybe you wish you had known more at the time of the abortion, or had had the resources and support to make a different decision.
  • Maybe you are having trouble getting pregnant now that you are ready and so you wish you had continued a previous pregnancy.

Whatever you may experience in the future, you need to remember what you were going through at the time of the abortion.

As counsellor Alissa C. Perruci writes: “Looking back on one’s past with the knowledge of one’s present isn’t fair. The future provides the wisdom and perspective of having moved through and survived the event in question.  It is also not realistic – five years from now life will be different, and part of what will make life different are the decisions that were made in the past.”

Remembering Your Reasons  

If the choice to have an abortion was difficult, you probably had strong reasons to make it. Most consider a wide range of factors in the decision:

  • whether you have the support you need to raise a child;
  • your financial, work or school situations;
  • the needs of the children you already have;
  • the stability of your relationship and your partner’s feelings;
  • the housing and childcare available to you;
  • your own health and readiness.

Especially if you fear regret or have mixed feelings about the decision, knowing well your reasons and being able to remember them in the future can help you to cope.

To do this you may want to:

  • write your reasons down to be reminded of why you made the choice you did;
  • repeat an affirmation to yourself such as “I made the best choice in the circumstances”, “I am a good person and I made a good decision” or “I made this choice for my family”;
  • ask someone you trust to remind you of your reasons when needed;
  • keep something symbolic nearby to remind you of the goodness in your choice;
  • devote your attention to something that was a factor in your decision, such as your work, school, family, or life goals;
  • commit to always remembering your reasons when you think about the abortion.

You may also need to give yourself permission to have your particular reasons. Many of us have been taught that only some reasons for having an abortion are acceptable and other reasons are “not good enough.” It is enough that it simply did not feel like the right time to be pregnant. You need to trust yourself that your reasons are good ones.

  • Even if you want children in the future, timing and circumstances are crucial.
  • Parenting starts even before you get pregnant with how you prepare your body, mind, heart, relationship, home and finances.
  • Sometimes an accidental pregnancy simply does not give you this chance.

Honouring your reasons means trusting that you know yourself best and that you have the right to make choices – however hard they may be – about your life.

Guilt and Self-Blame

Because of the negative messages around us, many of us feel some guilt when we go through an abortion or at times even wonder whether we should feel guilty when we do not.

Guilt is usually a response to the question of whether we have acted against our values or have done something that we think is harmful. This is often not true of having an abortion.

You actually may have upheld your values or avoided harm by making a loving and responsible choice not to continue a pregnancy when it was not the right time or under the right circumstances.

Like most emotions, guilt may have something important to show us. It can act as a reminder of things we want to do things differently. Making a decision about a pregnancy often means looking at every aspect of our lives.

  • This can sometimes be uncomfortable and mean acknowledging things we wish were different, especially when it comes to our own behaviours.
  • Feeling guilt can provide us with an opportunity to look at ourselves and our lives realistically and honestly, committing to living a life more in keeping with our priorities and goals.
  • This could mean:
    • using more effective birth control;
    • making changes in our relationships or careers;
    • preparing for a future family;
    • or seeking help to deal with addictions, emotional patterns or past traumas that are affecting our lives.

Constructive guilt allows us to gently correct the things we want and are able to change.

Unfortunately, most of us do not experience guilt this way.

  • We may have been taught to be very hard on ourselves.
  • We might often live under a set of expectations that most of us are unable to fulfill.
  • Many of us also experience pressures from our culture or communities, the different roles we play in our lives – like in our jobs and families – and from social structures like racism or poverty.
  • Sometimes it can seem like no matter what we do, we will not be able to get it right.

Rather than understanding that the standards by which you are judged are unrealistic and unfair, you might often internalize those standards and criticize yourself for not measuring up.

This kind of guilt is also connected to self-blame.

  • Sometimes, even if things were out of your control, you continue to believe that they were your fault.
  • You might believe that you failed by getting pregnant, even when it was your birth control that failed.

