Feelings are difficult. My own feelings are difficult enough. But when I started working in childcare I suddenly became responsible for helping little, emotionally immature people handle their massive emotions. And that was way, way more difficult. It is quite a trick to maintain composure when a intense ball of rage trapped in a 2-year-old body kicks you in the face.
I felt woefully unprepared for this task at the beginning. But I recognized my own lack of knowledge and skill, so I turned to professionals. Books, mainly. I read book after book on how to help children deal with their emotions appropriately. These books presented a vast array of theories and practices, many of which blatantly contradicted each other. Dealing with emotions, clearly, is not an exact science. So, I tried to find the common threads. The points on which the professionals in this field all seemed to agree. And I took those threads and simplified them into some basic rules. These rules have become the foundation I start from any time I’m dealing with strong emotions, both my own, and everyone around me. They are a critical component of the work I do with children.
Rule 1: All Feelings are Always OK
Emotions are not rational. I spent way too much of my life telling myself that there was something wrong with me if I felt a feeling that didn’t make sense rationally. And when it inevitably happened anyway, I would clamp down on the feeling and try to reject it or deny it. Of course, this affected my life and my health in big ways. But coming to the understanding that feelings are feelings and that sometimes they make sense, sometimes they really don’t, and that’s ok made a huge difference for me.
As I paid attention to my reaction to emotions in myself and others, I noticed a phrase that I used over and over. “You shouldn’t be angry.” or “I shouldn’t be scared.” etc. As though there are situations where anger, grief or fear are acceptable and times when they really are not. I have tried hard to remove those thoughts and phrases from my life entirely. The message I try to express now, both to myself and those around me, is that we feel the way we feel, and it’s best to accept our feelings without judgment. All feelings are always ok.
Accepting the intense feelings of children that I love can be very difficult to do. It is work to be present with them in their fury and rage, terror and confusion, all while empathizing without judgment. Doing so with grace is complicated by also acknowledging and processing my own emotional reaction to my child’s outbursts or grief. I make plenty of mistakes as I try to do this work well. But whatever I have to give always seems to be enough. When the emotions have subsided (as they always eventually do) it is usually easy to forgive my child, and then tackle the work of forgiving myself.
Rule 2: My feelings are Mine. (And your feelings are yours)
Rule 1 is about accepting our feelings, rational or not. Rule 2 is about taking responsibility. Another phrase that I used a lot before I worked out these rules were variations on “He made me mad” or “You’re making me so sad.” But the truth is, nobody can make me feel anything. How I feel in any given moment is the result of a great many different factors – no matter what anybody does, good or bad, they do not have the capacity to take control of how I feel. I feel the way I feel, I accept my feelings, and I take ownership of them. Other people are responsible for the actions that they take, but I am responsible for my emotional reactions. Another person ‘making me mad’ is not responsible for my anger, or what I do with that anger. That responsibility rests wholly on my shoulders.
When I actually came to grasp this idea, it was very freeing for me personally. I had suffered some trauma at the hands of another, and I was still holding on to a lot of the hurt. I honestly believed that action was required from him before I could heal. That until he showed some remorse or made amends somehow, I couldn’t move forward with processing the pain. This was absolutely not true. While the action he took was his, the pain was mine. To do with as I pleased. I finally could allow myself to let the pain go, and I moved forward with my life.
The other piece of this rule is that I am not responsible for other people’s feelings. Just as no one can control how I feel, I certainly do not have the power to control how other people feel. I cannot be responsible for something I have no control over, so I am therefore not responsible for other people’s feelings. This does not mean that I do not take other people’s feelings into consideration, or that I see no need to be courteous or kind. I am absolutely responsible for my actions. I make the choices I make for many reasons, and consideration for others is definitely part of the equation. I accept responsibility for what I choose, what I do, and what I control. I do not accept responsibility for how others happen to react to my choices.
Rule 3: Find a way to express your feelings that doesn’t hurt people or things
Emotions, particularly angry emotions, can feel incredibly intense and overpowering, and it can be extremely difficult to remember that the feelings are not permanent. They will pass, very often more quickly than we would have expected. And when they do, we sometimes find that our angry actions have left us with a mess to clean up. Sometimes it’s a physical mess, other times it’s an emotional one. It could be damaged bodies, a damaged house, or a damaged relationship. Accepting responsibility for our emotions means we accept responsibility for any mess we make or damage we do when we are in the midst of those emotions.
But accepting that responsibility also frees us to strive to make better choices. We are not helpless in the face of our anger or rage – there are many non-destructive techniques for helping those feelings pass. I have found, both for myself and in my work with children, that when we find a non-destructive technique that works for us and practice using it frequently, it can become more and more automatic.
Extra Credit: Use emotions to create
The children I was working with while developing these rules got very used to talking about feelings. They knew the above rules by heart, to the point of reminding me of them sometimes when I would fall back on old habits. The older child had found writing to be his favorite emotional outlet, and would occasionally write (presumably) scathing and expletive-filled notes and then immediately tear them up into tiny pieces and throw them away.
But then he was assigned to write a poem for his class. I don’t know the details of the assignment, but I know that the poem he wrote involved the violent death of a woman, and that he decided to get quite descriptive. He was a bit concerned about getting in trouble for writing a poem that had such a violent element, but turned his assignment in anyway.
When I saw the look on his face at the end of his school day, I asked him what was wrong. “I got an A on my poem…but it made my teacher cry.” He seemed baffled by this, honestly unsure of whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. This led to a series of discussions with him and his sister about how artists can put their emotions into their work, and that when they do so, they can actually help other people to heal and process their own feelings. But we emphasized that this is entirely ‘extra credit’. Processing our emotions in a nondestructive way is more than enough.
Truly embracing these rules, internalizing them and making them a part of my life has had a profound effect on how I parent my child and how I live. It is difficult – something I have to work at and struggle with on a daily basis. And I know I have a lot more to learn. Reading, journaling, and now putting my thoughts and experiences in the world through this blog are all elements of how I continue my personal process of dealing with my own complex and powerful emotions.