Hurt. Learn. Grow. Feel Better. Repeat.
I think we, as a society, have somehow arrived at the doomed belief that parents are supposed to make their children happy. And if that’s the emotional goal of parenting, then that’s it. Done deal. Failure. Because life is hard. Painful. And every path out there will hold heartbreak and sadness. It is impossible to protect a human being from it. Ultimately, part of what makes us human is trying to make sense of our experience. Springing from this search comes art, literature, music, and a multitude of ways to connect to others. It’s the beauty and challenge of being human.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in an Evoke Intensives Finding You along with six strangers. During the four-and-a-half days, the seven of us marveled at how much overlap there was and how deeply we could relate to each other’s wounds and pain. In one conversation I had with another participant, we wondered if the seven of us were somehow special (unlikely), or if you gather any seven human beings together and excavate the wounds of their lives that the intersection of pain is universal. I tend to lean towards the second one, (and not only because I have the inside scoop on how it was a happenstance selection process).
And so, the pretense that parents are responsible for raising happy children or that children can avoid trauma and hard emotions in their lives is wildly unfair.
I think we all know this in the abstract. But I think that in the day-to-day parents still feel this pressure to help their kids feel only “good” emotions, and it seems that many people secretly feel like they are living “wrong” because they aren’t happy all the time.
I regularly hear parents who have sent their child to our program say things like, “I just want my child to be happy again,” or ask, “Are you feeling better now?” or say, “Is it working?” There’s an urgency that comes through about needing hard emotions to improve and stop. The pull to shield children from the discomfort of certain emotions comes through loud and clear.
But what if it’s okay for their child to be feeling those ways? What if it’s practice? After all, they are going to feel upset, sad, angry, hopeless, in their life many, many times. We all do. But if the emotional goal of parenting/life isn’t for kids/us to feel happy all the time, then what is it?
I’d argue that the work is really about discovering how to experience the full depth and range of our emotions in safe and sustainable ways. How do we cope with our emotional experience in ways that don’t derail our lives? How do we build adequate skill sets and the resiliency to be able to face our emotions and the reality of our lives without the numbing agents of our phone or substances, the distractions of work and social media, the selfless attuning to others needs versus our own, and the multitude of other methods we all develop that avoid or mute the inner human experience?
This is the work we pursue in the field. The work of learning to safely feel and move through our emotions. We encourage students to sit with their hard emotions and feel them. To learn about what the emotions are telling them, where they come from, and what are the different ways to interact with them. We normalize that it’s actually okay not to be happy. It’s okay to be sad, to be in distress, to have urges to self-harm, to be homesick, to be overwhelmed. In this space where the distracting buzz of the front country fades and the volume is turned up on emotions so they are clearer than ever, we help students (and parents) grapple and live with the question of, “How do I experience emotions instead of shield myself from them?”
When students learn how they can move through emotions--knowing what helps them when they are angry, having strategies for coping with suicidal thoughts, being able to voice to others beliefs about themselves that lead to feeling hopeless, asking for support when they feel overwhelmed, self-soothing in the face of anxiety and self-harm urges—it is striking how powerful and confident they are. The resiliency that shines from them when they realize that they can handle the challenges in their life is a privilege to witness. It also sets them up for being human in a way that shielding and protecting them never could.