How much do you think about thinking?
Most of us are blissfully unaware of what is happening between our ears. When life is humming along we have the privilege of ignoring the biological components; neurons firing, neurotransmitters created; all working their magic together. We roll along oblivious to the different ways our brains control movement, language, memories, feelings and everything else that we do.
As a clinical psychologist, I think about thinking a lot. My professional gig is helping people when something goes awry. Usually, someone who is suffering and feeling poorly arrives asking for guidance to get their emotional ducks in a row. And it’s actually from understanding what happens when things go awry, that we learn how we work to feel better.
For example, there are a number of neural pathways to anxiety. The main one is the amygdala, an almond shaped mass of nuclei deep in the temporal lobe. The amygdala is colloquially known as the “lizard brain” because it is considered a vestige of a biological function related to survival.
Let’s set the stage. You are living in the jungle about to be pounced on by a tiger. Your amygdala senses danger and makes a split second decision which begins a cascade of biological triggers: adrenaline starts pumping, causing increased heart rate, blood pressure, and shallow breathing, among other things. The amygdala creates a sudden and intense unconscious emotional response that makes thinking difficult; when stressed our cognition goes off-line. You are poised to react, to fight, flee, or freeze in order to survive the tiger attack. You are not ready to do intense thinking, no calculus or crossword puzzles when you are about to be eaten by a tiger.
Super helpful if you are indeed being pursued by a predator; less helpful when the predator is an inbox full of emails.
The amygdala is also responsible for recording memories and where they are stored. Storage and retrieval depends on the level of emotion attached to the memories. Happy memories are stored differently than anxiety related memories. So when you are happy you have access to happy memories. Same-same for anxiety or any other emotional state.
But wait, there’s more.
Interestingly, the way we generate fear is the same pathway to creating excitement; same amygdala trigger, same biological cascade. So what’s the difference between panic and excitement? The difference is in our interpretation of the situation, our understanding of the feeling.
Let’s take a second to talk about the Umwelt. It’s a German word which means “environment.” Imagine a ladder. The umwelt is all the information that our brains perceive: noise, smells, sights, environmental factors, who we are with, how we are feeling physically, and more. We’re talking about the entirety of the pool of available data.
We can only perceive a select portion of that information. For example, we can’t hear every sound, nor can we see infrared light. So, we select certain data from the original stream, and we are up one rung. From that we make assumptions about what is important to pay further attention, and we’re up another rung. We draw conclusions, and we’re up another rung, which support our beliefs, and we’re up another rung. Bam! we’ve reached the top of the ladder and from all of our assumptions based on the data we’ve selected: we take action.
This entire process takes mere seconds; mostly away from conscious thought.
The reflexive loop of our beliefs affect what data we select next time. Can you see the endless opportunities for either self-referential cementing of past belief or... change?
Turning back to the anxiety triggers; when we are anxious the pool of available data is even smaller; the unconscious process, even stronger. Unless you can regulate your arousal state to inquire into your thought pattern you’re stuck playing out the same old game you’ve played for years. The same old hurts, the same fears, the same stuck places.
But here’s the thing: Every time you bump up against yourself you have an opportunity to choose.
You can unconsciously reach back into your life-long play book, and go that route. Or, you can try to regulate your arousal and inquire back down that ladder to understand where you started and see if you can change the game.
Attention is a habit. If we change what we pay attention to, we can change the habit. Each time you slow yourself down, take a breath and question your certainty you’re changing that habit. Every time you chose to respond differently (wait before sending the email, stepping away from the argument, listening instead of shutting down) you are reinforcing your new habit.
One simple thought has worked wonders for me.
I remind myself constantly, everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got.
With that mantra I take myself out of the drama. I remember that people have their own reasons for their behavior. This puts me back in the position to make my own decisions about me. If they yell, that’s on them, I don’t have to respond. Rudeness becomes someone else’s issue not mine. I don’t have to feel what others are shoving at me.
I’m not perfect with this yet, nor do I expect to be. But repeating my mantra multiple times a day has changed the meaning that I make from the data that I get.
Your brain is built to make meaning in the world. It’s up to you to decide what to do with it. Where and how are you choosing to make meaning in your world?
I’ve been thinking about the importance of flexibility at lot lately.
Flexibility has profound implications for our lives: the strongest things are usually the most flexible.
Skyscrapers are built to be stable and to move with winds and earthquakes. In a hurricane, the trees left standing are the ones that bend. Even your favorite article of clothing is probably not a stiff, scratchy sweater; it’s the stretchy, comfy, soft thing you never want to take off.
The same holds true for our minds: we benefit from elasticity.
We all know how to do more than one thing at a time: aka multitasking. Contrary to popular belief, we all suck at it and it's terrible for us. (If you’re interested, you can read more about multitasking here.)