This is often, at least in part, because stigma is targeted mostly at women. Despite the fact that we did not get pregnant by ourselves, we are expected to shoulder most of the responsibility for it alone, and we often do.

In blaming yourself, you sometimes forget that you are part of a much larger picture that shapes your choices. You live in a society in which birth control is often expensive and inaccessible, where you are surrounded by very contradictory and confusing messages about sex, and where you are denied the information you need to protect yourself.

You are doing the best you can under conditions that are far less than ideal and that you did not choose.

Even when we do not think that we have a reason to feel guilty, someone else accusing us of doing something wrong is a hurtful thing to experience.

  • You may want to limit your exposure to anyone who does this, or even ask them directly to stop.
  • Someone placing guilt or blame on you is most painful when you already feel these things yourself, so you must work even harder to trust your decision if others did not agree with it.

It can be useful to think about how a difficult situation could have been avoided in order to lessen its likelihood of happening again in the future. When we can recognize that we have done the best we could in the circumstances, we will have no reason to hold on to guilt any longer and our healing can truly begin.

Looking More Closely

Although you most often need to base the decision to end a pregnancy on the concrete realities of your life instead of on opinions or beliefs, you may still need to reflect on the ethics of this choice in order to cope with it well.

In this way an abortion can help you to expand and deepen your values.

This experience may show you that life is more complex than what you have been taught about right and wrong. Sometimes examining these judgements can help you to trust the goodness in your choices and to look back on your experiences with more kindness and compassion.

One common judgement that comes up is that having an abortion somehow makes someone selfish. In fact:

  • most women have been taught to be caregivers and to think of others in almost all of the things they do;
  • women do their best to make a thoughtful decision, taking into account everyone who will be affected;
  • many even choose not to continue a pregnancy when they wish they could, because they feel unable to provide for a child as well as they would want to.

People think that it is somehow selfish to decide not to keep a pregnancy when other women are struggling or unable to get pregnant.

It is often as difficult to be pregnant when we do not want to be as it is to struggle to get pregnant when we do.

It is normal for women to go through a range of challenging experiences related to pregnancy and childbearing, including:

  • unplanned pregnancies;
  • abortions;
  • miscarriages;
  • pregnancy complications;
  • stillbirths or infertility.

Your particular challenges do not disrespect those of others.

Sometimes our guilt around abortion is connected to religion. Although it can seem like religions are opposed to abortion, in fact there are in many beliefs within every faith:

  • In Christianity, abortion is never mentioned in the Bible.
  • In Islam, it can be considered acceptable to have an abortion when a pregnancy is in its early stages.
  • Most religions teach that we were given free will in order to be able to make moral decisions and many religious people and even religious leaders believe that abortion can be a moral choice when made in a conscientious and careful way.

Whatever our religious background, when we look closely at the core values we will find things like forgiveness, compassion and love. These values are more central to a faith than the rules and judgements that have become layered on top of them as religions have changed and been interpreted over time.

Whatever you believe, it is sometimes important to remember that there is no guarantee that you would have had a baby, even if you continued the pregnancy.

  • Many pregnancies end in miscarriage.
  • Sometimes our bodies decide that a pregnancy cannot continue and sometimes we need to decide with our hearts and minds.

Being a moral person means making the best decision you can for everyone involved and if you look more closely, you are likely to see that this is exactly what you have done.

Shame and Perfectionism

With shame, rather than believing that we may have done something wrong or will be judged that way, there is often a belief that somehow we are wrong – that maybe somehow we are bad or lacking and fear that if others find out they will reject us.

When you feel shame there can be a belief, which you may or may not be aware of, that:

  • what has happened affects your worth as a human being;
  • your worth comes from outside of you, and that it is always being judged;
  • you can be worthy of things like love, compassion, or acceptance if you prove your value by working hard enough and not making mistakes.

