At the time that I write this, I have an almost-eight year old, and a five year old, and so I spend a lot of time with little kids, and not just my own, and I’ll tell you something about kids, in case you don’t hang around with them very much: Kids know themselves. If they’re angry, they’re fully red-in-the-face angry. If they’re sad, they’re fat-tears-streaming-down-your-face sad. If they’re scared, or frustrated or confused or cranky, they’re all of these things fully, and because they allow their emotions to arise and peak and subside, they cycle through their feelings quickly, and one of the great gifts of being this way, is that you don’t push things down, or edit things out. You just feel how you feel, and you let it out. If you love someone, you wrap your arms around them, and kiss their whole face. If you don’t like something, you tell everyone within earshot how you feel about it. If you want something, you aren’t shy about asking for it. It doesn’t occur to you to shrink yourself, or question your right to take up space in this world. It doesn’t occur to you that you aren’t special and important. At least, that’s how it is if you’re loved and nurtured. These feelings are natural to us.
Now, look, I’m not suggesting that we should all behave the way we did when we were three in every area of life. If you go to the store and they’re out of your favorite brand of peanut butter, it’s not going to be appropriate for you to throw yourself on the floor of aisle 5 and wail, and pound your fists on the tiles at the injustice of it all. If you do that, you will very likely meet a whole bunch of police officers, paramedics, and firemen. Part of the reason a nurtured child lets things out, is that his or her nervous system isn’t yet developed enough to do anything else. Good parenting requires that you teach your children what is okay, and what is not okay, but as a society, I believe we ask our children to edit out and push down too much, and as result, we end up with generations of people who are lost to themselves.
Every loving parent wants her or his child to be happy, healthy, safe, joyful, confident, curious, kind, open, loving and trusting, but human beings are complex, and life is full of everything. We don’t just get the light, we get the shadows, too. We are not going to be happy in every moment. Not everything in life goes into the “positive” category. Some things are brutal, some things are devastating, some things will break your heart wide open. Sometimes, loving parents are so invested in the idea that their children are happy, it’s hard for them to hold space for them to be anything less than that, even for a moment. I hear parents all the time telling their children not to be sad, or scared, or angry. It’s not much different than treating the symptom, instead of the underlying cause. If it were as simple as saying “Don’t be sad”, if that would magically make us all happy, I’d say it myself, but of course that doesn’t work. Is it hard to watch your child struggle or cry or endure disappointment? Absolutely. But teaching your child to push down or edit out her or his emotions because they’re making you feel uncomfortable or inadequate or frustrated or ashamed or confronted, just feeds the cycle of repression. I don’t say that in any kind of shaming way. Shame is the least productive feeling we can have about places where we might need to shine some light.
Many of us received this kind of parenting, because this is what we’re taught as a culture, right? Happiness lies in external things. Push down your feelings of longing and confusion, and just make things look right on the outside, then you’ll feel better. I think we’ve all come to understand that doesn’t work. It’s just going to take time to change the conversation and the story we’re telling as a people. It’s going to take effort and awareness and a desire to check ourselves when we’re tempted to smooth things over, or distract or manage how other people are feeling, whether they’re our kids or our partners or our friends, because people do this with their friends, too. Have you ever reached out to someone when you’re in need, only to be met with advice you didn’t want, that doesn’t help to do anything but make you feel more alienated and alone? When all you wanted was to be heard and understood?
It takes time to shift and breathe when someone we love is struggling. It takes effort to be able to sit with someone’s despair or loneliness or fear without trying to fix it, and I believe the best way to make that shift, is to start with yourself. When you have moments of discomfort or jealousy, of shame or rage or blame, of despair or longing or fear, of loneliness or guilt, instead of trying to distract yourself or numb yourself or run anyway, you lean into it. You breathe into it. You acknowledge how things are for you in this particular moment, which is already morphing and shifting and changing into something else. You allow the feelings to arise and peak and subside. You allow the tears to come, or you allow yourself to feel enraged or bitter or insecure. You sit with that stuff without judging it, because they’re just feelings, they’re not you. You aren’t defined by the fleeting emotions and thoughts that cruise through your being from moment-to-moment and day-to-day. You’re defined by what you do with and about those feelings, by how willing you are to hold some space for yourself just to be human, and by how much you’re able to do that for other people, because that’s a lot more comforting than unwanted advice. That way, you aren’t lost to yourself, you’re known to yourself.
There are many great things we can learn as we grow. We can learn how to listen deeply. We can learn about compassion and empathy. We can learn about showing up for ourselves and for other people. But there are also some things we might have to unlearn. To me, this is a big part of the yoga practice. So much of it is about stripping away anything that isn’t real for you, that isn’t authentic to you, because I do think we know most of the important stuff when we arrive here. We know we need people. We know we need connection, and warmth, and touch and love. We know that it feels good to give love. We know that it’s okay for us to take our place in this world, and to shine. I don’t wish you a melt-down on aisle 5, but I do wish you the gift of coming home to yourself.
Sending you love,