Embrace The Suck
My daughter is an only child. She has two loving parents with whom she gets lots of quality time. She has two sets of doting grandparents. She doesn't have to share or fight with siblings over toys. She has not one, but TWO ponies. She's been to Hawaii (twice), the Bahamas, and Disney World. She orders her steak medium-rare in nice restaurants.
In my opinion, even though she is living a lifestyle of privilege (our fault, not hers), we're doing a great job of raising her. She's respectful, she does chores without too much complaining, she's helpful, she's kindhearted, and she's usually very happy-go-lucky.
But clearly she has no reason to complain about life, right?
So imagine my dismay when I found her sprawled on the living room floor staring at the ceiling. Here's the conversation that ensued:
Me: "What's up kiddo? Why are you on the floor?"
Alea: "I don't know. I'm just not happy today. I don't know why. I'm just kind of sad."
My knee-jerk reactions and what I almost did...
- Criticize, judge, shame, and minimize her feelings: "Do you know how lucky you are? Other kids don't get to do half the stuff you get to do! Other kids don't have all of the toys and junk that you do! You should be THANKFUL! You better suck it up buttercup and realize how good you have it!!!" OR...
- Try to "make" her happy: "Let's go get ice cream!"
Luckily, I said nor did either of those things...but H.O.L.Y. S.H.I.T. This was a light bulb moment for me. When I'm sad, unhappy, angry, or frustrated, I use the exact same negative self-talk and "coping" mechanisms (HELLO half-gallon of Haagen Dazs!) that have led me down the path of compulsive behaviors and dissatisfaction with my body and who I am as a person. And I'm teaching my daughter to handle her emotions in the same way!
The message this sends: It's not okay to be sad, angry, fearful or anything less than happy at all times.
It's not okay to feel your feelings.
Anger, fear, sadness, and frustration are all normal parts of a larger spectrum of human emotions...having these emotions is a part of the human experience! Negative emotions like sadness, anger, and fear are every bit as normal as happiness, joy, and excitement.
Compulsions and self-destructive behaviors are usually learned methods of coping and are often born out of suppressed negative emotions. At some point I learned that it was not okay to experience negative emotions like sadness and anger because "I have it so good". And at some point I also learned that using food masked my painful emotions - albeit very temporarily. Even now, as an adult, when I feel sadness, the immediate thought that pops into my head is: "So many people have it so much worse...you shouldn't be sad"...and then..."I wonder if we have any ice cream".
Most of us learned from a very young age - and are now teaching our kids - to suppress negative emotions. Boys don't cry. Girls don't get angry. Hide your fear. You have no reason to be sad because you have this, that, and the other. Be grateful. Suck it up. Pull yourself up by your boot- or bra-straps! Or, just like the frustrated mom in My Big Fat Greek Wedding exasperatedly yells at her distraught daughter: "Aw, Tulla, EAT SOMETHING!"
Without realizing it we often send these messages to our kids, potentially perpetuating self-destructive thoughts and patterns of behavior in their lives. When they're "good" at school they get suckers and candy. When they get an A on their math test we order pizza. And when they're sad, angry, or frustrated, we tell them it's wrong.
How many times have you gotten the message to
"Pull yourself up by your boot- or bra- straps!"
Awareness, self-respect, and finding a way to embrace the full span of emotions to which you are entitled will help you cope in new and more productive ways. When you (or your child/husband/friend) are experiencing negative emotions, acknowledge them without judgement. If you are feeling an emotion, it's real to you, so don't minimize yourself by saying you shouldn't feel that way! Try identifying and then actually experiencing negative emotions, and then allow them to pass.
How to Cope with Negative Feelings
Identify and acknowledge the emotion with as little judgement as possible. Gently tell yourself it's okay to feel that way, it's normal, and it will pass. "It's okay that I'm angry/sad/afraid right now. Everyone feels this way sometimes."
Ask yourself: "What do I need right now?" If you're feeling drained and tired, maybe you need a nap. If you're angry, maybe you need to scream into a pillow or take a boxing class. If you're lonely maybe you need to call a friend or book a massage. If you're hangry, maybe you need to eat. Bottom line: try to do something that constructively addresses negative emotions.
Feel the feeling. If you are angry, let yourself feel angry. If you are sad, let yourself feel sad. If you are afraid, be afraid! There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling these emotions and they are completely normal!
Set a time limit. There's a difference between allowing yourself to feel a feeling and wallowing in self-pity. Sometimes you need a 30-minute break or even a "pity-party" to just allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling! After 30 minutes, take a few deep breaths and move on with your day.
So here's the happy ending to this story and what I actually did...
I stopped what I was doing and laid down on the floor with her. I told her I understood how she was feeling. I told her that I'm not happy all the time either. I told her that no one is happy all the time. And I told her that it's normal to sometimes be sad, angry, frustrated, or upset. Sometimes you just need to lay on the floor, or cry, or do whatever, and let the feelings pass.
She giggled, snuggled up under my arm, and we both stared at the ceiling for a few minutes.
(And before you nominate me for the "parent of the year" award, please note that this is NOT how I normally would have handled my daughter's negative emotions. Just ask my husband...I'm famous for losing my shit with my kid. Scroll back up to the section titled "knee-JERK reactions".)