Instead of doing multiple things at once, we are better off learning to efficiently switch between tasks. This is what’s known as Cognitive Flexibility (CF).
My favorite metaphor to describe CF is switching channels on a TV. If you’ve got two shows running at once, it’s hard to understand the plot of either. Even if it takes longer, you’re better off watching one and then the other. And, if you can’t switch between channels at will, you’re going to get stuck watching a show you hate. That’s where CF impacts our Emotional Flexibility (EF), which is super important for your well-being.
Take for example you are stuck in traffic, you are impatient and frustrated. What happens when your boss calls you on the phone? What about your kid who just found out his hamster died? You don’t want to respond to all of those stimuli with the same emotional output. You need to be able to use different emotional regulation strategies as the environment changes.
After all, if you want to build a house, you need more than just a hammer. If you come with only one tool, you’ll only be able to do one task, and if you don’t practice, you won’t be able to be efficient at using any of the tools in your toolbox when you need them
If you want to read more about EF you can click here. And here’s another study about connection between emotional flexibility and resilience link.
Interested? Here are some things you can do to build your Emotional Flexibility:
Step one: Pay Attention.
Notice when you get stuck. How are you feeling in that moment? Perhaps tired, stressed, depleted, or overwhelmed.
Remind yourself that you are entitled to feel your feelings. You cannot heal what you cannot feel. Every feeling has a beginning, a middle and an end, if we let ourselves feel them. If you are pushing away or ignoring difficult or confusing feelings, you will get stuck and won't be able to work on increasing flexibility.
Step two: Practice.
EF is closely correlated to our overall mental health. More Flexible= Healthier. Which means if EF is not your strong suit you have to work to become more skilled at it. Spoiler alert, EF is not a strength for many of us, and we all benefit from learning new skills here.Here are some things to try in your practice to build this muscle.
Write. Take the moment of suck, and come up with other options. What do you have control over? What’s outside of your control? What can you do to change your experience of the situation? For example, when you are stuck in the airport on the way home from vacation? Can you remember your best moments on vacation to help you from becoming a tower of rage in the moment?
Meditate. Mindfulness meditation has been proven to enhance people’s ability to switch between tasks. Although there are different types of meditation, mindfulness meditation is the type that works best here. Check out a study that discusses that here.
Nourish. We need enough serotonin. And Dopamine. Make sure you are eating enough complex carbohydrates (vegetables and fruit). Some supplements can help if taken regularly:. For example, magnesium, fish oil, vitamins C and B6. Read more about my take on Nutrition and Mental Health here. (Always check with your doctor before taking any supplements).
Exercise. Regular exercise boosts energy with endorphins and helps end repetitive loops of thinking. Running, Cycling, Hiking, Weights, Yoga, whatever. Just move your body.
Sleep. Specifically, REM sleep appears to increase cognitive flexibility. You can read more about that here.
Talk. That’s where friends and of course therapy can help.
Don’t push away the uncomfortable feelings. Welcome them as an opportunity for learning. Not easy, but even that cognitive reframe is important because we are all going to have difficult feelings. Every. Single. Effing. Day. Growth comes from discomfort. So the question isn’t if you are going to struggle and get stuck again; but what happens when you’re faced with the next uncomfortable feeling? How do you empower yourself to lean in and learn more about yourself?
Have you tried any of the options I mentioned? Are there other things that have helped you when you are stuck? Leave a comment and let me know.
Ask anyone who knows me...I love food.
I love to grow my own food, I love cooking and I love eating. I’ve been known to read cookbooks cover to cover. I know I’m not alone in this obsession. After all, most of us eat multiple times a day. Yet, we have no idea how to eat intuitively. We concentrate on physical markers; primarily on weight, cardiovascular markers, or cancer prevention. Rarely, do we think about how to eat for our mental health.
There is so much confusion about what is “healthy.” I get questions like: Are carbs good or bad? Should I eat meat or not? How many eggs is enough or too much? We are taught there are “good and bad” food choices. And then the information changes. Most of us don't have the time or inclination to study nutritional science. So we go with what we read in the headlines, or what someone has told us works for them.
When I meet someone in my office, I always ask about what they eat, how much they cook, and how often they eat with other or alone. When I ask people about what they eat to feel healthy, most people respond with what they don't eat. At first I was surprised, but I’ve learned to be specific with my inquiry. How much water do you drink each day? What about caffeine and sugar? Do you have cravings? If so, for what and when do those cravings occur? Clients are often surprised at my focus on food and nutrition. After all, people are coming to talk about feelings and relationships, not about food. Or so they think. Although I’m not a nutritionist, I talk about food with clients because our feelings, beliefs, customs and trauma impact our relationship to food. Our culture, families, income and lifestyle all impact our relationship to food. With all that we think we know about food, the reality is that food affects us even more than most people recognize. News Flash: food affects how we feel. link to association between obesity and depression
Most people can understand: you get out what you put in. Put in junk: you get a funk. Yet, most Americans rarely eat home cooked food. Instead we eat processed food on the go or alone in front of a screen. This impacts our physical and mental health. In fact science is regularly reinforcing the importance of the gut-brain connection.link to gut-brain connection Our neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that regulate our bodies and our brains, are made in the gut. Here's a link explaining where neurotransmitters are made. In plain English, the chemicals that impact our mood are created in our gut. Our gut is where all the food goes. You are what you eat, and what you eat impacts how you feel.
