The other morning, before the sun was fully up, I went into Jonah’s room. He’d been babbling for a few minutes and, armed with a hot cup of coffee, I was ready to hang out with my son. I walked in the door and was greeted by his sweetest smile. I smiled back, filled with love for this darling 20-month old human being.
Then he burst into tears.
What followed was the worst tantrum I’ve seen from him yet. He wanted to be picked up but, as soon as he was in my arms, he wanted to be put down. Then he was furious that he wasn’t in my arms again. He was sobbing so hard he couldn’t take a deep breath.
For ten minutes, as I watched my cup of coffee getting colder, Jonah completely freaked out. He screamed, repeating “NO NO NO!” over and over. Despite my best efforts, he couldn’t be consoled. All I could do was try to keep his writhing little body from hurting himself and wait for the tantrum to pass.
Experiencing this tantrum felt particularly appropriate because the night before Micah and I watched the Mr. Roger’s documentary. After watching, Micah and I discussed Mr. Roger’s profound vision. He truly saw children’s complex inner lives and gave them a much-needed space to freely express their real hopes, fears, and doubts about life.
I was struck by the simplicity of what he taught and how hard it can be to actually hold this kind of space for anyone who is suffering, especially my child, especially first thing in the morning before I’ve had my coffee.
Mr. Roger’s message also lines up with what I’ve been reading in Janet Lansbury’s books on respectful parenting and toddler discipline (we’re using one as the textbook for A Radiant Beginning, my early motherhood self-care immersion).
This passage from her particularly struck me:
“...all infants...can be trusted to grieve as an individual in a unique and perfect way. Infants demonstrate the authentic expression of their feelings when given the opportunity. If we can give them the space and time to express painful feelings instead of arresting their cries, and if we can steady ourselves to work through our own discomfort, then our children can be reassured that their true responses are accepted and appropriate.”
Both Janet Lansbury and Mr. Roger’s examples of respecting children’s emotional lives confirm what I’ve seen helping my clients with their self-care: If we are not given space to express our emotions freely when we are younger, these blocked emotions will continue to affect us and our self-care as we get older.
Our conditioned belief that our “negative” emotions are wrong can manifest in our adult lives as addictive tendencies, low self-esteem, and/or patterns of self-destructive relationships. We become convinced that because we feel these healthy, normal emotions, we are “bad” and aren’t worthy of care and respect.
From there, we may continue to engage in a lifestyle of numbing behavior (which only turns down the volume on our emotions rather than making them go away), usually choosing emotionally unavailable relationships which reflect our early learning about emotions. In these relationships, we can become terrified to say what we really mean or set boundaries of any kind, lest we become further emotionally abandoned.
(I think it’s important to say that these self-destructive tendencies can happen even when we are given other important forms of care during our childhood. Janet Lansbury’s experience of emotional denial within an otherwise healthy family is an stark example of the incredible importance of emotional self-care.)
More and more, I’m learning that self-care is about so much more than just our personal habits and routines. We can run marathons and sleep nine hours a night, but if we don’t know how to honor our emotions and set real boundaries in relationships, our self-care practices don’t truly work.
Our emotional shortages act like holes in our self-care bucket. No matter how much healthy stuff we try to fill ourselves with, the true energy of self-care always seems to seep out. Thus, a vital layer of self-care is learning how to honor our emotions and practice authenticity in our relationships.
As someone who didn’t learn a lot of emotional self-care growing up, I’ve searched far and wide to change my emotional patterns. I’m so grateful to have found teachers, traditions, and communities that affirmed the validity of my emotions and gave me the space I needed to express myself.
The following five self-care perspectives and tools have been particularly helpful for me in my self-care process. I offer them to you with the deepest hope that they might also inspire a new layer of your emotional self-care.
All emotions are valid and necessary. Grief and anger are as important as peace and joy. If we deny one end of the “negative” emotional polarity, we also deny ourselves the other “positive” end. If we want to cultivate more joy in our lives, we also need to grieve more. If we want more peace, we need to unbury repressed anger. Allowing ourselves a full emotional spectrum is an immense act of self-care.
Emotions carry a lot of vital energy within them. Denying my real emotions was also blocking my personal growth trajectory. By giving myself total permission to feel whatever emotions I am feeling as fully as possible, I’ve learned to harness the immense energy within them. Accepting my anger spurs me into passionate action. Accepting my sadness unlocks a new level of universal compassion. I’ve seen hundreds of clients begin allowing their authentic emotions and from there, their lives usually change very quickly. If you feel stuck in your life, consider what emotions you may be denying. If this idea is interesting to you, I highly suggest checking out the work of Michael Brown.
We don’t need to act on all of our emotions or even really understand them. When we open to feeling our feelings, we’re opening to new terrain inside of ourselves. This inner landscape is rich, rugged, and fruitful. However, it’s not always logical. We may go through positive times in our life and still be struck by a deep sadness. We may get angry at someone who doesn’t seem to warrant our intense feelings. We may even sense we’re feeling feelings that aren’t quite ours. All of these reactions are just fine. As we become more comfortable with feeling our feelings, we learn that just because we feel an emotion doesn’t mean we have to act on it. (In the recovery world, it’s said: “Feelings aren’t facts.”) We can sit with our feelings for a while, see if there is any important information within the emotion which might warrant action, and move forward from there.
Healthy relationships are ones in which we can express a full spectrum of emotions. I’ve spent my life tiptoeing around emotionally unavailable people, trying my hardest to be happy all the time so that I wouldn't be abandoned by them. It turns out, those dysfunctional people could never really be there for me anyway. A wise person in my life told me once that as a defenseless child, I could be abandoned by other people, emotionally or otherwise. But now, as an adult, I can’t. At this stage of life, I’m the only one who can emotionally abandon myself by sacrificing my needs to make other people happy. By choosing healthy relationships, I take care of myself.
Emotions aren’t necessarily transferable. Growing up, I’d been indirectly taught that if someone around me was upset, I also had to be upset. Similarly, if I was in a bad space, I wanted the people close to me to be having a hard time. It’s taken me a while to understand that this is enmeshment. In a healthy relationship, I can be upset and my friend can be happy. We can both be okay that we’re in different spaces and still support each other as best as we can. I find this idea very simple and many times, very difficult to practice. These learned emotional patterns can run so deep! Still, I try to separate my emotions from others. These efforts feel like important self-care for me.
From this list, I invite you to take what serves you, leave the rest behind, and most importantly, find the emotional self-care that brings you the healing you desire.
On the morning of the tantrum, I finally remembered reading in a Janet Lansbury’s book that as parents, we should not only tolerate our children’s emotions but also encourage them. So, I said steadily to Jonah, “I’m glad you’re feeling this. It’s good for you to cry. Thank you for sharing your feelings with me.”
In that moment, his body relaxed. Still crying a bit, he pulled one of his books off the bookshelf. He leafed through the pages while sitting in my lap and seemed to calm down more. Within another minute he was talking about his favorite subject of airplanes and helicopters.
I rocked us both in the glider and exhaled the tension I had been holding. I stroked Jonah’s hair and wiped the leftover tears off his cheeks. As he flipped the pages and babbled on and generally came back to himself, I finally reached for my coffee. I sat there, loving my son and all of his emotions, and took a big sip.
I’m happy to report, it was still hot.