Last night, we were having dinner at a relative’s house. The mood was celebratory but the gathering came on the tail end of a week of festive family events and the kids were exhausted. Naturally, when my kids are tired, they often decide that the best way to stay awake is to stir up a fight and start taking digs at each other. As you can imagine, this always leads to great things.
After one too many insults slung from one sibling to the other, my daughter couldn’t take it anymore and was overcome with a rush of tears. As she sat crying to herself at the table, a relative made the comment, “I can’t stand whining. I wish she’d stop.” This was a tipping point.
What do you think happened next? Do you think this led to an immediate halt of the crying, and my daughter expediently pulling herself together?
No, it did not. In fact, the opposite occurred: her cries increased by decibels, and now—amidst the tears— was incredulous anger, “I was not whining!” she exclaimed. What had been a low simmer of pitiful “poor-me” crying, turned into a raging torrent of tears and rage. I understood the relative who made the comment about the whining. Part of me just wanted my daughter to get a handle on herself and that part of me didn’t feel like soothing her.
However, having been through these scenarios many a time and taking plenty of missteps in the past, I knew that expressing this “stop-your-whining” sentiment wouldn’t be helpful (plus someone else had already tried that).
So once the quiet crying erupted into a full-blown explosion of emotion, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to be near her, by her side, to see her and acknowledge her feelings while she rode it out. Just as important is what I needed NOT to do. I did not need to judge, to shame, to explain, or even to rush in with heavy-handed comfort (which can too easily become an instrument of suppression). I just needed to be present.
Yet being present can often feel like the hardest thing to do in these situations. I had to contain my own inner conflicts:
“Make it stop!”
“No, emotions are natural and need to run their course.”
“My daughter needs to grow a thicker skin. Why can’t they just get along?”
“Will she ever learn how to cope better?”
And feelings, which were stirred up by this intense emotion in my daughter:
“My daughter’s pain is touching my own – ouch it hurts.”
“This reflect badly on me as a parent…”
This situation is not a novel one, but I think it can be instructive. What we see is that when our emotions are met with judgment, criticism, and suppression, they grow louder, stronger, and harder to ignore. Now imagine you are caught up in your own emotional storm. How often does your own inner critic rush in to tell you to “get over it” and “stop whining?” And when has this ever helped? In the short-term, we may be able to suppress our feelings, but eventually they will find their way out, as surely as a river finds a way downstream.
With time, and a bit of loving presence, my daughter calmed down. Minutes later she was even laughing about something someone said. The difficult moment had passed. Intense feelings arose and then dissipated.
Often riding out emotional storms is really the only way to get through them. When allowed to run their course, emotions lose steam and there is often a place of peace down the road. Calm returns, and more importantly, a sense of being a human who is fundamentally okay and loved is kept intact. Shame is not on the scene. We have an inherent sense that we deserve love even during vulnerable moments. This is something we carry with us through calm times and stormy ones. It helps us to reach out for love when we need it and to soothe ourselves when no one is there to soothe us.
Even if your parents weren’t able to be there for you in this way, you can cultivate this approach now to your inner world and emotional upsets. Learn to pay attention non-judgmentally to your own thoughts and feelings. Trust that emotions are natural, often instructive, and always transient.
Give yourself your own compassionate presence. Be your own good mother. It can make all the difference.
If being your own good mother feels like an impossible task, therapy may be able to help you. With loving attention and presence, a therapist can provide some of what was missing in your early years. Over time, you can begin to internalize this loving “other,” and become your own good therapist/mother/friend.