When we are able to trace the roots of our feelings of shame, most often we find that:

  • they are connected to having felt judged or been treated badly by others;
  • they can also be rooted in negative societal messages we have received or social structures of inequality like racism, ableism or poverty;
  • they can be related to trauma in our own lives or the lives of our families and communities.

Shame is like a heavy coat we are being forced to wear. When we are able to connect to our sense of worth, we will be more able to remove it as we heal and move forward.

However, if we are heavily burdened with the coat of shame, we may only be able to take it off with a lot of effort and support or we may only be able to slowly lessen its weight.

Shame can be worse if you felt conflicted about having an abortion or about abortion itself, but you might still experience it even if you were relatively sure about your decision and comfortable with the idea of abortion. This might be, at least in part because:

  • you tend to be hard on yourself;
  • you may have high standards, or a very strong value system, and put a lot of pressure on yourself to live up to your ideals.

Although you may feel like it is important to always strive for improvement, excellence or being your best self, shame is a sign that you may be doing so without self-kindness and at the expense of your wellbeing.

Perfectionism, even when it is subtle, can come at great costs, especially when we are going through a difficult experience.

  • We may have an underlying belief that we can control other people’s feelings or opinions about us and avoid judgement if we try very hard to be good enough.
  • This is usually not true and can cause tremendous stress.
  • It is important to remember that human beings are meant to make mistakes and go through challenges; it is how we learn and grow. It does not make us bad people, of less value, or mean that we are failing.

Shame can cause us to keep our abortion a secret because of fear of judgement from ourselves or others. Shame reinforces the silence in our culture around abortion and prevents us from seeing that we are not alone. Sharing our stories is an important part of changing this cycle. It helps us to see that we are all struggling and that it is normal and human to be imperfect and to go through difficult things. Like abortion, many of the things we feel the most shame about are common experiences – just the ones we do not tend to talk about openly.

Practicing Self-Care and Compassion

Self-compassion and self-care can also be ways to heal shame and guilt.

  • Many of us need to learn how to better interrupt critical or negative messages and speak to ourselves the way we would to someone we love.
  • We need to remember that even if we have made a mistake or done something we wish we had not, it does not take away our worth.
  • We cannot be perfect in this life, but we can choose to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion anyway.

As women, we spend a lot of our lives caring for others and sometimes we forget the importance of caring for ourselves. When we fail to consider our own needs we risk becoming unwell, making it more difficult or impossible for us to care well for others.

An abortion experience can be a powerful opportunity to learn about self-care. Even small acts of kindness towards ourselves:

  • taking time for a bath;
  • to eat our favorite meal;
  • or to do something we enjoy like making art or music, going for a walk or gardening,

can make a huge difference because they symbolize self-worth and love.

When considering self-care, here are some things we can ask ourselves:

  • What brings me comfort or strength in hard times?
  • What do I enjoy doing that I do not usually make time for?
  • Can I create more time and space for the things I need and enjoy?
  • What do I need to help me through this experience?
  • Do I need to ask the people around me for support to do this?

If you do not know the answers to these questions now, that’s OK. As you move through your healing process, simply pay attention to what helps you. This may be an opportunity to learn the self-care and coping skills that will help you through other difficult times in the future.

Carrying the Experience

After a decision to have an abortion, you also must decide how you will carry that with you in your life.

  • You can choose to honour yourself for doing the best you could for yourself and the other people involved.
  • You can choose to remember your reasons and how hard you worked to make a good decision in the circumstances you were in.
  • You can choose not to take on the negative judgements of others and to let go of your own.
  • You can also choose to accept and feel your emotions and to make positive changes in your life.
  • You can try to be gentle with yourself and to treat yourself with kindness and care.
  • You can reach out, accept support and remember that you are not alone.
  • You can use this experience to gain new perspective and clarity, expand your values and deepen your compassion for yourself and others.

We may not choose our difficult experiences but we do have choices about how they impact us and shape our lives moving forward. What will you choose?