Behaving Requires Thinking
This was the subject line of an email I got this morning and I took it as a sign that I should write about what has been on my mind lately.
This week my mind was on Chapter 4 of Raising Good Humans (current bookclub selection)…taking care of difficult feelings. This is the chapter that made me want to reread this book (I’ve read it as a bookclub book at least once before): there was this exercise in it that really resonated with me the first time I tried it.
First, let me set up the premise of the chapter…we all have ‘difficult’ feelings (life is not all sunshine and lollipops). And let’s face it, as a parent, you’re going to have lots of difficult feelings come up a lot of the time…when your child takes toys from others (or conversely lets children take toys from them constantly), when your child hits, when they won’t listen, when they won’t sleep, when they look right at you and do exactly what you’ve told them not to do… yeah. Being a parent is triggering. And yes we all WILL be triggered, we’re human!, and that’s why we can’t access all of the lovely intentional parenting strategies we read about and aspire to. But if we can move past that response, we can access our rational side and respond thoughtfully.
And the promise/premise of this book is to break the cycle of being a triggered, reactive person and parent. The question is…how do you DO that? This is the chapter that’s really gets to the heart of it. The previous chapters have encouraged mindfulness and awareness of patterns and triggers, and those practices can really help…sometimes…but the moments of overwhelm will come for you, and when they do, most parents I know want to exit that feeling as fast as possible. I know I do. And this chapter offered a couple of different exercises for helping you reregulate quickly.
One of those exercises ( TIPI ) worked like magic for me when I first read the book: I’d had an argument with my husband (which I’m I was in no way responsible for…ahem) right before I was leaving for work. And the closer I got to work, the more alarmed I was that I was still so upset. I didn’t want to show up so visibly upset! Calling my Mom didn’t work, deep breathing didn’t work…but following the simple steps of TIPI did. I simply brought my attention to the physical sensations I was experiencing…like my hot cheeks, my clenched hands, my rapid breathing…and I very quickly became calm. I didn’t try to change anything, I just noticed the sensations. It was like a magic shortcut to calmness. I was hooked.
I happened to be reading this chapter again when I very obligingly had a minor panic attack. Yikes. I reached for the TIPI technique, but it didn’t help and somehow even seemed to make it worse. But I remembered another technique…the yes/no technique. So, I tried it…rather than trying to stuff down my feelings (saying no), I said yes to the feeling. Yes, I’m having a panic attack. I felt my body start to relax. I flopped over into a forward fold and came back online.
The reason I share this very personal experience is because I had an ah-ha in that moment…I realized that the relaxed feeling I was having was familiar…it’s that feeling I have when I’m teaching and children are hitting or taking toys…I’m stressed by it, sure… but I’m not holding onto the stress. I’m not saying “I shouldn’t be feeling this” instead, I know that what is happening is okay, it’s normal, and I can breathe through it. My calmness helps children feel secure, yes, but more importantly, it helps me stay present and intentional.
And that’s what I said to a parent in class this week…I don’t think I explained it well, but I hope this newsletter might make it clearer…not only for them, but also for everyone reading it. It’s triggering to see your child take toys and be rough. It doesn’t feel good, and we want to change the behavior…but the behavior IS what it is right now. It’s not caused by you and it’s not the child’s fault. If you can let that feeling of “I want this to be different” move through you, your body will relax, your hands will be gentler, your energy will be firm but not sharp, and you will be able to think more clearly. Yes, you have to keep children safe, but if you miss a moment and your child is rough, forgive yourself and her…the more you heap shame and guilt on yourself for not catching it before…the more vigilant you try to be to stop every possible action, the more rigid and uncomfortable you become…which can lead to a vicious cycle of you feeling more and more anxious.
This advice sounds counter-intuitive…I mean, you want to stop feeling triggered and upset, so why would you lean into that feeling? And I am definitely not saying you should sit in that feeling and let it freeze you, but when you let yourself just feel it…yes, this is hard, yes, I wish she hadn’t just smacked her friend, yes, I feel like I’m doing something wrong because this keeps happening…feel it, accept it, and let it move through you. Accept what is happening…otherwise, you are living in the land of ‘shoulds’: …my child should be able to keep themselves from hitting…my child should listen to me…my spouse should have anticipated that I needed the dishwasher emptied. Yes, all of those things should have happened…but they didn’t. If you keep living in should, you can’t address what is.
Being triggered and angry are universal experiences, and there are universal techniques to help us get back to regulated. And just like not every technique will work for every person, not every messenger has to articulate it in the same way. There’s Hunter Clarke-Fields, Mona Delahooke, Janet Lansbury, and someone I just learned about: Dr. Christian Conte …but I’ll share more about him in a future post.
Bringing it back to the initial thought (behaving requires thinking)…keep in mind that when any of us, your children included, are triggered and dysregulated, we’re operating on instinct, not logic…not thinking. If we want to teach children skills, we have to be calm and thinking…and so do they.