Being a Lightning Rod
When I write, “being a lightning rod,” what I mean is being willing to step into the path of rage, anger, and the intensity of however many kilowatts of emotion our loved ones are feeling. It can be terribly painful work; however, it can also be incredibly powerful if one has the bandwidth to do so. I do want to name at the onset of this piece, that there are times where it is absolutely unsafe to do this, so it is critical to check-in with yourself about your capacity and desire to place yourself in the path of someone else’s pain. Some of the most empowering moments I have ever seen in this work are those in which a caregiver has named their boundary, described their limit, or said sorry, knowing that there was no extra room in their cup. I have the utmost respect for individuals who can be clear and loving with their limits. If that is the case, this writing, in this particular moment, may not be for you. My focus today is for those of you who are being confronted with your loved ones’ pain, and who do have the bandwidth and willingness to receive some part of that.
Beginning this summer, I noticed a fairly consistent uptick in the number of cases where a child was directing a titanic amount of anger, aggression, and hurt towards their caregivers. This looked like letters filled with reactivity, manipulation, and hurtful jabs and phone calls that turned into one-sided tirades. In functioning somewhat as a bridge in communication between child and guardian, I regularly found myself struggling to guide this process in a productive direction. My coaching, though oriented towards guiding families towards reflecting, containing, seeing, hearing, etc., started to feel more and more unfair. I was met with questions like: “Why should I let my child treat me this way?” “That letter/call/etc. was so disrespectful and I’m supposed to say thank you for expressing yourself?”
I started to develop a question of my own, “How does one explain the theoretical underpinnings of an approach when the immediate response leaves family members feeling just as raw, vulnerable, hurt, and unheard as their children?” Well, the short answer has been, “I can’t.” Unfortunately, this work is objectively unfair at times, and I do ask caregivers to take on these extra burdens for their children (when they have the capacity for it).
To reference one of the most beloved shows for many of the students I have worked with over the years, and one that I find myself discussing in sessions fairly often, (the Nickelodeon animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender), there is actually a scene in which a character is tasked with redirecting lightning. The wisdom passed from uncle to nephew is simple, yet its guidance fits the message of my writing today, “…you must not let the lightning pass through your heart, or the damage could be deadly.” I suppose, as with cartoons, so too with therapy: the critical part of being a lightning rod is letting the emotionality pass through you without attaching to the words or energy behind it. This is the reason I ask guardians to model this with their children and not the inverse.
It is so easy to be hurt, to internalize the pain, and to let our loved one’s emotional lightning harm us instead. Very few of us can consistently and truly hear our loved ones’ pain, identify the part we contributed to its generation (however large or small), take accountability for that in the face of their anger, and then let it go. However, when we can do this, we provide such an incredible gift: We unblock the path to connection that so many of us seek.
Synthesizing the above I offer the following four reminders to help navigate this process:
1. Identify your willingness and ability to serve as a container for your loved ones’ pain. (Know that you may temporarily be the person they channel their torrent of feelings onto.) It is always ok to name your limits and boundaries and to not be in a place to provide this support.
2. When met with their anger, reactivity, aggression, etc., practice hearing and reflecting what is being said. (It can be a useful reminder to consider that reflecting does not mean agreeing, and that hearing someone does not mean giving them what they want.)
3. If there is any part of their pain that you contributed to (regardless of the circumstances, regardless of how large or small of a contribution it was) consider saying, “I am sorry,” and, “Thank you for expressing your feelings.”
4. Remember that this likely will feel unfair! You are setting aside your feelings and your needs to hold space for someone you love. If doing this feels unsafe, return back to reminder one and name the boundary or limit.
Thanks for reading, and good luck!
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