Closing the Gap

Day 6 of testing and the second day of a very faint pink line. Still on track for ovulation on Sunday. Maybe even Saturday since I’m currently rocking my typical pre-ovulation migraine.

A while back I shared about my prenatal anxiety and how I ultimately changed the data I was getting on a daily basis by liking a bunch of baby stuff on Facebook, unlikely a bunch of grumpy stuff. That change of daily data has been so helpful in allowing me to settle into my excitement without getting so distracted by other irrelevant stuff.

Today, an article popped up in my feed about the Danish style of parenting covered by Huffington post. Here’s a link to the article in case you’re interested.

The Happiest Country On Earth Is Proof Positive Parenting Works

I typically take such articles with a grain of salt and read them through the lens of my clinical education. I’ve found, more often than not, that there’s philosophical parenting, and then there’s practical parenting. And I find that most articles lean toward the philosophy and very rarely broach the concept of practicality.

One of the things I really appreciated about this article was the discussion of empathy, and how empathy can be actively taught.

Much of my therapeutic education was based around empathy development. All of us were empathetic people; we wouldn’t have chosen the field otherwise. But natural empathy has its limits, as evidenced by people’s behavior on social media, politics, etc…

There’s a point where natural empathy runs out and purposeful empathy has to step in. The reason for this gap is simple. It’s painful to feel for someone else. To sit with them in their pain. Even the phrase “sit with” can be difficult to understand.

What does it mean to “sit with” an emotion?

Well, that’s a good question, and I’ve found that it’s best understood by first having a few foundational elements to go along with the concept of emotion. Here they are:

  1. Emotions are naturally temporary: We’re time-based creatures, meaning that we move through time and things are constantly changing, including or experiences and thus, our emotions. Every single emotion we feel is temporary by nature. Like a flower, it will seed, grow, bloom to its full potential, fade, and fall away. Do you want more of that flower? Plant more. Do you want less? Plant something else. Do you want a healthy garden? Tend the soil, provide the nutrients…but no flower is immortal, nor is any weed.
  2. Every person is capable of the same set of emotions; it’s the experience that varies from person to person. Human beings have a wide range of emotions to feel but they’re actually quite limited in variety compared to the infinite combination of life experiences that can evoke the. We’ve all been happy. But, ask a group of people about all the times they’ve felt happy and you’ll have a never-ending supply of unique tales.
  3. Empathy is both feeling the same emotion as another person and acknowledging that what caused it for you, is different than what caused it for them. In order to be truly empathetic, we need to acknowledge both the universality of the emotion and the individuality of the experience.

So, now that we’ve got the foundation. Let’s ask again: What does it mean to “sit with” an emotion or set of emotions?

Sitting with something means allowing the flower to run it’s full life cycle without interference. Trying to make a positive emotion immortal or cutting off a negative one too soon doesn’t help anyone and usually makes the experience pretty unpleasant.

Have you every been around someone who’s trying so very hard to make the birthday party perfect that it’s impossible for anyone to relax and actually have  a good time?

Have you ever been sad or angry and had someone try to talk to out of feeling that way before you were ready, only to end up leaving you feeling unheard and even more angry?

These complications happen because we’re trying to control something that’s actually already under control. Barring extremely traumatic situations, our minds and bodies are perfectly capable of emotional regulation. As long as we remember that regulation goes both ways. We don’t stay happy forever, but for that, we don’t stay sad forever either.

Children are still developing this regulatory ability and we, as support people, want to help them learn regulation without taking over regulation completely. Shushing a baby who’s on a crying jag can be helpful for the baby because they really can’t regulate that distress on their own yet, but shushing a baby every time they cry because you don’t ever want them to be sad only creates more stress for you and baby.

As a therapist, I had to learn to shift my language for my clients who were really distressed.

“It’s okay” is actually not often a helpful thing to say to someone who’s clearly not okay.

“It’s going to be okay.” is a small modification that’s actually both soothing (whether they’re ready to agree with you or not) and is 100% accurate.

“Don’t cry.” is not helpful, even when said in a soothing tone. Someone who’s struggling with regulation doesn’t need you to add your expectations to the burden of a heavy emotion.

“I’m sad too” can be helpful in aligning with someone who’s in pain and also shows your trust in them that, this sad moment will pass and that they’re perfectly competent people in their own emotional regulation.

Sitting with an emotion:

  • No action other than 2-part empathy is needed
  • Trust in the natural regulation cycle
  • Hang in there even when it’s painful, the flower may be in full bloom for the moment but it will run it’s course if we don’t interfere.
  • No one gets to decide how long an emotion is allowed but the person feeling it. They’re not on your clock
  • In the middle of the emotional experience is not the time to suggest changes or assign blame unless that person is clearly no longer able to self-regulate (crisis intervention).

It’s hard. Believe me, it’s hard. That’s why therapists get so much training and spend so much money on that training. But part of the reason so much training is necessary is because our culture, more often than not, teaches the exact opposite. It’s not magic, it’s just not terribly common and, like any other uncommon skill, someone needs to learn it.

What do you guys think?



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