Finding the Courage to Grow Toward Complexity

Two ideas have been swirling around in my brain this week:  courage and self-soothing.  How are they related?  I've been thinking about courage as I watch my clients struggle through life's big dilemmas.  Often there are no immediate or right answers, there's just the courage to sit with and explore difficult and complicated emotions.  Answers usually come, but not until you've done the hard work.  I define courage as walking towards what is hard and painful, when you really want to walk away or avoid.  Maybe that's where self-soothing comes into play.

Last week, my 4 year old didn't want to go to school.  She said her knee hurt.  Historically when her leg hurts, it's because something or someone has upset her, and she wants to stay home where she feels secure and loved.  My husband asked her why she didn't want to go to school. She said it was because her teacher told her to stop screaming and to stop sucking her thumb. The redirection on the screaming I can understand, but I had a very strong reaction to the teacher allegedly telling her to stop sucking her thumb.  

Children can be intense, sensitive people.  One of their life tasks is to learn (with the help of the adults around them) how to manage their feelings.  One way my youngest manages her very big feelings is by sucking her thumb.  This is her form of self-soothing.  Why would anyone want to take that away from her?  It's her coping strategy.  It's her way of self-regulating.  As she gets older, she will develop other age-appropriate strategies, but this works extremely well for her now.  What I think is most important here, is that in difficult, emotionally-intense situations, she has found a way to comfort herself.  When I told her that we would talk to her teacher, and that she can suck her thumb whenever she wants to, she angrily said that she will never suck her thumb at school again. Now that would be the real shame.

So I guess I'm saying is, that in order to manage life's difficulties, we need courage to face what is uncomfortable and ways to soothe ourselves when we feel overwhelmed.  To paraphrase Daniel Siegel, M.D., our goal as adults is to move toward complexity, and to learn how to tolerate and manage the intense and often conflicting emotions that come with it.  Those incapable of looking at those emotions are left with black and white, right and wrong type of thinking as well as limited problem-solving skills.  If you can't see a situation from multiple, well-developed perspectives, your options are limited.  It's a coping strategy that may inhibit your ability to grow and adjust, to life's ever-evolving demands.


Self-Regulation and Increasing Your Emotional Bandwidth

I've been talking to clients about feeling overwhelmed by both their own emotions and the emotions of others close to them (partners, children, friends).  One way of dealing with how overwhelmed we all feel is to check out.  This is evident in the prolific use of screens.  You go to a restaurant and two people sit across from each other texting on their phones.  You hang out with your kids in the evening and you're talking to them while catching up on email or surfing the web.  You're halfway listening to your partner and playing Candy Crush while she's unpacking an emotional experience from the day.  We can acknowledge that this behavior is at least rude, but I think there's a bigger price we pay.  

So what is the price?  It's hard to have intimacy in relationships if you're not present emotionally. In this way, all of our relationships suffer.  We don't feel connected, seen, or understood--fundamental aspects of being in a solid relationship.  I also think your relationship with yourself suffers.  If you're always avoiding, you become fragile and brittle, less resilient in the face of life's inevitable hardships.  How can you trust yourself or believe you'll be OK, that you'll figure out how to negotiate life's complexities, if you're overwhelmed by the day-to-day?  And of course, our kids need to be mirrored.  They need to feel heard, seen, and understood, and they need you to help them process and make sense out of their experiences.  So clearly being emotionally available and present to yourself and others is important.  So how do we do that?

The first step involves making some structural changes.  As a psychologist, I take in and emotionally and intellectually process a lot of experience during the course of the day, both good and bad.  This brings up a lot of personal feelings that I also have to work out.  At 5pm, I leave work and go home to a very vibrant family life.  Needless to say, it's hard to fully engage all that greets me at the door, even if it's positive.  I need transition time.  I use the drive home and the first few minutes after I walk through the door for that.  On the drive home, I review my day and give myself a chance to check in with myself emotionally.  What am I feeling?  What's unfinished from the day?  When can I give myself time to sit with those feelings? Phase two involves walking into my house, giving everyone hugs and kisses, and going to my room to change into "play clothes."  In those moments, I'm making the symbolic shift from Karen the psychologist to Karen, partner, and mother.  This reminds me of when I was working at a university counseling center just out of grad school.  At that time, I could only see 15 clients/week without feeling totally overwhelmed.  It was partly because of all the other adjusting and work I had to do as a new professional, but also because I hadn't exercised my brain in that way and to that extent before.  What structural changes can you make?  Do you need to simplify or take in less, or do you need to build in some transitions?  One of my clients takes off early from work a couple of times per week and goes to yoga before he walks through his door.

So how can we increase our emotional bandwidth?  Step one is changing how you take information in and respecting your limits.  Implied in the first step is step two:  take time out to process your feelings.  Don't avoid.  That's how people stay overwhelmed.  Journal daily, talk to friends, meditate, talk to a therapist.  Do something that allows you to acknowledge what's been going on in your life.  This is how you begin to increase what you can tolerate.  Spending time with feelings builds a sense of competence and self trust, and allows you to be more comfortable with yourself and your internal world.  This, in turn, lets you sit more comfortably with other people's emotions.

Step three in the process involves learning how to soothe yourself when you do feel overwhelmed.  It's important to know when you're feeling overwhelmed.   Notice when you feel like you need to check out?  Is there a pattern?  What's going on during those times? What are you feeling?  Once you've identified what's going on and why, you can begin to think about changes you want to make and ways in which you can soothe yourself.  At first you may have to be very deliberate in monitoring your ability to self-regulate.  Over time you'll learn to regulate your emotions automatically, and increasingly feel more in control.  It's much easier to be available to yourself and others when you feel in control of your own emotional experience.