I am pleased to share this guest blog post from a friend in the Portland, Maine area. She’s also a really nice person and has a lot of good advice about parenting. (As a parent of two young children, myself, I can attest that we often need it! My children are my greatest spiritual teachers. Reminding me in those moments of frustration to breathe and to stay present with my emotions. I hope Sarah’s words resonate in some way. — :) Rachel
Gaining mastery in the emotional realm can feel hard. We do OK with the easy-to-feel emotions. It’s the hard-to-feel ones that trip us up. Sadness, anger, grief. Maybe hardest of all is grief. We love, we connect, we share, we talk, we let people in—so then we care, and feel pain when we experience loss. This is not wrong—this is the way it’s supposed to be. The only way to truly avoid grief is to stop loving or stop caring.
For the record I’m a teacher, not a minister. I used to teach tiny people, and now I teach grown-ups. One of the most important things I teach either age group is about emotions. Not about what they are, per se, more like what they are FOR. How to get through them and manage—but not suppress—their expression.
Because the truth is, even the grown-ups are not so great at this task. We’re not. There is a huge misconception that we are rational, thinking beings who are occasionally emotional. But the opposite is actually true: we are emotional beings who are occasionally rational. And for me, the emotional IS spiritual. The former is how I connect to myself and the latter is how I connect with that which is greater than me. Still connection in both cases.
What if we are built for hard emotions like grief? Just like we’re built for love and connection. And aren’t the two inextricably tied? I believe that if we embrace grief—or any emotion really—it will move on through. Not that it will ever “go away.” Certain losses may never lose their sting. But isn’t that sting a reminder of how much you loved? Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband a number of years ago, quoted Bono (of U2) in a Facebook post at the time: “There is no end to grief . . . and there is no end to love.”
Isn’t it the irrational fear and avoidance of strong feelings that makes us uneasy, jittery, and frankly—just a little off? If “that which does not kill you makes you stronger,” then maybe “that which you evade makes you weaker.” It’s something I often consider.
One of my personal spiritual heroes, Anne Lamott, in her brilliant book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, says:
“It is most comfortable to be invisible, to observe life from a distance, at one with our own intoxicating superior thoughts. But comfort and isolation are not where the surprises are. They are not where hope is,” and:
“Some people have a thick skin and you don’t. Your heart is really open and that is going to cause pain, but that is an appropriate response to this world.”
Can we do it? Can we keep our hearts open, even when it really, really hurts? I watch myself go into what I call “auto-avoid” mode. I practice bringing down my defenses and softening to these feelings that I’d much rather distance myself from. What would it take for you to not eject from your emotions? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few thoughts:
· All difficult feelings are more tolerable when not felt in isolation. My favorite pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, Dr. Dan Siegel, says, “What’s sharable is bearable.” Don’t bottle it up!
· We need to find and foster our most nurturing, witness self. Then we can listen to our internal-best-mother-self when she says, “Oh look at you, doing that thing again—running away from your feelings! Slow right down and be where you are, it’s all OK.”
· Peggy O’Mara says, “The way we speak to our children becomes their inner voice.” This means the way we were spoken to BECAME OUR INNER VOICE. Maybe that worked out for you, or maybe not so much. Luckily, this is something you can modify! We can’t change WHAT happened, but we absolutely can tell ourselves a different story about what happened and shift the way we speak to ourselves.
· Holding it all in, or together, means you are holding on—and that takes effort and energy—it’s work. Experiment with what happens when the shields come down. What happens if you let go?
These ways of being are always on display for our children, too. When we allow and express our honest emotions. If we breathe deeply before we speak when overwhelmed. If we can hold space for our children’s upset without jumping in to fix things or even just problem-solve. Sometimes we need to let the emotions roll through and then they shift to something else.
It’s also good to sometimes focus on that which brings us joy. There is always, always joy. I saw a pregnant woman at a memorial service last week. I love and miss the people who have gone, but I also love the people who are still here. The garden needed the rain. I went to my son’s baseball game. A friend called. The meal tasted good. The grass is green. We’re still here, breathing in and out.
Sarah MacLaughlin is a social worker and a human development nerd. She helps parents (and others who interact with children) show up authentically and model great communication skills and emotional intelligence. Sarah is writing her second book, Raising Humans With Heart: Not a How-To Manual, and it’s now available for preorder for a limited time. Because it’s the good news AND the bad news that our kids are always watching us. Let's focus on what’s important: who WE are and how that affects our relationships with children. This book focuses on how you bring yourself as a person and parent, and how that affects your relationships with children. The parenting we know best is the parenting we received—and that's worth unpacking! What if self-awareness and personal development were the ways to improve your family life?