Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Feeling Your Feelings:
Bringing Mindfulness To Everyday Parenting

"The only feelings you really need to fear are those you ignore." 
~ Marianne Williamson

For many years, my New Year's resolution was simply "to have more patience". In my journey toward learning to be the mother I wanted to be, I felt that this was an area in which I was sorely lacking. I lost my temper too often. I yelled. I rushed through things. I got annoyed when my kids (or my husband) just didn't "get it". I was, I was certain, very impatient.

And I suppose I can be impatient. And I suppose I've improved in that area. But along the way, I realized that in my attempt to have more patience when things were frustrating or triggering me, I was, in fact, also creating more stress for myself. Could it be that I was actually being too patient?

Wait, before you think I'm nuts, consider this: the more we try to maintain our cool when we are being bombarded by something that is aggravating us, the more we are ignoring how we actually feel. The longer we ignore those feelings, the more they build up, and the more likely we are to explode. 

Or, if you are not the exploding type, the more likely those feelings are going to be released in some other inappropriate way: bickering with your partner, telling off a co-worker, overspending, overeating and so forth. 

Alternately, feelings that aren't released or realized are, instead, internalized. This can manifest in a variety of ways, usually in physical complaints or sometimes in odd behaviors all of which seem to have nothing to do with the original source of stress: chronic tension in the body (such as the jaw, neck and shoulders, gut), headaches, digestive problems, poor sleep or nightmares, obsessive behaviors like nail biting and the list goes on and on.
"An emotion swept under the rug is not an emotion that goes away; it’s simply an emotion that is put somewhere other than where it should be put. It becomes inert rather than dynamic energy, stored within you rather than being released. As noted previously, energy cannot be uncreated. And emotions are powerful forms of energy." ~ Marianne Williamson
It seems to me that realizing and paying attention to our feelings is a much nicer alternative to holding on to all that energy, no? Of course, for many people, feeling their feelings is harder than it sounds, and I recognize that. Even for those who didn't experience trauma or abuse, some still interpreted childhood experiences in such a way that they came to feel that their feelings shouldn't be felt, shouldn't be honored and shouldn't be expressed. 

In order to help our children grow up to be calm, resilient people who know how to regulate their moods, we need to learn how to be that way ourselves. To resist acknowledging that I am frustrated, overwhelmed or annoyed, as I attempt to remain the perfect Stepford Wife picture of a patient mom, serves no one. Least of all my kids. 

So, what does that mean? Should I ditch trying to be patient? 

Of course not. When you feel patient, be patient. But when you don't feel patient, be real. If I am pretending to be patient, but in actuality am just gritting my teeth and hoping the annoying situation will disappear before I blow my top, I am not teaching my kids about how to handle things that frustrate them in an appropriate way.

What I want to do is to connect with my children and help them navigate their disagreements in such a way that they eventually learn to be good problem solvers. I want to teach them how to regulate their emotions (notice, I didn't say control their emotions) so they can be upset with someone or something, but still be able to figure out a solution that works for all involved. 

Pie in the sky? Or will that really happen in real life?

Becoming mindful of my feelings is the key to this for me. In being mindful, I release the need to do anything about how I feel. Instead, if I can allow myself to become aware of the feeling -- that is, notice it, name it and just experience the feeling -- I begin to become more aware that the feelings change and that nothing is constant. My feelings just are.  

For example, my children fight (often) in the back of the car. It's my version of Hell. I am trapped in a small space with nowhere to go. There is chaos and loud noise, unhappiness I can't fix and lots of messy emotions I can't attune to the way I would like. Everything feelings like an emergency, my stress level goes through the roof and even pulling over doesn't work because my daughter has intense anxiety about getting towed and getting parking tickets and it ramps up her crying/screaming (don't's a long story). 

As I said, Hell.

My attempts to "be patient" by actively ignoring the fighting so they can solve it themselves only result in me being intensely focused on the fighting which, of course, makes me angrier and results in my yelling. Awesome. So much for patience.

So, what do I do instead?
  • Instead, when I am triggered like that, I first take at least two deep breaths (in through the nose and out through the mouth). This helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to trigger the body to secrete hormones to decrease blood pressure and heart rate, inducing a relaxation response. Preferably, one should do this for a few minutes, but in the heat of battle, sometimes two breaths are all I can manage.
  • Then, I recall one or two things about each child that I love: I adore my son's hilarious giggle. I love the way my daughter cuddles with me in the morning when she's all warm and snuggly - like freshly baked bread. Alternately, or sometimes additionally, I say things to myself like, "They are only 6. They are still learning". This helps put my brain back in the present moment so I am no longer in flight or fight mode and helps me focus on what I want to accomplish.
  • Next, assuming nothing dangerous is happening back there, I bring my focus to what I am feeling: "I am angry. I am frustrated. I am tired" or whatever the feelings may be in the moment. The key to this being helpful is to not judge the feelings. You know what I mean. It's that little voice that prattles on in your head even when you tell it to shut up: "I am angry. I shouldn't be angry. They're just kids. I have to be patient with them or it will mean I'm not a good mom. I will never be as good a mom as I want to be. Why do I even try? Now I'm really angry! I feel like yelling!" Get what I mean? Don't judge. Just notice. Try to do this instead: “I am angry." Then sit with that feeling. "I wonder what feeling will arise next? Ah, that’s interesting. There is that particular feeling… and there it goes. Hmmmm. Cool. I wonder what will come next?” This dialogue is from an excellent article on the Mindfulness of Feelings which gives a deeper explanation for anyone who is not used to this way of thinking.
When we can separate our primary thoughts (I am angry) from our secondary thoughts (I will never be as good a mom as I want to be) and simply notice that we feel those things, the feelings pass through us. It is the judgment of those feelings that makes us stressed. When we aren't mindful of how we feel, we aren't aware that we are escalating our stress by judging those feelings. 
"...worrying about worrying screws us up.  Getting mad at ourselves for being mad screws us up. Being depressed about how depressed we are screws us up. All these secondary emotions get us caught up in knots. Without wisdom we use these primary emotions as the rock, and our secondary emotions as the slingshot to shoot us right into a cascade of subsequent, unhelpful emotions." ~
With practice, those three steps only take a minute or so. By tending to myself first, I am now in a better position to help my children. And I am actually more likely to be the patient mom I want to be. Because some of the triggers are deeply ingrained for me, I often have to repeat these three steps over and over throughout the course of a conflict if it's one that isn't solved quickly. 

But the more I practice being mindful, the more I replace the habit of yelling with the habit of reflecting and responding calmly so that I remain connected not only to my children, but to myself. And that, really, is all I wanted when I made those resolutions to be more patient. Be mindful. Respond calmly. Remain connected.

"I can only bring peace to my children when I posses it myself" 
~ Katrina Kenison
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