There have been a few common themes popping up among my favorite motivational resources recently: Cultivating greater self-awareness, expanding our understanding and language around emotions, and the impact of our stories on how we navigate life.
In my last blog post, Re-Writing Our Story, I revealed the insightful discoveries I made when I revisited my own childhood experiences through the lens of all the inner work I’ve been doing. I went searching for the seeds of the navigational coping skills I used to make sense of my life — and I found them.
It dawned on me that not only do we devise unique coping skills to help us make sense of things we are too young to understand, we often mimic poor behavioral patterns of our parents when we are young. Some of this is by osmosis, some of it is by keen observation. This “aha moment” was a clue to one of the ways that we can better support younger generations. Recognizing our outgrown behavioral patterns and working on them earlier in our lives, would break that generational “handing down” of unhealthy strategies for navigating life.
In one of my prior blog posts, I shared that I went into parenthood armed with a dog-eared copy of Dr. Spock, a list of things my mom did that I would never do, and a fairy tale-like image of what I anticipated motherhood would look and feel like to both me and my children. Looking back, I wish that someone would have better prepared me for parenthood by helping me recognize the childhood behavioral patterns that were no longer needed. I set out to make a better life for myself and my family, but I was unnecessarily encumbered by those patterns.
I vacillated between believing the story I had crafted in childhood and trying to defy that story. On any given day, I could lean heavily into one — or the other. On the one hand, I accepted the fact that I had a dysfunctional childhood and was not so well equipped or educated to enter into adulthood — and on the other hand I would draw on my resilience, optimism and strong desire to learn to stand my ground and pursue a plan or goal with a vengeance.
Oddly enough, it must have been those childhood behavioral patterns that kept me tethered on that see-saw. What I needed was someone to really listen to my story and then help me to re-write what was no longer needed or serving me well. A boost like that would have helped me gain some balance and pointed me in a clear and better path.
Have you ever looked at one of your children and saw yourself reflected back? I know I did. Today, I can look back at my middle son and clearly see the behavioral patterns he adopted from me — harmonizer, helper, easy-going. And I can also see the roots of those patterns that gave me some parenting challenges. He had a really hard time making a decision. It often frustrated me. Now I realize that he was most likely putting all his choices through the filters of what others wanted.
This is one small, yet very relevant, insight into what I am discovering about learned behavioral patterns. I was a people pleaser. I had a hard time expressing my own needs and my fear of those needs being rejected kept me quiet and compliant most of the time. My son adopted that same coping style, most likely through osmosis. It served him well in childhood, and helped him create a safe cocoon when his feisty siblings created chaos. When he was an adult, I would often wonder why it took him so long to make a hard decision — one that seemed rather obvious to me. Now I realize that the behavioral pattern and his filters for what others needed were clouding his ability to stand his own ground and honor his own needs.
Today my daugher looks at her young children and readily recognizes the ways that they are like her. Some of their behavioral patterns are so familiar to her yet she also knows that those didn’t serve her so well — even in childhood. We have some of our best conversations diving into understanding her children and their unique personalities, reading and learning how to parent with better emotional tools, and giving them the best environment to be their true selves.
My friends and I openly discuss how we are striving to help our adult children discover and learn better parenting skills than we had. We also recognize the role we can play in providing scaffolding for both our adult children and our grandchildren in this new landscape. The more we become keen observers of behavioral patterns, cause and effect, and how we “show up” in those moments for these little children, the more likely we will break the generational chain — and the greater opportunity for our young people to enter adulthood without childhood baggage holding them back.
Another area where we can make an impactful difference is by teaching our children that emotions are an invaluable part of their lives — and they are helpful teaching aids that deserve our attention. No more dismissing what a child is feeling, no more assuaging with candy or toys, no more shaming.
When we know better, we do better, as Maya Angelou reminds us. And now thanks to neuroscience and psychological research, we know that unprocessed emotions (especially painful ones) never go away and become the birthplace of poor emotional regulation, harmful coping methods, lifelong emotional triggers, and cumbersome emotional baggage.
One of the most impactful shifts we can make is to change our perspective about emotions. Emotions are the drivers of our lives — that is just how we are hard-wired as human beings. While we have the most incredible brains and the capability of thinking and creating in extraordinary ways, it is our emotions that often derail us from our greatest potential and satisfaction in life.
