Letting Other People Feel Stuff Without Instantly Talking Them Out of It, Even When Those People are Two Years Old and Have Yet To Develop Socially Acceptable Coping Skills2
April 5, 2014 by Julia
Fiona likes to beg me to be happy. She must know how it pushes my buttons – more like a sucker punch to the gut for me, actually. I’m getting a little more thick-skinned about it, but for a while it made me crazy with guilt. As though I’m too stressed out or emotional or exhausted to be a good mom, and I’m forever imprinting my children with this image of a sad-sack mama that they can never please. I don’t really think this fear reflects the reality of my parenting style. Still – I’m sensitive about my melancholy side. And the last thing I’d want my children to feel is that they are more of a burden than a joy.
I am more aware these days of the need to let people feel what they actually feel. There are so many subtle ways we can tell them that what they’re experiencing isn’t actually valid and they should to get over it. Or that we are annoyed by their feelings. Or that they are unattractive because of their feelings. The thing is: feelings shouldn’t have to be validated. To paraphrase a phrase that I hate, “they are what they are.”
Our emotions are so tied into our personalities and histories that no one can tell us how we should be feeling in any given situation. Some circumstances are easy for me to deal with; others that look simple are actually upsetting to me, because of how my mind works and the way I was raised, etc. There are good ways of coping with the “negative” emotions, and I do believe that we are usually better off when we can figure out how to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. But telling someone the root feeling is wrong – whether it’s said between the lines, or directly – is not helpful, and it’s incorrect. I’m pretty sure feelings aren’t right or wrong. Just the actions that might be prompted by the feelings.
The allowance for feelings in our loved ones might be the hardest part of this, because when we are close to someone for a long period of time, we get the unique privilege of watching them go through cycles of the same emotions over and over and over. It might be tempting to say, “Well, you just need to do this and essentially change the way you think about things on a molecular level, it’s so obvious that you’re being too sensitive/withholding/angry/hysterical and you really need to move on so I don’t have to hear about this anymore.” But then, to whom are you going to turn when you need to talk about your loneliness for the twentieth time?
We all pretty much know at this point that listening is better than giving advice. One of my closest friends, Sarah, only gives me advice when it’s explicitly asked for. When we talk on the phone, it’s almost like a therapy session. We relay the ups and downs of our week, we laugh about how ridiculous we may have been, or the absurdity of life, or what happened on The Bachelor, or whatever. But whenever we come to some conclusion about what to do next, it’s usually because we’ve come to it on our own, through the act of reflecting aloud to an empathic ear. I have never gotten the sense that she wanted to change the way I feel about things, and that means the world to me.
I want to be better at this, myself. I don’t typically feel judgmental about friends’ feelings, but the inhabitants of my home are more challenging, and I’m guessing most families feel similarly. We’re in close quarters, and we’re stuck with each other through thick and thin. If the family is healthy, it’s basically the place where we allow ourselves to be at our most raw, most real – as opposed to in the classroom or workplace. I’m glad that my family feels safe enough to let it all hang out at home, so to speak, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. But it’s still hard for all of us, at times.
Dennis has always been better than me at allowing for some repetition of feelings – he puts up with my sporadic meltdowns about how hard keeping a house and family on track is, as well as my bouts of irrational anxieties, and my desire to get a little crazy and stay up all night or push the limits in some way despite the fact that I am a mother to two young children. (Okay, he’s not exactly a fan of that last one, but only because he is worrier about safety and silly things like that. Pshaw.) I am learning from him that I don’t always have to offer solutions to his own recurring issues. He just needs to talk to me about what’s going on – even if it’s the same problem that he encountered last year, or the year before. I don’t need to talk him out his current mindset. I need to acknowledge that his feelings are real, and that I can relate to what he’s saying – and he’ll talk himself out of the problem…if it even is one.
But of course the hardest of all is letting the kids feel how they really feel. Because when they feel disappointed or sad, they might just shriek and wail about it for two hours. Or at least whine or bounce off the walls or break something. Kids have pretty bad coping skills, people. (Especially two-year-olds. More on him in a moment.)
Six-year-old Fiona is the opposite of tough, and it’s really, really hard to not question or belittle her when she is acting upset about something. Sometimes, I am positive that she is exaggerating her pain or disappointment beyond what is humanly possible (given the situation, which may be something as small as a stubbed toe or getting her morning cereal in the wrong color bowl). To be honest, I do question her all the time or even scoff, laugh, or fall back on the classic “loud sigh.”
Do I believe this reaction to her melodrama might toughen her up, or at least lighten her up? Possibly. But it’s not really thought-out – it’s more like a knee-jerk, “Oh, come on.” Now, my daughter is very advanced when it comes to being aware of and articulating her feelings. So she’ll say something like, “Why do you always ACT like that? Why don’t you believe me? It REALLY DID HURT!!”
And then I apologize and hug her, but she’s mad at me, and it’s all a mess.
Although Jack is less of an emotional rollercoaster than Fiona or I, when he does get upset, it’s the worst of all of us. Often, there is nothing I can do to stop the screaming and kicking. Thankfully, his true tantrum has only happened once in public. The best I can do in the car or at home is wait it out while making sure he doesn’t hit his head on something. If my nerves aren’t shattered (there’s an old-fashioned phrase for you!) I also try to reassure him that I am with him and everything is going to be okay. But sometimes I lose patience and starting yelling “TELL ME WHAT IS WRONG!!!” which is really helpful. Also, “YOU HAVE TO CALM DOWN!!” works wonders.
Anyway, witnessing Jack’s tantrums and gradual recovery from them has taught me an important lesson about trying to change how other people feel. That lesson is that you can’t always change how other people feel. See? Pretty simple lesson.
Sometimes it feels like society expects individuals to be perfectly balanced in their feelings and personality. Just look at how we tell our kids to act. When they are sad, we tell them why they should cheer up. We exhort them to insert themselves into every social situation and not be shy, because we want them to be a leader! Or at least popular. And happy. But not too happy, because then that can be annoying and weird if you’re in people’s faces about it. And don’t talk too much, either. Just…don’t be too anything.
As a person who grew up quiet, emotional and excruciatingly empathic – just like Fiona – I should know better than to pressure her to be any other way. I feel well-adjusted now, as an adult, and I enjoy the social world. But that didn’t happen because of all the kids or adults who said to me, “Why don’t you say anything? Why are you so quiet? Just say something.” In other words, it wasn’t the insinuations that there was something wrong with me that made me comfortable, happy, and able to talk freely. (Obviously.) It was the few kind words that affirmed the value in what I felt, and how I was.
If there are feelings to be overcome, the best way to do that is by listening to the feeling. Not by telling the feelings that they are unacceptable and need to go away. Letting people feel what they really feel is one of the best ways to show love, in my opinion. It requires loads of patience and humility. But once you clear that field for others, it’s available for you to use, too. And the more space we have in our relationships – the more freedom we have to vent about the messy, confusing stuff, the better off we will all be. We’re all in this together.