One day last week I was having a tough day with the boys, so I took a moment to journal out my anger and frustration, and I wondered – what do I really need in moments like this? Journaling definitely took the heat off and kept the caged rage at bay, but I was still left wanting for an ultimate solution of some sort.
It felt like I wanted to kick and scream without any concern or consideration of consequences. I wanted to embrace a full on toddler tantrum in the middle of Tescos, throwing cans of baked beans and hitting my parents kinda style. I played said tantrum out in my head for a moment, just to see if it would meet that need a bit. It didn’t as I suspected. Even though it felt like letting anger take control would be the answer, I knew it would only be a temporary fix. I would be calmer for sure, but only because I would have used up my energy and found a release for the building pressure, but the feelings that got me there in the first place would remain. That’s what I wanted a solution for, bringing those emotions to a close.
What did I need then? Someone coming in and relieving me of duty at the moment felt like an escape, a rescue of sorts, but not a resolution. What did I need then dammit?!
Then it hit me – Empathy. I needed empathy. I had this thought of someone coming through the door and just listening and understanding my frustrations, of being seen and heard. I took a deep breathe and felt complete. That thought was like a wave of calm waters to my soul.
I needed genuine words, said with care, that acknowledged how I was feeling. To know how mentally draining it is to raise 2 children so young. Let alone when I am working on my own emotions that the boys frequently trigger, that I have to then make extra effort to contain to be able to manage their emotions, because that’s my job. On top of trying to parent in a different way to what I’m used to, so I’m actively making effort to learn and refine my approach every day as they grow and their needs evolve too. It’s constant work, hard work, GOOD work, but work nonetheless. It’s worthwhile work, which is why I’ve defended my choices so fiercely (though not so confidently at the time) when I’ve been offered alternative options to make my life easier, because I believe what I am doing will build the emotional intelligence in my sons that I have so desperately missed myself, whereas the suggested solutions would be contradictory and damaging to building that emotional intelligence.
If someone had been at home to listen to me that day, I would have vented with the subconscious desire to receive empathy in response. I realise now that there is a difference between venting, and asking for help. As the listener, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two, and to not take on the venters emotions and feel subconsciously obliged to fix the problem, or to just get the venter to stop because the listener isn’t used to being met with empathy themselves when they’ve needed it.
Negative emotions are bad, they’re meant to act as signals, e.g. to do something again because it made you happy, or to avoid or resolve something because it made you upset. That’s a simplistic explanation but you get my point. Emotions aren’t supposed to be squashed and silenced, they need to be acknowledged and understood in order to be acted upon, the same as you would go and fill up the car with fuel when the light comes up on the dashboard, because you have learnt what the light signals you need to do for the car to keep in running and in good order.
I feel like I’m becoming more aware of my internal signals, a dashboard with lots of lights to help me on my journey; a red face for the caged rage girl, a red no entry sign when I get defensive, a red tear drop when I feel hurt, a red danger sign when I’m afraid, a bright yellow sunshine when I laugh, a blue ocean when I feel peaceful, a golden star when I feel satisfied, a pink heart when I feel loved. Being aware of my internal signals helps me to know what steps to take to maintain and look after myself, to keep the bright lights on, and resolve the red lights if they appear and prevent them as much as possible with good, wise choices.
In order to work through emotions, they HAVE to be acknowledged first. I feel like I’m saying a lot but its true and important. That’s perhaps why I love therapy so much! Marge contains her own emotions, she doesn’t take my emotions on board to be her problem or responsibility, she just listens first. I dare you to start trying it in your life and see what happen’s when you just acknowledge how someone is feeling, before trying to correct them or resolve it. Acknowledgment doesn’t mean the listener agrees with how the venter is feeling, but it doesn’t matter in that moment what the listener thinks, it’s not about the listener. The venter is in that fight-flight-freeze mode, and noone is ready to be corrected with home truths in that state. The way they feel in that moment is their truth, regardless of how things are in reality. They could be completely in the wrong and yet be feeling hard done by themselves, but if they feel like that, it’s real to them, they are the victim in that moment. They’re much more likely to hear the realities or ask for solutions once they come out of flight-flight-freeze mode, when they start operating out of the rational part of the brain again where they can apply sense and logic. Empathy is the magical tool to calm someones mind.
I love the line one of my best friends introduced me to the other day, “if I wanted your opinion, I’d ask for it”. Ouch! That line is a bit too direct for me to use just yet, but you may well start to hear me say “It’s ok. I don’t expect you to fix any of this for me, I just need someone to hear me. So if you can understand why I’m feeling this way, then please tell me. That’s all I need right now”.
I will be doing my best to kerb my instinct to jump on the resolution bandwagon myself next time I am in the position of listener, and respond with empathy instead. Then I will ask if and how I can help the venter, because that is also key. We can be quick to assume we know the answer to someone else’s troubles, because a method has worked for us in the past or we think we see their situation so clearly, especially if you enjoy solving problems like me! But what works for one does not always work for another, that doesn’t make it wrong, just not the right match that time.
I’ve been practicing empathy a lot in the last couple of weeks with my boys, its only just occurred to me that it also applies to adults and so myself! *DUH*
The way I choose to parent is not and never will be perfect, depending on your definition of perfect of course. I can assure you I will face a million challenges because that is what’s to be expected, its natural, and necessary in fact. And I will need to vent about those moments, so that I can carry on the good worthwhile work, in a way that works for me.
The really wonderful thing I’ve realised this week, is that when there isn’t anyone around to empathise with me, I can empathise with myself! That’s essentially what I did that day when I imagined someone coming in and empathising with me. I can speak out loud, or I can journal it out. Because who better to know what I’m feeling, and thus need acknowledging, than me?
I can literally feel myself taking steady steps away from that anxious-preoccupied attachment type, towards the secure. It’s strange and new, hardwork and challenging, but I’m so bloody excited about it!