Imagine how transformational it would be if children learned that it was essential to express their emotions? Emotions are neither right or wrong. They are simply what we truly feel, in that moment. What we often do not recognize as parents is that our child’s emotion is their internal warning system telling them that something does not feel right to them. It could feel scary, dangerous, unfair or unpleasant. Our emotions are the indicator signals tied to our basic needs and values. Kids (like all of us) need to feel safe, to be seen and heard, valued and loved.
Dr. Dan Siegel has written an incredible book, The Power of Showing Up, to help us all become better parents and grandparents for our children. It is how we “show up” when our children’s emotions hit them. How we respond changes everything. How we role model emotional processing and emotional regulation reinforces all the good things we are teaching them to understand about themselves and others.
In her newest book, Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown introduces us to an expanded vocabulary for the myriads of emotions that we human beings experience. Our children often grow up only knowing a few words to describe a multitude of the emotions they feel. Those 3 words are mad, sad and glad.
But within each of those three simple words are many nuanced emotions that we really need to understand better. In fact, if we can label those emotions correctly, we can process — and learn from them — in a meaningful way. We can help our children learn to express disappointment, envy, embarrassment, fear, pride, fearlessness and joy — and so much more. We will all benefit greatly from expanding our language and our definitions of our vast array of complex emotions.
My six year old granddaughter was recently sitting in her car seat, deep in thought. When she spoke, she described three distinct emotions she was feeling. Then she sighed, smiled and said “I think this is a learning experience for me and I think it will help me be patient.” (Note to self — never underestimate the power of a young child to learn!)
Lately I have been finding new ways to reinforce how important feelings are when interacting with my grandchildren. I tell them that I respect how they are feeling — in the moment. “I respect you, buddy, and that you are feeling angry and disappointed right now.” Even though we cannot often change the reality of the moment, taking that time to respect how he feels, to hear him out, often is just enough to diffuse big emotions. It doesn’t mean we can — or should — fix a situation. It might be a lesson in disappointment. It is these tiny moments that help to build emotional agility and resilience.
There is one more area that deserves some attention — fostering a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset for our children. It’s another area where language really matters. We often tell our kids that they are good drawers, good skiers, good singers. The language we use focuses on the child — defines them. Research shows that we should be using our accolades and encouragement to shine light on the “process” that our kids are using for drawing, for learning a new skill or sport, or for the pure pleasure of belting out a song.
We can inadvertently set our kids up for a fixed mindset if we aren’t careful. The beauty of a growth mindset is that it takes away the limitations we often place on ourselves and frees us up to try new things without feeling we need to excel or master them. It is the “process” of learning something new that we find stimulating and enjoyable and very fulfilling. Cultivating a growth mindset in our kids really opens them up to possibilities and agency over their choices in life. (You can learn more about ways to encourage a growth mindset for yourself and children from The Happiness Lab podcast episode I share below in Recommended Resources.)
I’ll wrap this up by summarizing how integrated resources that are becoming more accessible and mainstream will help us all navigate through life a little easier, less constrained, and more fluidly:
- Cultivate greater awareness of behavioral patterns. Take stock of your own periodically and assess if they are serving you well in your current stage of life.
- Learn from your emotions — they offer so much guidance to keep you in alignment with your needs and your values. Expand your emotional vocabulary.
- Foster a growth mindset — give yourself the freedom to try new things without letting your inner critic get in your way. Have fun on the journey and enjoy the process.
The bottom line is that we are emotional beings who keep moving through life with experiences of all kinds. We can make a choice to keep learning, re-assessing what is working and what isn’t from time to time. And we can make a difference in the lives of others, by sharing what we are learning and helping others have an easier path.
This Being Well episode is Entitled How to Break Your Old Patterns. I have shared often that the Enneagram is such a great resource for learning about behavioral patterns common to many of us. Well, knowing your behavioral patterns are one thing — breaking them is quite another. This episode is chock full of relatable ways to recognize and free yourself from behavioral patterns that just aren’t working.
Click the link on the left to watch this episode.
Check out this Happiness Lab Podcast on How to Adopt a Growth Mindset with David Yeager, a psychology professor at UT-Austin and Dr. Laurie Santos.