Thursday, August 15, 2013

On Getting More Emotionally Competent

Today I was lying on a table getting some body-work done. I try to carve out time in my schedule to have regular osteopathic care and massage therapy. This keeps me from getting horrible headaches and makes me an all-around more-fun-to-be-with person. So I’m lying there—in my calm self-care reverie—and despite my best efforts to let go and relax, my train of though goes something like this:

“Ah summer will be winding down soon, but that’s okay. Maybe I can get another one of those cute kid-sized Adirondack chairs on sale like the one my parent’s got for Josh the other day. Did I ever take that chair out of the car? Huh, I don’t think I did. Did I unload the car at all last night? Hmm…what was in the back of the car? Did I bring in the things from the farmer’s market? I don’t think I did….

…..Oh crap, the meat from the farmer’s market has been sitting in my car for the past eighteen hours. Shit.”

Any mom can relate to this. We forget stuff. All. The. Time.

But what happened next represented new learning for me. I was able to observe my thoughts and physiological/emotional responses. From this “witness” perspective, my thoughts and feelings went something like this:

“I can’t believe I forgot the meat in the car! What an idiot! Wait…what is that sensation? Is that a rush of shame flooding through my body? Why, yes it is. That’s ridiculous. It’s just wasted meat; at least it wasn’t a child I forgot about, or something else really important. Is that fear closing in on my throat? Huh? Why am I feeling so scared and ashamed right now? Sure, I just flushed thirty bucks down the drain, but it’s just money. It is not the end of the world.”

Because I am in the middle of reading Dr. Gabor Mate’s book When the Body Say No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, I had recently read this:

“Emotional competence is:
  • the capacity to feel our emotions, so that we are aware when we are experiencing stress;
  • the ability to express our emotions effectively and thereby to assert our needs and to maintain the integrity of our emotional boundaries; 
  • the facility to distinguish between psychological reactions that are pertinent to the present situation and those that represent residue from the past. What we want and demand from the world needs to conform to our present needs, not to the unconscious, unsatisfied needs from childhood. If distinctions between past and present blur, we will perceive loss or threat where none exists;
  • the awareness of those genuine needs that do require satisfaction, rather than their repression for the sake of gaining the acceptance or approval of others.”
This book is rocking not only my personal world, but my view of parenting and the work I do with families too. The basic premise is that the above criteria are essential for human beings to thrive. Sadly, I don’t know too many people who meet them. The entire book is about how NOT having emotional competence creates undue stress in the body and screws up our immune systems massively, leading to many different states of disease and dysfunction in the body.

Emotional competence, or lack thereof, is taught and conditioned in us through our early experiences. How the adults in charge of our very survival felt about our expression of feelings impacted whether or not we accepted these (all) parts of ourselves, or abandoned and disowned them. If it was not okay to cry or fuss, according to mom and dad, guess what? We absolutely learned not to. If we were punished for things that were truly out of our underdeveloped mind’s ability—forgetting about things, making “stupid” mistakes, etc., then our brains built fear response wiring as a result of these experiences—and it never went away. My internal berating of myself is totally unhelpful, and yet I find myself doing it—a person who feels trapped in a cage that is no longer locked.

The big “aha,” and believe me, it was a painful “aha,” was in asking whether or not the feelings I was experiencing were from the present, or the past. I not only noticed how I felt, but I noticed that it was an old reaction to being forgetful and making a mistake.

I am a 41-year-old grown woman who spent thirty dollars of my own hard-earned money on six pounds of meat at the farmer’s market. When I accidentally forgot to bring it in from the car, allowing it to become hot and ruined in the summer heat, my body flooded with a cortisol, stress, adrenaline response. Maybe it was because I was lying down and feeling relaxed that I could see this so clearly as old, as outdated, as absurd.

I felt like I was going to get “in trouble,” like I had done something hugely wrong, that I was a complete failure for not remembering the meat. I also felt a strong pull to hide the event—just throw the meat away and pretend it never happened—to avoid the pain of facing the shame I for some reason felt because of my actions. Instead, I just felt it.

Thoughts streamed through my head:

“I can’t believe it was such expensive meat I had to forget about it.”
“What a WASTE! Ack—all that meat—thrown away!”
“My husband will be angry! Did I really just think that? No he won’t! He has made plenty of expensive mistakes, this is no big deal.”
“This is old childhood conditioning. I was not permitted to make child-sized mistakes. The expectations were off—the emotional price too high.”
“I must have forgotten because I’d already brought it in once at my parent’s house to put in the freezer during dinner and then Rich wasn't home when I got home so I was thrown off, and it was bedtime, and I was distracted, and I had put it in the way back where it was easier to forget….”

This last part, where I desperately try to figure out why I messed up, the reasoning and rationalizing…it’s torture. It doesn't matter one bit why I forgot. I just forgot—something that every human on the planet does from time to time.

Lying on that massage table, several tears streamed down my face. I felt such compassion for myself, for my parents, for their parents. Generations and generations of people have been raised with shame, pain, and fear as huge parts of their experience. There is no reason for this. It is detrimental to our relationship with ourselves, and according to Dr. Mate, it is damaging to not only our mental health, but our immune systems as well.

There is no behavior for which a child deserves to be humiliated, punished, or shamed. Ever. There are better ways for guiding children, for understanding their behavior, for setting boundaries, for listening to feelings, for modeling what’s right with empathy and love.

Then I grieved—which is really the appropriate response to a loss.

It was a small loss. A thirty dollar loss.

A thirty dollar lesson.

Frankly, I would have paid much more for it. 

2 comments:

  1. Wow, S, this is big!!

    I recently started noticing my self-talk when I am exercising - boy, thats some nasty sf! The thing about self-talk that I find so interesting (and alarming) is that usually we say things to ourselves that we would never allow others to say to us.

    Shame Is one powerful beast!

    ReplyDelete