I’ve been sitting with the writing of this piece for months. When the idea came to me, I could feel the magnitude of what I’m writing through, but I haven’t been ready until now. My hesitation has been for both of us – me and you. While I may not be looking into your eyes and sitting by your side as I share what’s written here, in some ways I am with you as you read, and I want to be sure you feel the compassion I have for both of us as I discuss a most sensitive subject: emotions.
Before I begin, bring to mind someone you feel completely safe with – maybe a beloved family member, a friend, even someone you haven’t met in person or a loving source. Notice what it feels like to be in compassionate, safe company. If you haven’t felt such safety, imagine what it would feel like. Rest here for a few moments. More than anything else, my hope is that the words written here help you feel a sense of compassion and safety in regards to the emotions you and your child experience.
Emotions: a big word, full of charge and mystery. What we do with them can be very mysterious as well, especially when we stuff them in a metaphorical closet to deal with at a later date (or never). We live in a world, though, where we are encouraged to do just this. Hold them in, push them down, ignore them, do what others say and stop feeling the way we do. Many of us have become so skilled at packing away our emotions that we may inadvertently teach our children to do the same.
We can learn different ways of meeting emotions in family life, beginning with ourselves. The first time I opened the door to my emotional closet to look and feel inside, I was certain I would be washed away in a torrent of sorrow-filled waves. It felt intense, scary, overwhelming – and as I rode the waves instead of resisting them, breathing into the sensations of emotion I felt running through my body, I felt a freedom I had not felt before. I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, but in retrospect that first opening of the emotional closet was an emotional awakening.
This particular awakening anchored me in the realization that emotions are not bad nor are they unsafe, even when everything arising in me points to the contrary. Up until that point in my life, I didn’t feel safe with emotions. When I felt angry or sad, I wasn’t always safe to be around. When others were frustrated or depressed I didn’t find them safe to be around either.
Emotions seemed to be the culprit, and yet – they are just the fuel. In truth, we can choose what we do with emotions, but before we can make such a choice we need to know that making a choice in the heat of the moment is actually possible. With practice, we can learn to regard emotions as vital signals needing our compassionate attention.
How do we bring compassionate attention to emotions when we’ve packed them away in a closet for years upon years? First, we may benefit from looking at the ways we are doing this with ourselves and others, then we can look at some alternatives. As we become aware of how we are disregarding our own emotions, we can gradually open to doing something different with our children.
Observe yourself for a week and you may notice some tendencies when it comes to emotions. As mothers, we are often skilled at fixing problems. How many times do we jump into fixing before acknowledging what emotions are present for ourselves or our children? Are we side stepping emotions because they are uncomfortable?
What signals are we sending to our offspring when we do this? How often are we stopping emotional expression by telling someone to stop or be quiet, holding our breath, forcing the issue, not being willing to listen (within or to others), hushing excitement or belittling the way we feel?
When we halt the process of emotion, it is stored in the body and mind – until some later time when we decide to open the closet and deal with its contents. Not only can we act like a red light when it comes to emotions, we can also get really good at disregarding and dismissing emotional messages.
What is it that I feel? Can I trust my feelings or do I feel confused when they arise? Do I listen to my children when they feel emotional or do I dismiss or numb out when they express their feelings? How does this contribute to the way we experience emotions?
Possibly the heaviest of them all, is the tendency to feel shame for feeling what we feel. While a natural response at times, shame can fester as guilt that stops us from being with emotions in a way that honors them and the experience of being human. We can internalize the idea that because we feel what we feel, we are bad. Our children can internalize this message, too.
Unlike a vaguely purposed storage closet, our emotional closet requires more than a spring cleaning. We need an ongoing commitment to embracing the human experience of feeling because while we can look at and clean out various pent up emotions through journaling, mindfulness, somatic experiencing, therapy or a myriad of other modalities, we are going to keep feeling what we feel. We need to open the doors on this closet – and leave them open.
Along with observing how we place emotions in the closet in the first place, here are a few ways to keep the doors of your emotional closet open so you can clear it out as you go and so it doesn’t ever become bursting full again. And maybe, you can repurpose this closet in your being – maybe you can fill it with compassion and curiosity. And then see what happens.
Consider that emotions are a vital part of being human. Vital means necessary. Emotions are the fuel of change, appreciation and aliveness. When your child (or you) freaks out, remind yourself that emotions have value. When channeled toward a desired outcome (maybe collaboration or a cleaner kitchen), emotions are helpful instigators. When simply honored, they pass through. Without them, we are numb.
Notice the tendency to stifle emotion and experiment with opening instead. Not always easy, but definitely transformative. Just notice when you’re shutting down, dismissing or numbing when emotions surface in you or your child. Then notice your breath, really bring attention into the action of breathing. Notice the sensation of emotion in your body. Maybe you’re feeling reactive to something that’s happened in your family and you just close down. Bring your attention inside. Be with what you’re feeling. As you do this with yourself you will be able to do it with your child also.
Recognize that emotions come and go. Sometimes we forget that emotions are like the weather: they come and go. Simply remembering this can help us stop throwing (or shoving) them in the closet and start being with them when they come. The more we do this, the more smoothly we will be able to allow emotions to move through so we don’t feel the need to push them aside, which means less emotional closet cleaning later on – for us and our kids.
Befriend fears that surface. One way our emotional closets get so full is the resistance we have to facing emotion, listening to emotion, trusting the process of emotional healing and fear that it’s just too much. Fear is kind of like darkness. Until we shine the light of awareness on it, fear is huge and consuming – yet it means well. As we bring gentle attention to fear, listening and empathizing, allowing the nervous system some space to calm, we gain the powerful experience that all emotions can be felt through.
Welcome emotions. Any helpful suggestions culminate in this one. Welcome emotions as important guests you’d like to connect with. Use the times you and your child are upset as invitations to connect deeper, to listen, learn and get close. Notice the tendency to push away, see it for what it is and instead gradually experiment with coming in close, inviting yourself and your child to explore emotions. What do they feel like on the level of sensation? What thoughts accompany emotions? What needs do emotions express? What can we do to simply be with the emotion?
Seek help when helpful. A full emotional closet can be a mess to open. Sometimes we need help to learn how to feel safe with emotions, to really give our emotional closet a deep cleaning so we can heal what’s been stored and leave the doors open for a much needed airing. If you’ve experienced trauma, depression, anxiety or otherwise find yourself struggling with your or your child’s emotions – seek help with a therapist, coach or trusted friend. The nervous system has the capability to process what we experience, but we may need support to really discover and strengthen this ability. It’s okay to ask for help and there are people out there who really can help.