My therapist worked really hard to pull me out of my impossible head today. It wasn’t that I didn’t logically know what she was trying to get me to do, but I felt emotionally exhausted and tapped before walking in so I resisted harder and longer than usual. The funny thing is, that’s actually more strenuous than submitting to and looking at the barriers I’m creating around me, but it’s easy to say that and much harder to implement:
Many of these walls and protection mechanisms have been with me my entire life.
I tend to get very standoffish when I’m stressed; it’s mostly because I feel unequipped to deal with my complicated emotions and don’t want to be challenged, so instead of actually saying that and being really vulnerable, I put up guards and act like a real dick. It’s one of the pieces of my personality I’m ashamed of but I also can’t lie, it has served me and kept people away from my heart when I’ve really needed to protect it.
Also, as an 80s-baby, our parents were told that our cries and outburst were acts of defiance. There was one time I was in a complete and total state of hysteria, my mom called the doctor, and the doctor told her to let me cry until I passed out.
Yes, my pediatrician literally told my mom that.
So, this has become a life-long work for me, something I both very much want to change and something I very much understand is deeply rooted. If it were just myself and my husband, I’d slowly try to pull this apart without much fear, taking baby steps, but having kids has changed the severity of my concern and I don’t want to do anything quickly and misstep. I want to do It right, stay aware, and heal.
Last week I saw my daughter hit herself in the head when she got frustrated, and I was both sad and empathic. I used to do it, too, and it hasn’t been that long since I stopped. It’s not a learned behavior in the sense that she’s mimicking me, but I definitely think her genetics are at play. She is me, she is already feeling frustration and when she’s unable to process, she gets really, really mad.
I wish she didn’t have this gene.
I wish I didn’t have this gene.
I wish more people had insight into this particular behavior, because it’s jarring for someone who hasn’t already seen or lived it. There have been several times when people have said things about her like,
“Oh, she’s emotional.” Or “You’re not as friendly as your brother,” and I literally want to rage on them. Why do we feel the need to label and compare?
Her early behaviors make me both adamant about getting my anger responses under control and really aware of how I react to her behavior. I want her to feel safe to share big emotions, and I don’t want to teach her to stuff them down. Usually, this means I hold her and let her cry, telling her life is hard or it really does hurt a lot when you fall. Sometimes brothers want the same things as us and we don’t like it. Sometimes learning to do new tasks can be frustrating.
Crying is okay.
So is restarting. There are really healthy ways to cope; sometimes it takes a little extra work.
Yes, I say these things to an 18 month old. She absorbs everything I say and do, and I will absolutely not be the mom who feeds my tiny sponge bullshit about why she’s behaving a certain way, like:
“There are better ways to get attention.” ß Because are there? Really? Crying or lashing out really does get the attention she wants and it does it quickly. It’s not the healthiest, but it’s very quick and effective. Just because her behavior makes me uncomfortable does not mean she’s not allowed to react that way.
“It’s okay.” ß Because, is it? Maybe things are not okay right now for her, and the last thing I want to do is be the person who tells her her feelings don’t matter and/or whatever happened isn’t a big deal. When I diminish her experience to quiet her crying, what I’m really saying is that it’s more important for me to stop her cries than it is for me to let her feel her way through.
“Don’t cry.” ß Again, why? To help me feel better? This one in particular I am very cognizant of when I talk to my son. I want him to be able to emote appropriately and I will not make him feel like crying is inappropriate.
What I do say instead of these things has also helped me remember to say these things to myself, especially when I start to feel overwhelmed. Plus, they are positive messages I want my kids to take into all of their relationships.
“I love you. You are safe.”
Then I hold her and rock, letting her cry until she’s done, and repeating these six words several times to remind her that it’s okay.
“It’s okay to be sad/mad/frustrated/jealous.”
Because we never get out of life without feeling these things and I believe making the hard, big emotions seen negative only exacerbates the problems that create these feelings. Wouldn’t it be nice to not feel guilt or shame when you get upset?
“I am on your team. I am here.”
Again, this reinforces the idea it’s okay to show big emotions in the presence of other people, and that it’s not a bad thing to feel your way through.
I am by no means a therapist or an expert on childhood, but I do know how things people say to me stick. If we can choose to rephrase often heard messages and better our relationships with our kids, why do we resist doing it? I would much rather my little girl, with the tendency to struggle with processing feelings, feel safe in her attempts than feel like I’m just going to try to silence her.
Do you use positive phrases to help your kiddos process big emotions? What additions can you add to this list for moms interested in trying this technique? Leave your thoughts in the comments below (unless you’re a die-hard 80s mom who thinks this is woowoo and wants me to practice tough love…your kind aren’t welcome here).