Although science regularly gives us new information about the connections between nutrition and health there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to universal well-being. Confusion around what to eat and what diet to follow is legitimate. In my practice I work with people who have trouble keeping their weight up, and people who struggle to lose excess pounds. There are folks who have food allergies, and those who have eating preferences. Additionally, the nutritional needs of a 15 year old boy on a soccer team are going to be different than a 50 year old woman who swims regularly, or someone who is sedentary most of the day. Yet, people seek a uniform solution. Simply put: Not. Gonna. Happen.
Instead I work with clients to find what works for them as an individual. Your solution is in your struggle. You aren’t going to find success by doing what works for your friend, your mother, or following a rad magazine article.
Here are some concepts that may help you find your own way to health.
These are some basic ideas that have helped me, and countless others, feel better about themselves, about their eating and ultimately their feelings and sense of self. What do you think? Can you take any of this and make changes to help yourself feel better?
People come to see me for all sorts of reasons. But they all have something in common. Age, gender, sexual orientation, doesn’t matter; diagnosis, history or economic status don't change this factor. They come to me because things are not working well in their lives. Folks feel stuck in a rut and they can’t seem to get out. Usually by the time they end up in my office they have been mired in their situation for long enough and they are desperate for change. I’m rarely the first stop on this train of woe.
There are lots of ways to think about what ails each person. I start with a detailed history; asking about family of origin and developmental history. We discuss current themes and habits, we talk about hopes and dreams. I want to know all the details about relationships and self-care. I try to get into as much detail as possible. This is where the individual resides.
Once I have all this information, I work with the client to come up with a treatment plan. There are many different psychological theories that therapists use to help guide our thinking; Psychodynamic, Cognitive-Behavioral, Developmental, Interpersonal, and Family Systems to name a few. Each of them has their utility and their pitfalls. The one I want to look at here is called the Default Mode Network, because I think its a very useful tool to understand what's happening in our heads. I’m going to get a tad bit science heavy and nerdy, but just hold on the juice is totally worth the squeeze.
The Default Mode Network (DMN) is an organization of brain regions which interact with each other and are distinct from other brain systems. This is the system we use to operate on a day-to-day basis (how to move through the world) and contains the structure of the self (how we are in the world). This network of neurons is responsible for your memories, feelings, and reactions as well as your understanding of other people’s behaviors and their feelings, and organizes our memories and our thoughts about the past. Although the Default Mode Network was first described by Hans Berger in 1929 and has been supported by others since then, it was only in 2007 when researchers were really able to start to see the brain activity clearly in PET scans that the research on this system really took off. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Default_mode_network
Physically the DMN is located in multiple sections of the brain, such as the older “reptilian” parts as well as the more “advanced” parts of our brains. This includes, but is not limited to the medial prefrontal cortex; the posterior cingulate cortex; the hippocampus; and the amygdala, as well as parts of the inferior parietal lobe. Want a quick refresher on brain anatomy, check it out here. brain diagrams
Why is the DMN important? Well it’s what makes you, you. This thing is the amalgam of all of your experience, thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams and fears. The DMN is what makes us able to look at a face and recognize it as a face; and allows us to complete a task without having to learn it anew each time. The DMN is what reminds you not to eat the sushi that got you sick that one time, or evokes feelings when hearing a certain song. Accordingly, the DMN is modulated by everything that affects us; sleep, food, sex, exercise, acupuncture, meditation, drugs, etc. You name it, and it’s probably got something to do with how you experience the world. link for meditation effect on DMN
Here’s the kicker. When your brain is NOT involved in a task that requires concentration, such as giving a lecture, or focused on a task, such as cooking dinner, the sections of the DMN are more active. This is kinda cray-cray. But what it means is when you are not involved in a task fully, you might get stuck in rumination. You go sliding down the rabbit hole of: why did that person give me a funny look? Was it a funny look or not? Did I do something to deserve that look? In fact the DMN may pull us out of a task and down that same rabbit-hole. Sound familiar?
