We have often heard the lament “hurting people hurt people”. That simple phrase resonates for many of us who have experienced being hurt deeply by the people we were trying to love; or whom we believed should unconditionally love us.
Where we become stymied is that we are not sure who to attend to — the hurting people or the hurt people. As a result, we haven’t effectively helped either. The problem just keeps perpetuating.
A few months ago, I wrote a Daily Gummy of Wisdom putting a twist on that old lament. It was “healing people heal people.” This insight came from personal experience as well as from stories I heard shared in my book club, with family and friends and most recently from strangers in a poetry writing class I am taking.
I do marvel at the healing that begins to take place when just one person makes space to listen to another’s story without judgement and most especially when they listen carefully enough to discover a knowing connection. This is precisely why support groups can have such a profound helping impact. There is a foundational promise that we can speak without interruption, that we can pour it all out — and that others will listen with all their human instincts. Everyone that is under that tent has had a similar life event that brought them in. The event is the catalyst for connection; for it is connection that heals.
Our stories and our hurts are better out than in.
I offered the metaphor of a splinter in my last post entitled Feeling Our Way Forward. If we ignore a splinter embedded in our skin, it never stops hurting. It can even fester and get infected as our body wants to eject this foreign object. We can go about our normal days, but every time we bump it, it is painful and serves as a reminder that we need to attend to it. It is the anticipatory pain of extraction that becomes an obstacle; and for some outrageous reason we think it will magically go away if we ignore it. We will not have to experience that brief extraction pain. But day in and day out, we come to discover that this is not true. And if someone else bumps our tender, painful finger, we blame them for their carelessness. That embedded splinter is also taking away our joy — even our ability to feel the softness of a consoling pet.
Eventually we face the truth — that splinter is indeed better out than in. Yes, the extraction does hurt. We may even feel some residual discomfort as though it is still embedded in our skin, but the healing is already starting. Our body is busy attending to the healing process and relieved that it is no longer doing a daily triage on something we refused to address.
A piercing splinter is an apt metaphor for our emotional wounds. Our emotions are better out than in.
In his book, Permission to Feel, emotional scientist Marc Brackett, makes this incredibly clear:
“The irony, though, is that when we ignore our feelings, or suppress them, they only become stronger. The really powerful emotions build up inside us, like a dark force that inevitably poisons everything we do, whether we like it or not. Hurt feelings don’t vanish on their own. They don’t heal themselves. If we don’t express our emotions, they pile up like a debt that will eventually come due.” – excepted from Permission to Feel, pg.13, Author – Marc Brackett, Ph.D.
Every single book I have read in recent months about emotional health, parenting, longevity and health span cites this one compelling factor: We got emotions all wrong and we only started to understand this in the 1980’s.
Just think about that — up until a few decades ago, we just kept ignoring and dismissing emotions all together. And even now, with more research, we are too slow to respond and integrate.
So let’s circle back to the lament that “hurting people hurt people” and take action to attend to both the hurting and the hurt. The escalating emotional and mental health crisis is proof positive that we can no longer ignore our emotional splinters. Everyone deserves to be attended with compassion, non-judgment and assistance to pull the hurting out.
We cannot address what we do not not know, yet there is growing evidence that not integrating our emotions was a huge mistake — a catacylsmic snowball rolling down debris-covered hill.
Remember when you were a kid and there was just a small dusting of snow on the ground, but you just had to make a snowman. You’d start with a tiny snowball and begin rolling it around the yard. As the fresh snow clung to that baseball sized snowball, it grew in size. It left behind a little swath cleared of snow, revealing green grass, brown decaying leaves and broken twigs. And that growing snowball — well it was mostly snow but it also had a lot of those decaying leaves and broken twigs projecting from it. That is what has been happening from one generation to the next with all our unprocessed emotions — they were the decaying leaves and broken twigs that got passed along with eye and skin color. The snowball full of emotional projectiles.
Unprocessed and unexpressed emotions have piled up; we are still carrying and paying the overdue debts of our ancestors.
I recently published a blog post “Learning What We Need to Teach.” That post was inspired by the work of Dr. Dan Siegel who wrote The Power of Showing Up, Whole Brain Parenting and No Drama Discipline. One of the fastest ways that we can implement real change is to teach our children that emotions are an integral part of who they are and how they learn about life. We need to teach them a vast and nuanced emotional vocabulary. We are the training wheels for this integration of big unwieldy and at times, scary, emotions for our children and their developing brains. But we cannot teach what we ourselves don’t know. It would be like us suddenly trying to teach our kids to speak a foreign language fluently. We might only know a few familiar phrases in Spanish or French. We are hardly skillful.
Can you imagine what it feels like for a small child to have big emotions wash all over her, out of the blue? My young granddaughter was standing in the bathtub, trembling with crocodile tears running down her cheeks. She was so angry at her brother and was yelling at him. She also had enough self awareness to recognize that her voice had changed and that scared her – what was happening? Her changing voice took precedence over her anger. In that moment, my granddaughter was feeling a natural and normal chain reaction that happens when emotions hit us.
That present moment is a teaching opportunity.
