Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just carry our more difficult feelings around in a little resealable pouch in our pockets? Or stow them away in a hermetically sealed plastic box under the bed? Then when we have ample time, focus, and emotional stamina, we could pull out the contents of our feelings storage units (or FSU’s as they would undoubtedly be called) and sort through them, maintaining, culling, and processing the most pertinent ones at our leisure. (Insert Beach Boys tune…) Oh, wouldn’t it be nice?
As it is, we carry those achy feelings, festering like open wounds just under our sleeves. We get mired in the La Brea Tar Pits of our current emotions, and every move seems to make us more stuck. Or at the very least, our emotional state must be said to color (or taint, as the case may be) our experience of everything else in life. But why, oh why, does that apply especially to parenting our children?
For some reason, we parents seem particularly vulnerable to having our feelings erupt out unintentionally — at our children. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying parents just happen to be more uncouth, or that we just happen to have someone nearby on which it is more convenient (and therefore more likely) for us to come unglued. And we aren’t more reckless or incapable of containing or dealing with our feelings, simply because we have progeny. To be truthful, I am not really sure why it seems so. Perhaps it is that we do indeed have more obviously challenging/stressful social requirements — as in not only dealing with a little, uninformed, just-figuring-it-out human, who is regularly stepping all over our feelings; but also dealing with being the one(s) responsible for that little human’s mistakes (private and public); as well as teaching the same little one how everything in life works. Maybe it’s the pressure and particular variety of all this social-ness that makes us seem (or actually) more likely to lose our cool when feeling off-kilter.
Parent or not, though, it sure is tough to feel and deal with the heavier emotions in our lives without letting those feelings seep out into all of our interactions with others. And there is good reason to question tactics of suppressing our emotions in favor of pleasing others, anyway — as any good psychotherapist will tell you — so we may as well not go seeking ways to stuff our feelings in order to keep them from leaking out. Yet still, it would feel better if when we are experiencing emotional discomfort, we didn’t have to worry about (or actually end up) offending loved ones unintentionally.
The other morning, I was struggling. And though I was doing a pretty decent job of remaining tender toward my loved ones, it was extremely difficult — exhausting in its own right, in addition to any other physical exertion. At one point, although I did my best to squeeze out a polite request, and even managed to get all the polite words in the correct order, Natalie could still hear too much jagged emotion in my voice, and ended up feeling mistreated. Nobody died, of course, but there I was straining to remain kind to my daughters and partner all morning, and even a simple request was coming out apparently agitated and snarly, despite my most strenuous resolve to be gentle. Not the worst possible example, but a clear enough one in the course of half a day of struggle to strike me poignantly.
I say, “half a day of struggle”, because after the above incident (and a couple strained interactions with the kids), I was feeling so tired of having to keep myself at bay so as not to become more prickly, that in my desperation, I remembered: I can actually be there for myself, instead of being the one shoving myself into some kind of containment unit. SO I just started talking to myself — psychotherapists love it when you do that.
I spent a few minutes just recognizing my emotional state first. It was sucking, of course, but I hadn’t spent anytime looking into it yet because I was trying to avoid it in order to be more pleasant. As I peered in further, I discovered it was a low grade disappointment that I was experiencing. It wasn’t even that big of a deal, once I dug into it, and facing it melted off the majority of its effect on me in a matter of minutes simply by self-empathizing.
Yeah, you read correctly: Self-empathizing. It isn’t a reverse oxymoron, or the pseudo-psychoanalytic mumbo jumbo it first appears. It is a fairly simple technique of treating yourself just as you would someone else with whom you are attempting to empathize. In the example above, I just started saying stuff to myself like, “Wow, so you’re kinda disappointed, huh? You really wanted to know something more about this by now and it isn’t working out the way you had in mind… Bummer.” And I just made space for the feelings I was having just as I would for one of my kids.
I was tentative because I was just milling about taking care of tasks as I did this, and didn’t want to “get worked up” while still around the family, only to wind up having a worse time maintaining my peace. But as I mentioned above, the opposite happened — and in virtually no time. And then I had a “Duh…” moment. Self-empathizing, though not a new concept to me, had not occurred to me as having the same effect as when we empathize with our kids during their emotional struggles, but it did just that. As soon as I made space for the feelings I was having, and let myself have them, and looked them in the face (so to speak), I was able to feel them flow through me and out, instead of feeling them all bunched up inside me trying to find any possible way to get loose — including leaking out of a polite request.
In other situations when I have remembered to self-empathize, or at least to check in with what I am feeling, I have been able to then bring the empathy into the room, by claiming my feeling at the moment, as in, “Hey, I am feeling really frustrated right now.” From there, I can make a request for more time, or whatever I need to help things move more smoothy for me and the other(s) involved. And just like when we help the girls find their way through their troubling emotions, empathy dissolves discomfort. So I wind up continuing to feel better just by stating the feeling I am having, and then I can focus on meeting my needs (and my kids’), if there are any to address.
So here’s what I am committing to do: Rather than avoiding the feelings so that they don’t upset anyone else, rather than trying to contain them, and telling myself I’m not bothered; I am going to dive in, dig out the nuggets, and melt them down instead. I am going to give myself the same care I give my sweet daughters and my partner (yes empathy is good for partners too!) when they have uncomfortable feelings. And I am going to nurture my(emotional)self when I need it, so that I can be a more nurturing parent.
Want more on self-empathy and beyond? Check Natalie’s post here.