I really love talking about emotions. Mine. Yours. In general. It comes naturally to me to discuss my difficult feelings. I love a deep conversation more than almost anything else. Joy, fear, trauma, hopes, dreams, pain…I’m in for all of it.
As a general rule, I don’t really separate most feelings into categories like good and bad. To me, feelings are either easy or hard. I think even the hardest feelings can be useful (and therefore “good”) if working through them helps me get to a better place.
I don’t always feel strong enough to face down the tough stuff though. I’ve intentionally avoided talking about plenty of things until I felt enough time had passed that I could do it with some level of strength. When I’m healthy and balanced (which for me means not struggling hard with anxiety), I always find that discussing the hard things with someone I trust leads me to the most growth.
A professional counselor is a great choice for that kind of discussion. Sometimes big feelings are more than just feelings. If you are struggling hard, you could be experiencing depression or anxiety. If that’s the case, please, please reach out to someone who can help get your brain chemistry balanced. You’re worth it, and you don’t deserve to suffer. We need you here.
Teaching my children to recognize, explain, and work with (instead of against) their emotions is really important to me.
A few months ago, I had the chance to have a great conversation with my son after he lied to me. He is usually such an honest person, and I couldn’t believe my ears when he confidently spouted a blatant untruth right to my face.
The lie was small, but that wasn’t the point. My son needs to learn the importance of telling the truth because decent humans should know that.
When he lied to me, I didn’t play any games trying to get him to confess. I told him right away that I knew he wasn’t telling the truth. I let him know that I wasn’t mad at him, but I was disappointed that he would choose to lie. Part of the reason we have a household rule against lying is to keep him safe. We talk a lot about secrets versus surprises, and tricky people. I reiterated there is nothing he can’t tell me the truth about.
He started to cry. My heart broke.
The biggest part of me wanted to just tell him it was okay, forget that I mentioned it, dry his tears, and send him off to play. But I couldn’t. Being dishonest isn’t going to serve him well throughout his life, so I had to let him feel the pain of making the disappointing choice.
In our house, we don’t use isolation as punishment, and nobody cries alone unless they ask for the space. Even though this was a teaching moment, I held him until he was done crying. He told me he felt “bad, sad, and sorry.”
I told him I was happy to hear that because when you do something you aren’t supposed to do, and you feel bad and sad about it, that’s remorse. Remorse feels bad, but it’s actually good because it means you have a good heart.
I explained that the sorry feeling is called regret. Regret means now that you see the outcome of your decision, you wish you had made a different choice. It feels bad to regret, but it helps us remember not to make the same mistake twice.
That night, my son learned a really important truth: Bad feelings are good teachers.
The lesson I started to teach him that night is one I work hard to put into practice in my own life. I do my best to confront my own sadness, pain, and disappointment so it won’t fester and eat me up.
A couple months ago, I lost a friendship. Not just any friendship — my very best friendship.
It’s hard to mourn someone who isn’t gone but is gone from you. I tried to reserve my emotion for my own quiet moments, but I’m with my kids 24/7, and they don’t always respect closed doors. At least once, each of my kids saw me cry.
I try to be honest with them, so I told them that I was sad because I missed my friend. I explained that grownups cry when we feel sad and overwhelmed, just like kids. To reassure them, I let them know that I wouldn’t be sad forever, and it was just a moment that would pass.
My six-year-old was unfazed. He totally gets it. Feelings don’t freak him out at all.
Even my 3-year-old even understood. When he walked in on me during a sad moment, he patted my back, handed me my cell phone and said, “Let’s call Daddy.” My boy knows just what I need already. He’s got this.
It’s been a couple months, and I am at peace again. Losing that friendship was SO DAMN HARD, but it gave me a chance talk to my kids about sadness and loss. My hard feelings taught me, and they allowed me to teach my kids. In the end, I’ve found a way to be thankful for the whole mess.
Just this week, someone I love received an overwhelming diagnosis. As he was trying to tell me how it made him feel, he just lost his words. There was no phrase or sentence in the English language adequate to express the way fear and pain were living simultaneously in his heart with resolve and hope. He sighed and laid his head back. All I said was, “I know. I understand.”
There was nothing else I could say. Minimizing his experience would be useless. He has to feel his way through. There’s no way to speed this emotional process up. Pretending it’s not happening won’t make it any easier. He just has to let the hard feelings roll in like a wave, crest, and eventually break and wash away. His hard feelings will motivate him to make the healthy choices that will save his life.
I want my kids to grow up to be smart and kind and brave — and able to do the difficult emotional work of adulthood with some level of grace.
Part of that is allowing them to feel the weight of poor decisions. If they break a rule, they have to live with it. I try not to save them from the natural consequences of their choices. Another part is helping them see sadness, fear, pain, loss, regret, and uncertainty as inevitable.
Of course, we don’t have to embrace the pain and live there, wallowing in our misery, using it as an excuse to hurt people. I firmly believe that controlling our actions while we work through our emotions is absolutely necessary. Like I tell my children, “It’s okay to feel mad at your family. It’s not okay to scream, hit or disrespect your family in your anger.” If you use your feelings to make excuses for your bad behavior, you aren’t growing. You’re just pitching a fit.
We just need to be prepared for the idea that hard things are going to come our way, and then be ready to breathe through them with the reassurance that better days are coming next.
I want my kids to be good people more than I want to save them from every hard thing. I believe that some of their best lessons will come as a result of their poor choices, and some of the others will come from painful experiences.
As much as it hurts, I think we need to resist the urge to rescue our kids and loved ones from the tough stuff.
We just need to work on making peace with the inevitability of difficult emotions, then hopefully, we will be able learn the lessons they’re trying to teach.