We had a very nice weekend away at my parent’s cottage this past weekend. It was great fun to see my niece and nephew, brother and sister-in-law and my parents. The kids really like having their aunt and uncle around, and it shows in the way they react to us…they run up and give big hugs and kisses when they greet us. It DOES feel good.
However, as with most kids, there are times when they don’t get what they want, and that can lead to an upset child.
I was thinking of the book I have read recently, Daniel Goleman’s “Social Intelligence”, and how it talks about the importance of developing social skills at any age. Goleman says in relation to children, however, that learning social skills at a young age can be extremely beneficial to one as you grow older. He gives the example of a wealthy middle-aged New York couple that had a daughter for whom they had bought all the toys she wanted, and hired all the best nannies. Yet, the daughter had never had any other children over to play with her. Why? The parents were afraid that having another child over might “upset” their precious daughter. Goleman said that those parents followed the thinking that the best way to raise the daughter was to protect her from “all stressful situations”. In doing so, they would ensure that their daughter was happy.
I have learned, and Goleman confirms it, that avoiding all stressful situations is, not only impossible, but causes stress in and of itself! Goleman says that “[t]he goal for parenting should not be achieving a brittle ‘positive’ psychology – clinging to a state of perpetual jog in one’s children – but rather teaching a child how to return on her own to a state of contentment, whatever may happen”.
If I had learned this lesson earlier in my life, I can imagine that I would have avoided a great deal of misery. Even now, I still try to avoid stressful situations. But, I have learned some skills to return me to a calmer state. This involved dealing with my emotions.
But, what ARE emotions? Richard O’Connor describes emotions as follows: “Emotions are hardwired, instinctual responses to stimuli, chemical events in your brain, reactions we share with higher animals – joy, pride, sadness, anger, desire, shame, excitement, guilt (at lease, we see animals behaving in these ways; we don’t know what their inner experience is). Our emotions arise in the automatic self and may or may not come into consciousness. Even if not conscious, they affect our behaviour. In the psych lab, subjects primed to think about elderly people walk more slowly after the experiment; those primed with anger-laden words are ruder to the experimenter; those primed to think about money are more selfish. In everyday life, it’s a common experience to snap at someone and only then realize we’re cranky. But we keep trying to pretend we don’t feel all those things that are unacceptable to us – with self-destructive consequences”.
The most important skill I have learned has come through reading about, and going to my psychologist who has taught me about, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). And, the first aspect to CBT, as it is known, is to learn to get in touch with your feelings. Now, that sounded to me originally like a bunch of new-age hokum. I envisioned a bunch of saffron clad, bald-headed monks chanting as they tried to “get in touch” with their feelings. But, once I allowed myself to listen to what was proposed, it wasn’t so crazy after all. The first and most important aspect to CBT is something called “mindfulness”. In her book, Brené Brown quotes Kristen Neff in describing mindfulness as, “…taking a balanced approach to negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. Mindfulness requires that we not “over-identify” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negativity”. Mindfulness is nothing more than being AWARE of your emotions.
The first, and most important thing is to feel. Yes, that is it. Feel. Feel your anger, feel your sadness, and feel your inner pain. You KNOW you are angry or sad or in pain, but we often don’t stop for a moment and say to ourselves, “wait, what I am feeling right now is ‘X’…” Once you do that, you have taken the first step in down the road to being able to CONTROL those feelings. And yes, you CAN control those feelings. I certainly can’t do it all the time…sometimes the emotions are just so strong that I live through them without being able to either identify them, or perhaps later control them. But certainly the first aspect to being able to return yourself to a state of contentment is to recognize and put words to your feelings.
I have found, and M. Scott Peck agrees with me, that if I avoid thinking of my emotions I am destined to become ill: “This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness”.
Try it. Next time you feel a strong emotion, take 15 seconds (that’s all you might need) and think to yourself, “what am I feeling now”. Label that emotion. Just the act of labelling it might be sufficient for you to say to yourself that you don’t want to feel that way. But, the only way to get to the stage of controlling your emotions, is to recognize them.
FOOTNOTES — to get any of these books, click on them….or go to the library, they’re free!!
 Daniel Goleman, “Social Intelligence” (New York: Bantam Books, 2006), p. 183.
 Richard O’Connor, “Rewire: Change your brain”, (New York, NY: Plume, 2014), p. 17.
 Kristin D. Neff, “Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself”, Self and Identity 2 (2003): 85-101.
 Brene Brown, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), p. 60.
 M. Scott Peck, “The Road Less Traveled”, (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1978), p. 17.