Her anger was simply an emotion that told her something wasn’t right. Her brother had not been respectful about her bathtub toys. Her anger was legitimate. Her anger caused her body and developing brain to react. Her heart was racing, the tears were flowing, her voice was amplified. All that happened in a split second. She was caught in an emotional vortex — angry at her brother and she was scaring herself with her own voice; one she didn’t recognize or like. “What is happening to me?” she asked me. “Why is my voice changing?”
Being the training wheels for these moments is a game-changer for everyone. It is how we integrate emotional awareness.
Step 1 of being the training wheels is to remain calm. We co-regulate each other and if we can show up calmly for our kids when they are overcome with emotions, it is soothing. Their heart rate will slow, their labored breathing will return to baseline, the tension in their tiny bodies will release. When we are initially learning how to be the “training wheels” this first step will seem like it takes an eternity. That’s just an illusion however. It actually takes much less time than we realize.
It is when we respond to our child’s normal and right-sized “out of control” emotional chain reaction with our abnormal, outsized adult emotional reaction that things escalate and can become unwieldy. Step one — stay calm. You are a first responder.
Step 2 is naming the emotions that our child is feeling. Name them to tame them. This is how we organically build our child’s emotional vocabulary. It not only helps them to have this valuable reference point for self-identification of their own emotions, it builds connection and empathy with others. If a sibling expresses “I am so angry right now” a child instinctively knows what anger feels like to them. They can relate.
At the risk of losing the flow of this lesson in “training wheels”, I will pull a strong thread from what we know is so helpful in support groups. It is empathy. It is being able to listen to someone’s story and have a basic human understanding of what they must feel like, using our experiences as the connector.
So when we help our children label their emotions, we are giving them context from their own emotional experience to be able to relate to others. They will intuitively know what anger or envy feels like. We are building their emotional vocabulary and cultivating their ability to help themselves and others in emotional discomfort.
I’m guessing that it is beginning to feel pretty obvious right now that if we had been raised this way, with a deep appreciation for our emotions and tools to help us express and manage them, our own lives would have been greatly improved. Stick with me — there’s more.
Back to training wheels – Step 3. Normalizing the emotions is powerful. Emotions are neither right nor wrong. They are simply a form of information. Anger is nothing more than a newsflash that something is important to us.
Even if that something important is just a few bathtub toys, it matters. It matters to my granddaughter who was very clear about what was important to her in advance. Anger was just a normal and appropriate reaction.
As for her voice changing, she just needed to be reassured that this too was natural. That our voice does change when we are angry and it won’t last. You should have seen the look of relief that washed over her precious face at that breaking news. Did you know that it feels very scary to small children when emotions are coursing through their little bodies. Of course they are worried that they are changing and just like imagining a monster under the bed, they are fearful that it is for real and forever.
Step 4 of being emotional integration training wheels for our children is helping them become aware that emotions often come packaged with other feelings. Anger can be accompanied by disappointment, confusion, envy, a sense of unfairness. Just as we would double check that there are no little fragments remaining from a splinter we removed, we should do the same for our emotions. Invite some exploration of the accompanying emotions. We are often deeply touched by what we learn when we really listen to our distressed child.
For the record, this is even more amplified for our teenagers. It is only when we become more skillful listeners that our adolescences open up to share what is under the surface. Be patient, don’t lecture or fix — just listen.
The bottom line is that so many of us grew up without an understanding of the integral role our emotions play in helping us build lives that are strong, healthy, supportive, connected, resilient and meaningful. We blamed emotions for getting in the way of our living a good life. If we could just ignore them, turn them off, shut them down, then we would be happy.
If we had only known that our emotions were the very first and most integral part of our human experience, we would not be awash in shame, blame, loneliness, judgment, dissatisfaction, addictions and estrangements. Emotions didn’t cause these issues — in fact, they are both the prevention and the cure.
I watch my grandchildren today – who are being raised with integration of their emotions into their developing brains and I marvel at their self-awareness, their growing confidence and resilience and most impressively their emotional navigational skills. They are so attuned to their emotions that they can anticipate when a situation might arise where they feel their “jealousy rising”. Rather than ignore it, they name and come up with a plan to address it. From birthday celebrations, to board game competitions, they can hold both their own feelings of envy and a stronger desire to pour joy on each other.
Just the other day, my granddaughter told me that sometimes she really prefers to stay in her mood for a while. She is not afraid to be with her strong emotions and to really feel how they show up in her body, and how long it takes for them to fade. Can you imagine having that much enlightened engagement with your feelings when you were a kid? She is processing her moods, her feelings in real time – without self criticism or parental judgment.
Can you imagine having an inner voice that was trained in curiosity, non-judgment and self compassion? That is precisely what is happening for my granddaughter when she sits with her feelings; she is training her inner voice to be a supportive internal best friend.
Hurting people hurt people – and usually this is unintentional. We simply were not taught and shown by example how to use our emotions in the positive ways they were intended. Our emotional health impacts our quality of life, our physical and cognitive health and our ability to care for ourselves and others in vastly beneficial ways.
We literally pushed away what we needed the most — emotional awareness and emotional intelligence.