I am sometimes very much like my children.
They don’t have a lot of experience interpreting their emotions. To them, emotion is all. It is immediate, it is overwhelming, and it is absolutely true and unquestionable. When Abigail and I have conversations about emotion, it’s a real challenge for her to hang a word on what she feels. I volunteer words, but I often have to let her sit with a word for a while before she assigns that word to her emotion.
I may offer up “mad” or “sad” and she may say no, but if I wait a few moments she’ll slowly nod. She isn’t trying to be contrary, she just doesn’t really understand the storm happening inside her. She’s thrown around by it, she is at its mercy, but it seems sometimes as if it’s too big to even name.
She is starting to understand it, though. It’s different with Kate. The storm of emotion doesn’t overwhelm her, she becomes it. I have the sense that she can’t separate herself from the feelings at all, can’t see that there’s even a distinction between what she feels and what she is.
For years I drifted on storm-seas, lost in rolling mountains and valleys of emotions that I couldn’t navigate. Like a child, I was pushed to peaks and dropped into the depths, by things that happened to me. In the troughs I knew, “I am worthless” was truth. In the peaks I felt, “Life is rare and beautiful, and I am lucky” but I still questioned my worth.
It’s only in the last year and a half that I’ve started to grow up, emotionally. To become less child-like, to separate my emotions from who I am.
In therapy, I’ve learned about a conceptualization of self called The Observer. The Observer Self is an aspect of consciousness (or, a means of analysis) which helps me see the emotions at play inside myself, acknowledge them, and not be mastered by them. Exercises in observing emotions and in observing my internal monologue have helped me access my emotions in a deeper, more integral way, and have also kept them from ruling me. This seems antithetical, but it isn’t. I would ask you to spend some time reading this page about the observer self. In fact, if it’s a choice between reading that page, and reading the rest of this post, read that page. Then practice it.
You’re back? Welcome back. I am glad you came.
Certainly understanding that my emotions are not me has helped me to grow. Understanding that my thoughts, and the story that I tell myself about my place in the world, are biased and not objective truth, has helped to free me from the emotional stranglehold I lived in for years.
I know that the dual struggle of separating my core self from the emotions I experience, and of allowing myself to truly experience and accept the way I feel, will always challenge me. Always, every day.
There’s a voice, a part of the monologue, that says I am only a series of failures. The most important thing I’ve learned through the disciplines of the Observer Self is this: I have failed, but I am not my failures. I have made mistakes, but I am not my mistakes. The song I sing, of shortcomings and hopelessness, is not my song. It’s just a part of a larger composition.
It’s this point in the post, really it’s this point in every post, where I ask myself; So what? What’s the point? And then I make one up, on the spot. Like this:
This weekend I got frustrated, the way we all do. Nap time wasn’t working, the girls got so emotional about sleeping in their beds, but invariably poked and elbowed each other if allowed to share a bed. There was no workable solution that didn’t result in a wail of “daddddyyyy” 1.5 minutes (or, one page in my book) after they were put down. Over and over again. Did they need naps, or did I need them to take a nap, I asked myself.
They needed naps. Seriously. I mean…wow, yes. Crabby Abby and the Katie Monster were in full effect. Did they stay up too late? Did they go down for naps too late? I started questioning myself. Then I started telling myself I was a man, and isn’t that always a disaster? “I’m their father, they should go to sleep because I told them to!” When ego comes into play, you’ve already lost.
The frustration, the irritability, the anger grew in me at each nap and bedtime Sunday and Monday. It pushed until it started to push me, and I was prepared to go in, not with consolation but with righteous indignation. Standing outside their door at 8:40pm on Monday night, I stopped. I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. Then what am I? In that moment, I was able to decide that I was love. So I was. And when I put Abby back in her bed and told her she needed to stay there, and she cried and said she wanted to sleep with Katie (who was crying as a result of Abby trying to sleep with her) I was able to tell her, in complete truth, that I loved her, and I was so sorry she was sad, and that I understood how she felt, but that she wasn’t allowed to sleep with Katie. When she screamed and asked again and again I was able to hold her, and whisper that I knew how she felt, and that I wished I could make her feel better, but that I wasn’t going to change my decision.
I wish I could report that she was able to express her frustration, accept the situation and her position in it, and find the peace that I found. She wasn’t; she’s three. She cried herself to sleep, but she cried herself to sleep with my arms around her and my kisses on her cheeks, instead of the echoes of my voice raised in anger at her disobedience.
I am sometimes very much like my children.
Driven by emotion, ruled by it, crushed under it. Sometimes. But every now and then, I do something right, something mature, something adult. Not because I’m gifted, but because I am working to be emotionally healthy. The reverberations of that work in my life give me the courage to continue the work.