The other day, I brought my 16 month old to my boss’s house for dinner (I know, brave, right?)
She was shy at first, but once she got her bearings she started to explore and be herself (read: act like she owns the place). She bent over to pick up a leaf from under the picnic table. When she stood up, bang! She hit her head.
My first instinct, especially in the company of those they want to impress, was to rush to my child and try to prevent “a scene.” Nothing attracts attention like a tearful, wailing child, especially when she’s the only kid in a group of adults.
I don’t roll like that.
I suppressed that urge to tell her “you’re OK.”
The most important lesson I can ever teach my daughter is how to feel her feelings.
There’s a desire to not feel our feelings deep inside of all of us. It leads to substituting these feelings for something easier: eating, drinking, and every known form of procrastination: binge-watching netflix, instagram, facebook, wikipedia…you get the idea. Brene Brown, author and researcher, writes:
After years of research, I’m convinced we all numb and take the edge off [our emotions]. The question is, does our ___(eating, drinking, spending, gambling, saving the world, incessant gossiping, perfectionism, sixty-hour workweek) get in the way of our authenticity?…Are we using ___ to hide or escape from the realities of our lives?
We don’t want, or don’t know how, to feel our feelings, and so we distract ourselves by any means possible.
Why am I talking about this on a blog about productivity for moms?
Because that desire for distraction steals concentration, and steals our brainpower.
My personal distraction tactic of choice includes ‘going on a diet.’ Dieting and weight loss constitute a big project that takes the focus off uncomfortable emotions, and puts it onto one all-consuming goal.
Weight loss requires planning and quite a bit of energy, focus and self-regulation. It’s a project that needs a lot of attention. I’ve noticed a pattern in my life: Feel unhappy, decide it’s because I’m too fat, go on a diet, gain a sense of control and purpose (and forget about those uncomfortable feelings).
Now, there’s nothing wrong with trying to lose weight, or eating food (or looking at facebook, or your phone, or whatever).
Food is just food, it’s inanimate, it never did anything because it can’t do anything. Food is not the problem. It’s the way we think about food, and use food in a way that doesn’t serve us–that is the problem.
And how much brainpower have I wasted dieting and thinking about my weight?
How much time do you spend thinking about your body, about weight loss, and dieting?
What emotions was I struggling to avoid by concentrating on my weight? Boredom, self-judging, guilt, loneliness, frustration.
Brene Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection:
We can’t make a list of all the ‘bad’ emotions and say, ‘I’m going to numb these’ and then make a list of the positive emotions and say, ‘I’m going to fully engage in these!’ You can imagine the viscious cycle this creates: I don’t experience much joy so I have no reservoir to draw from when hard things happen. They feel even more painful, so I numb. I numb so I don’t experience joy. And so on.
I shiver to think of how many awesome things I could have done with that time. I could have written (and edited!) several novels. I could have had a double major in school, I could have learned a new language, I could have been present in my life.
Eating My Own Dog Food
If I want my daughter to feel her feelings, I sure as hell better learn how to do it myself.
Just the awareness of what I’m teaching her and how I’m interacting with her has started a change. I label my feelings. I recognize when I’m trying to avoid emotion. I still occasionally use chocolate for stress relief, but that’s a great opportunity to practice self-compassion, AmIright?
I don’t ever want my daughter to think that she has an emotion that isn’t OK, or that’s too big for her or for me. Many experts recommend that parents first acknowledge their child’s feelings when offering comfort.
I try not to say things like “it’s OK, you’re OK, stop crying, you’re not really hurt, shh” even though those things sometimes feel like the natural thing to say. I try not to fight her feelings. Even if all the other adults are watching me and watching my child wail.
Saying those things teach her that I’m not OK with her emotions, that her emotions don’t matter, that she should ignore them, stuff them down, or otherwise find a way not to feel them.
Family relationship expert and researcher Dr. John Gottman describes a five-step emotional coaching framework to help children develop emotional health:
Be aware of a child’s emotions
Recognize emotional expression as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
Listen empathetically and validate a child’s feelings
Label emotions in words a child can understand
Help a child discover appropriate ways to solve a problem or deal with an upsetting situation
It turns out these steps aren’t a bad place to start with myself, either.
When my daughter hit her head and started crying, I picked her up and said, “You hit your head! It hurt! You weren’t expecting that. You’re head hurt!” and she said back to me “Head! Head! Boom! Hurt!” and made a gesture with her hand like she was hitting her head. She sniffled.
She felt better pretty quickly and started charming the party guests with her recounting of the story. She walked up to each person and said “Head! Boom!” pretending to hit her head with her hand.
Here’s a truth that my toddler taught me: the fastest way over an emotion is through it.
Though I may be trying to teach her to identify and accept her emotions, she’s the one teaching me to understand my own.