"Helping" & Feeling Feelings
From a young age, we are taught to push down and ignore negative feelings. Life isn’t about “being happy”. Pain and sadness are a part of life. We need to trust our kids can handle all of it, and know it is not our job to solve their problems.
Many of us were lucky to have caring parents who sought to make our lives as easy as possible. But sometimes that translates to “my children should feel no pain or sadness”.
We become aware early on that our parents don’t like it when we have negative feelings, so we learn to hide, or push away these feelings, or we act out at the lack of acceptance of our feelings and then get labeled a “problem / bad” child.
This does not serve us either as children or adults. Everyone has feelings and we all struggle. Being human does not mean floating around calmly all day. There are highs and lows. Feelings change all the time - often minute to minute.
We need to model for our kids acceptance of our own feelings, which means we need to learn what to do when our own feelings come, how to handle them, recognize they ebb and flow, practice our “go to” coping mechanisms, and consciously act rather than reacting.
A few days ago, I was at the park with my daughter. She had made a friend with another girl a bit younger. My daughter decided she wanted to climb up the play structure and then try to jump to reach the monkey bars. She couldn’t quite reach, and so she asked me for help. Like usual, I told her that she could swing on the bars when she is taller and able to do it on her own, and I kept sitting on my park bench watching her. She told me she wanted to jump off. So I said “you can if you can”. Then she literally spent the next 10 minutes talking to herself about it. “You can do this!” Followed by “You can’t do this! I’m so scared!” Crying and looking at me asking for help. I didn’t really say much since I’ve already told her and she knows I’m not going to “help her”. She kept trying to pump herself up and then kept feeling very afraid and sad.
And let me be honest, this was hard to watch. Every ounce of my being wanted to go and help her. To lift her up. To assist her. To make her sadness go away. The other little girl kept cheering her on, but she eventually stopped since it really was 10 straight minutes of this! The little girl's father was there watching (I didn't know him), but I will say he was great. He didn’t ask me if he could help or try to intervene in any way (thank you, other parent! True solidarity!) And I didn’t feel like he was judging me (although again, having a witness did make me want to help her even more. It brought on thoughts of “does this other parent think I’m crazy or a bad mom for not helping or just lifting her up?”)
I breathed into it. I sat with the discomfort. Finally, after 10 whole, long minutes, my daughter got up the courage and she jumped. She landed on her feet safely, and she SCREAMED with delight! I’ll tell you, the look on her face was the most amazing feeling as a parent. Pure gold. My discomfort from before immediately was replaced with a rush of joy. She was SO PROUD OF HERSELF. She immediately ran back up and jumped off 3 times in a row with loud squeals of delight over and over. She celebrated herself like a crazy, happy maniac. She yelled “Mommy, I did it! I was so scared and I did it!” Nothing, absolutely nothing, was better than this feeling to witness this. I smiled at her and said “You jumped all by yourself. You were very brave”. That night when we got home, she ran over and recounted the story to my husband. She mentioned it the next morning to me over breakfast. “Mommy, remember when I was soooo scared to jump at the playground, but then I did it?” And me: “Yes, baby girl, I do. You did it all by yourself”. Big radiant smile from my girl. Some 24 hours later, still so proud of herself!
I know this seems like a small thing, but it’s huge. Because each and everyday my girl is building her skills. Her confidence. Learning her body and what she is and is not capable of. Learning she can handle and overcome discomfort. That after sadness can come deep satisfaction and joy and pride.
Clearly there are many times in life we offer to assist her. But what Janet Landsbury’s (through Madga Gerber!) articles and books have shown me is that it is a moment by moment thing. And if we don’t have to help, we don’t. We want to allow for developmentally appropriate ways for our kids to feel scared, listen to themselves, deal with conflict (with other kids, etc.), so that they can build skills and confidence. This way, when they are older, they will have learned as they grow to trust themselves and know what they are and are not capable of.
