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I want my feelings back

Rain ot ocean beachOver the course of the last decade or so, I have spent a great deal of time learning to recognize, understand, and practice healthy ways to express with my feelings. There are many ways to do this. I’ve done therapy, meditation, journaling, group therapy, art, dance, and more. Maybe some of these activities helped me prepare for the onslaught of overwhelming, and sometimes incredibly uncomfortable feelings brought on by the birth of my daughter, but maybe not. Nothing really can.

Perhaps I should have taken this as a clue that there is no promised land where we are totally okay with difficult feelings, but I didn’t. At some point I had absorbed the idea that if I was truly enlightened or healthy or whatever  I would be totally serene and centered when dealing with the physical and mental exhaustion that comes from all the joy and rage and terror and happiness that babies bring. I didn’t give myself a break and listen to what my trusted friends and mentors told me; parenting is hard, go easy on yourself. Instead, my inner critic kept saying things like, “If your were healthy you wouldn’t be so scared. You wouldn’t get so angry.” So I took already difficult emotions and piled judgement and censure on top.

I don’t mean to pathologize myself particularly. We all enter parenthood singularly unprepared for its demands. I don’t care how old or young you are, or what gender. Parenthood is the ultimate humbler, and I think the more together your shit, the further you have to fall. We all start off totally incompetent and inexperienced. If it was a job we were interviewing for, we would not get hired.

However, my  daughter has recently forced me to recognize that everyone tries to get away from bad feelings, including little kids who hopefully haven’t been on the planet long enough to have trauma-induced behavioral patterns. She is learning to recognize and verbalize her feelings. It’s an amazing thing to see – if she is having a totally non verbal tantrum, and I can help her verbalize her feelings, the intensity of the feelings instantly decreases. As soon as she says, “I’m sad!” the emotion starts to dwindle. When another kid knocks her down or takes a toy, she tells them what she wants and how she feels about it – she doesn’t automatically run to an adult to mete out judgement and punishment, because that’s not how her parents and her school deal with it. I’m very proud of all these things.

But what is remarkable to me is how hard it is for her to get out of her lizard brain and activate her verbal centers. I mean, here is a kid with an amazing sense of self.  She is loved and loving, spunky, and resilient. Hopefully we have done well (so far) in setting boundaries without shaming her and damaging her self image. Not that we are without daily screw ups, but I have yet to see her really internalize a bad feeling about herself. She gets angry or sad when she doesn’t get her way, but not ashamed. Shamed children tend to look hunched over, or frozen, or have a glazed look in their eyes. I’ve watched it happen to other kids and it’s not pretty.  The funny thing is I had this unconscious assumption that her strong self meant that she would exhibit my idealized zen monk-like ability to tolerate her  emotions.  As it turns out,  my fairly healthy and normal three year old really dislikes being sad or angry or scared, too. Go figure. A couple months ago when she would cry about something (usually something I wouldn’t let her have or had to take away from her – no, you can’t play with the screwdriver, or splash in the toilet bowl, or sit on the dog) she would tearfully say. “I don’t want to be sad! I want to be happy!” Because being sad is really uncomfortable. It’s not a learned thing, and it’s not a product of our weird society. It’s just hard. She has yet to understand that all feelings are transitory – every moment looms very large in her experience. Her latest cry is, “I want my feelings back!” I’m not sure how to interpret this, but I have an  idea. Feelings like sadness or anger are usually brought on by an external event – often another person. I can imagine that when something makes her suddenly sad or scared she feels like her good feelings had been taken away from her. A few months ago our dog Persephone grabbed a piece of bread out of her hand. She spent the next 30 minutes screaming, “Give me back my bread Sephy! Give it back!” I guess Persephone took her good feelings away when she stole the bread.  The harder thing is to teach her that emotional pain is temporary and usually not physically dangerous. It doesn’t make it feel better in the moment, but it helps to tolerate the feeling until it passes. Her sense of the passage of time is still very different from mine, so this is a challenge. Who am I kidding? I have a really hard time remembering the same thing, and I have almost 40 years on her.

Anyway, the thing that my daughter has taught me is that everyone dislikes feeling sad, scared, or angry most of the time. Occasionally sadness is cathartic and feels like a huge relief, but I think it’s rare. There is a part of our brain that can’t distinguish between physical danger and psychological danger, and that part can get very loud (much like a three year old) when we are upset. Everyone retreats to that non-verbal, lizard brain place when the feelings become overwhelming, and that is where it becomes difficult to remember that this feeling isn’t forever, it’s just right now. So watching my daughter struggle with what is is to be human has helped me realize that there is nothing wrong with my struggle. And anyone who tells you that you are having uncomfortable feelings because there is something wrong with you, instead of because life is just that way, is full of it.

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