His body was literally going in a circle, around on one side, his head the middle of a wheel spinning out of control. Kicking his legs against the carpet, he was moving his whole frame around and around, in a sort of spirograph-meets-snow-angel fashion. He was groaning and shaking his head, as though rejection could ward off feeling. I scanned the area for any corners; he tended to hurt himself in the angry tantrum stage, leading to a Niagara Falls of tears, which, no doubt, were snow melt from a very different injury.
“I am NOT. UP. SET!” he seethed, unable to claim any emotional language as his own. The mere suggestion of having any of the 6 big ones (anger, sadness, surprise, disgust, happiness, fear) set the wheel on a new resolution. I took a deep breath.
Scenes like this one have not been altogether uncommon. One of my sons wants to crawl out of his skin at the suggestion of having a feeling. One of my sons wants to don sackcloth and ashes, and maybe, I don’t know, stop the world from spinning in respect of his moment. Another son seems somewhere in between. An extroverted middle child, my husband’s enneagram slogan is “I want to have fun” but since marrying a psychology and lament hobbyist, has managed to cry a couple of times. Then there’s me, who grew up rationally rejecting my emotional side because feelings scared me and I was more responsible than human, but who, slowly over the course of years of goodbyes and different losses, found my emotions and their merit but sometimes have trouble finding the water shutoff.
We can be a hot mess.
Emotional intelligence, feeling management, embodiment and mindfulness are not just for the parenting, the therapy room, or the psychobabbling. In an era of heightened public fear, trauma, mental illness, conflict, violence, and narcissism, these are also how we get through each day and how we sow seeds to have a better world tomorrow. Parenting my sons to face and befriend their emotions is not just a personal preference; it honestly seems a matter of life and death. When I see the men who have damaged my community, the church, the country, and when I examine the ones who have helped build things in any of those places that will last, their self-awareness and emotional intelligence are in different universes, plain and simple. The best men, the best people, have been the ones who are not soft but whole, not hyped up but held within. Yes, this is about the child spinning on the carpet, but this is also about reform, peace, integrity and justice.
So each day we try. We try to be honest with our own emotions and how we’ve cut them off or overindulged them, how we feel them in our body, how dreams and sleep play in and how we are doing. I am practicing alongside, hoping, helping, to move the needle on each of these young souls’ emotional familiarity and resources.
Soon I won’t be physically alongside as much as I have been the past 10 years of mothering. As I’m preparing for this, there’s a mental list of things to do, from finishing a baby book (because clearly, this is the time for this) to refilling the hand soap dispensers (this’ll keep them healthy and happy!) to going to bed early (unicorns!). Call me crazy, but in this mental circus I made a sign for the kids about emotions. It won’t be magic but it makes me feel better. I tried to distill our emo-talk to 3 steps and have a knack for exploiting other ideas. (I grew up on a steady diet of Christian slogan t-shirts that probably broke some trademark laws… Have you considered the Lord lately? (Ford) or God’s Gym (Gold’s) or, for those of you who remember that edgy suburban brand No Fear, we had a hay day with that one–the possibilities are truly endless.)
In the heat of the moment, when all the words run out of the parents around 4pm, just when the juvenile behaviors are really hitting their stride, an abbreviation may just come in handy!
Name – it starts with language, and truthfulness. Locate it in the body.
Feel – emotions do merit attention and expression in safe ways, and there are things to learn from the feeling of them.
Limit – this was a hard word to land on for me, because I wanted Leverage but felt it was a bit too lofty. I resist language about limiting emotions in general because I’m a recovering stifler and believe the intellectual and rational faculties are not inherently more infallible or holy than the emotional or physical. That hierarchy has done a lot of damage to our society, disembodiment, and masculinity specifically (the irony of the abbreviation is not lost on me). YET, “limit” and the description makes sense to the kids and when it comes down to it, moving forward with a new emotional history can seem like limiting.
Our days of carpet spins, emotional tug-of-war, struggling for language, and ups and downs are certainly not behind us. I am no expert on emotions but want to promote their value and place. For what it’s worth, this is a tool we’re using in an endeavor we’re in the midst of. I’d love to hear what others are doing to help themselves and their people foster emotional intelligence and make this a safe and robust conversation.
For a more whole, more human and loving tomorrow.