Janet Landsbury’s most helpful and probably most frequent adage is “let the feelings be”. For the first time while reading her articles as a mother, I really started to think about how we treat people (and ourselves) when we have feelings. When I was a child, I thought the most important thing to work towards is to ‘be happy’ in life. I internalized that the outside world is where I should seek happiness - through jobs and conventional success, material things, approval of others. It has taken me a lot of “unknowing” (thank you Glennon Doyle!) to get back to understanding how I feel about things, to set boundaries for myself, and to act from a state of presence instead of unconscious reaction.
This example in the playground is one of those times, when I was aware of my discomfort and I noticed it, but did not react. I breathed and felt my feelings (they were minimal overall for me in this example). However, there are of course many times when my feelings are NOT minimal, and I am still working hard and succeeding much more frequently at being aware of them and figuring out how to not let my feelings dictate my actions and words. I know this will be something I work on for my whole life.
But that brings up the question of, what do we do when we feel feelings? As an adult in my 20s, I developed several coping mechanisms when things didn’t feel right in life or didn’t go my way. Namely:
Lashing out, being defensive, name calling, discharging my hurt at the person who “made me feel bad”
Crap talking with friends (bad mouthing the person who “made me feel bad”)
Lots of negative talk in my head (“they wronged me, that person is bad”, practice telling someone off, etc.)
Eating junk food (sugar in my case!)
Watching TV or being on my phone (zoning out / feeling nothing)
Although many of these things felt “fun”, they often made me feel worse if I was honest with myself, (which I often wasn’t). Today, instead when I feel feelings I:
Walk / run
Read a book (preferably of the "self-help" variety, my favorite!)
Practice yoga or meditate
Focus on my breathing
Take a bath
Drink hot tea
Get a good night sleep
Sit quietly in the sunshine
Light a candle or sit by a fire
Go outside (look at the sky at a minimum...but also, trees, forest etc.) I am in a city, so looking at the sky is often my best bet :)
Try to see the situation clearly and talk to someone who is committed to helping me stay away from negative thought cycles (usually my lovely husband or a close friend)
Eat a delicious meal and enjoy
This doesn’t mean that I don’t drink alcohol, eat junk food or watch TV (I do all of these things in moderation), but I actively try not to do those things if I’m feeling upset to numb out, since they make me feel worse not better. And I still slip into judgement (it can feel so good to bond with others by crap talking), but it always makes me feel worse at a soul level and I’m trying hard to stop.
With our children, I learned I don’t need to “change” or “fix” the feelings my children have, and it is the same for me! Instead, when feelings come that are "not good" (or I have an experience that brings up a lot of negative feelings) I work hard to see the situation clearly and be kind to myself. I take care to understand the feelings and why I feel them. To not judge and instead just accept whatever the feelings are. I try to see if they are ego related, and if they are, to shut down the negative thoughts they generate (for me by praying, or thinking about how grateful I am for my family, nature, etc.).
Our children need to know that life is not supposed to be easy. But usually that is not what we tell them. Usually we tell them “It’s fine. You’re fine” whenever they cry. Our culture generally treats kids like they cannot handle the truth and tells parents it’s our job to fix things for our children. It does not help our children to lie to them or try to make everything ok for them.
We need to tell our kids that the hard parts of life are to be embraced rather than pushed away. Change is constant and we control very little. That yes, when sad things happen, it makes sense that they feel sad. And even if we don't agree what happened is sad, it is their feelings and not ours. That hard parts of life are the things that make us who we are and help us grow. To relax into our feelings. Learn to welcome change and pain. Take care of ourselves during the hard times. If we help too often, it robs them of the very real need to struggle and learn what they are capable of. To learn they can handle life. To trust themselves. To believe in themselves. To be proud of themselves.
It is unthinkable to me that I might have helped my girl at the playground and missed watching that moment when she jumped and her ecstatic reaction. Hearing her proudly recount the experience twice over the next 24 hours. I remind myself daily that feelings come and go, and that I need to ease into them and feel them. If I numb the pain, then I also numb the joy, and I sure don’t want to do that! And most of all, feeling my own feelings and acting out of authenticity rather than reactivity is absolutely modeling healthy behaviors that my children can see and learn too.