It was many years ago. My youngest was 3 at the time. Every morning, as I dropped her off at her Montessori program down the road, she would howl her little head off and bring the entire school down. None of the other toddlers did that. Most would cry for a minute, some would mope in a corner until ready, while a happy few would dart off to their favorite play tables without bothering with negativity at all. But not my daughter. She would take it upon herself to convey the fears and emotions of all those at her school and soon became the unofficial voice of the entire group.
I found this daily routine very hard to handle. Not only would my heart ache as she clinged to me and refused to let go, I would continue to feel guilty for the rest of the day. Her voice would ring in my ears, and her tearful face would appear before my eyes like a constant reminder of having let my child down.
Through this morning mayhem though, her teacher never lost her cool. I admired her composure and wondered at her ability to brave the storm every single day. Finally one day, in a state of utter disarray, I approached her in tears and desperately asked for guidance to make the morning routine more tolerable for all.
“I don’t see any of the other children cry the way she does. What should I do differently?”
She looked at me and smiled, the smile of wisdom that comes from experience.
“Have you ever seen her laugh?”
“Well yes” I said, and could not resist smiling at the recollection of her infectious laughter. She was a laugher. She could find the littlest thing funny and laugh the loudest and longest in the room.
“Well if you want to stop her from screaming, then say good bye to the laughter too.”
I held onto her words for the rest of my daughter’s Montessori years. The howling did not abate in a hurry, but the teacher’s words gave me the strength to handle it, knowing that I was getting the laughter in return, the laughter that lit up my day and brought energy to the most tired of moments.
In time, I came to understand the truth behind the teacher’s words. Emotions evolved over millennia to ensure our survival. Each one has a purpose. It reminds us to call attention, take action, avoid the situation, reach out to others, give back, feel connected, and a myriad of other thought-action repertoires that ensure not only our survival but also our well-being in life.
Ignore at Your Peril
What drives these emotions is our subconscious, the vast iceberg atop of which we live our lives. In there reside our hopes and dreams, our answers and solutions, but also our assumptions and fears. Emotions are its cry out to us as we float atop, often unaware of what goes on under the seas. Ignoring it leaves us vulnerable because our conscious view is limited in comparison to the vast unknown under the seas.
Ignoring the calls of the subconscious also makes us unaware of its fears. Given that the subconscious charts our direction in life more than we are often aware, we begin to act out its fears without purposeful direction in our lives. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences reveal that some decisions are made up to 7 seconds before we consciously become aware of them. That is a scary thought and a reminder to us to step back and think of our motives when being avoiders, perfectionists, or pleasers.
When we do not do so, we begin to use what Professor Paul Gilbert calls the Drive System to calm our fears and thus put ourselves at risk of addictions and other dopamine related behaviors to prove our worthiness. In his words, it is “like using a hammer for a screw.” Instead, he advises us to activate the Contentment System, related to the first branch of the Vagus Nerve that is linked to the brain stem phase of evolution and to the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, the Contentment System calms us down.
Compassion meditation is one great way to activate the Contentment System. Dr. Kristen Neff has developed a system called Mindful Self Compassion that evokes the calming benefits of compassion meditation. Compassion meditation also builds the neural substrates of what Dr. Richard Davidson calls the emotional style of resilience, making us not only capable of calming our threat response but also prepared to take on our hopes and dreams and make them reality.
Finally, ignoring the subconscious also makes us disconnected from our aspirations and our joys. Our subconscious is often an untapped part of our existence that communicates to us via the gut, the heart, and other instincts and intuitions that hold much truth, even if they make little sense to our conscious rational brain. Listening to this part of ourselves opens us up to life’s myriad possibilities and allows us to live to more fully.
I see the aftermath of this disconnect in my anorexic patients who start out by being so overwhelmed by their fears and the emotions that emerge that they learn to suppress them to the extent that they feel nothing. No love, no hope, and yes, no fear. They then begin to feel their lives are out of their control. Their unfortunate effort to regain charge is through food and weight. It is a downward spiral, since then a new fear sets in, that of food. In their desperate efforts to calm it, their very survival is at stake.
Acknowledging the Message in Our Emotions
Acknowledging the message in our emotions is a great place to begin. No wonder, when we consciously label the emotions we feel, our subconscious feels heard, often the first step to calming it down. It also helps to take emotions as well-meant messages, the Affect-as-Information hypothesis of Oishi and and Kurtz, that something is awry in our environment needing addressing. It is only then that we are ready to bring our conscious minds to the fore so that we can analyze the situation and respond appropriately to a message that may not always be correct but is always worth listening to.
When the captain of our ship is under the seas, we would do well to be attentive to his call, hear his message and then guide him from our vantage point above the waters. Ignoring him would only make him shout louder or take the course he pleases, potentially putting us both in danger and definitely leaving us out of control. It begins with realizing the fullness of our existence, the wholeness of our bodies, the truth in their expressions and making a conscious effort to connect with every part of our being, in compassion and in acceptance.
My little one is not so little any more. At the mature age of nine, she can no longer even recall her howling days. She is still very emotional though, but she sees her emotions as a message that has no voice. Her job is to give them a voice that is acceptable and understandable. It is heart-warming to see that.
I was lucky to have a wise head guide me. It taught me that discounting the subconscious is no way to calm it. Nor is “Be quiet!” a phrase that it understands. In fact, language is beyond its comprehension. What it understands is hugs and a warm accepting embrace that pacifies the threat system through the contentment system. Being shouted down or otherwise ignored only teaches our kids to scream louder or suppress their emotions, creating the gulf that is at the root of many psychological disorders.
Plus, when we listen to our children, we teach them to listen to their inner child. In the process, we may slow down enough to listen to our own.
Gilbert, P. (2009). An introduction to the theory and practice of compassion focused therapy and compassion mind training for shame-based difficulties. Workshop notes.
Gilbert, P. (2010). Training our minds in, with, and for compassion: An introduction to concepts and compassion-focused exercises. Includes a discussion of the Drive and Contentment systems.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: HarperCollins.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion Step by Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Sounds True. Audio cassette.
Neff, K. D., Germer, K. (2012). A Pilot Study and Randomized Control Trial of the Mindful Self-Compassion Program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 00(00), 1-17.
Oishi, S., Kurtz, J. (2011). The positive psychology of positive emotions: An avuncular view. In K. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. New York: Oxford University Press. Abstract.
Soon, C. S., Brass, M., Heinze, H.-J., Haynes, J-D. (2008). Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain. Nature Neuroscience.
Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons
Child’s tantrum courtesy of libertygrace0
Child’s laughter courtesy of zbigphotography
Iceberg courtesy of greenland_com
Dusty daydreams courtesy of Dusty daydreams
USS Annapolis ICEX by US Department of Defense photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Tiffini M. Jones, U.S. Navy – This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 090321-N-8273J-409 (next). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.