When that happens, we get pulled into all the times that we may have had a similar experience, and/or pulled into the future of fear when those feelings may come up again. This is precisely the problem with the DMN; while this network of neurons is what allows us to operate on a day to day basis, we also get caught, ensnared and reduced to the misery of rumination or habitual thinking. When you get “stuck” and start churning through our go-to mode of chasing whatever monkey-brain we each have, that is the DMN doing it’s thing.
So, knowing this the question becomes, how do we manage the monster? First (and anyone who has worked with me will tell you this is my default comment), you have to be aware of yourself. You have to be aware that you are in that space, and oops it happened again. The magic is in the struggle. Only then can we work to change the process. You have to be able to name it before you can change it. This is the work of getting to know yourself, and then laying down new neural networks. There are smaller more ways to change and more impactful ways of change, but they all start with the same step, knowing yourself.
Once you’ve committed to learning about yourself you can ask questions such as these:
What are your daily habits of thought? Are you kind to yourself or constantly critical and demeaning?
What are your daily habits of behavior? Do you get enough sleep? Feed yourself nourishing food? Do you exercise? Do you allow yourself pleasure?
What are your relationships like? Do you come away feeling understood or lonely after meeting people in your life?
The questions are a starting point, and the solutions are individualized. That’s where the hard work comes in, stripping away the layers of historical not-knowing to find a place where you can say, this is what works for me and stepping into that. That work can be done with a therapist, with a friend, or on your own with a journal. Solutions can involve food, sleep, exercise, meditation, drugs and connection. But only you can do it. So that’s your charge. Go forth and make change.
I spend a lot of time talking with people about sleep. A significant part of every new client meeting is delving into the nitty-gritty components of their sleep habits; the good, the bad, the ugly. We talk about caffeine intake (caffeine can influence your sleep many hours after you’ve had that precious cup of coffee), exercise and food (if and when we work-out and when and what we eat can influence our ability to fall asleep or sleep soundly), the atmosphere in the bedroom (it should be cold, dark, and quiet), sleep-timing (when do you fall asleep and when do you wake up) and lots of other minute details. Link
People who come to see me are often surprised that I’m so interested in their sleep, but there is a clear connection between sleep and mood. Link Sleep is at least as important as any other aspect of self-care; yet somehow culturally it’s okay to skimp on, or simply ignore our biologic need for sleep. Some people don’t allow themselves adequate hours, or have trouble with waking during the night. For many people, falling asleep is the hardest part, and it’s frustratingly one of those struggles that the more that you concentrate on the task, the more elusive the goal seems.
I also spend a significant amount of time talking about my client’s children’s sleep. All the same questions, plus what works for the parents? Can they set limits? Do they want their child to sleep in their own bed or does some other arrangement work better for the family?
For the past few months, one of my kids has been struggling to fall asleep. We’ve gone through every plan in the proverbial book, tried multiple solutions, with mixed success. But he’s been having a hard time falling asleep which is a very frustrating situation for me. I am by temperament and habit a morning person. When bedtime comes, I am ready to tuck my kids into their beds and start my own evening routine. My patience is thin. Whatever ability I have cultivated to stay calm through the course of the day has evaporated.
This particular night was no different. I read books, sang songs, snuggled, then stayed a little bit longer. I gave one-more-kiss. I said good-night and I left. I went to sit on the couch, thinking that I was home free, when I heard the bedroom door open and small feet pad down the hall.
“Mommy, I can’t sleep.” Rather than letting out the choice words that I wanted to, I took a deep breath, exhaled, and asked “what’s going on?” He had tears in his eyes and said, “I’m scared.” Instead of sending him back to bed, which is what I wanted to do, I invited him to snuggle on the couch and we started talking. He explained that he wasn’t scared of anything in particular, rather “something in (his) head” when he started to fall asleep would “jerk him awake.”
Just as he was starting to relax, his brain would start to puzzle over the difficult situations, which is what our brains do as they are shifting towards sleep. Link But then because he was nervous just as he would fall asleep, he’d wake himself up and the whole process would have to start over again. No wonder it was hard to fall asleep. He didn't feel safe, he couldn't let himself relax. We spoke about his worries and ways to address them moving forward. As we did, I could see his face change, his body relaxed. The whole conversation took about 30 minutes. He felt armed with a new approach and was able to go off to bed, on his own and fell asleep without any more difficulty.
With my son that night, I asked lots of questions. Slowly his story came out. He was having a struggle at school, and a similar struggle at home with his brother; he didn’t know how to handle either situation. He was sad, angry, and overwhelmed, as he voiced those feelings he was able to move through them. As we spoke I tried to stay calm, which further helped him to calm him down. As he was able to calm himself he was able to relax enough to eventually fall asleep.
I don’t mean to suggest with his story that this is the solution to every insomniac struggle. I’m positive that we will have more sleep struggles in my house. That’s inevitable. However, I think what helped my son that night was my being able to sit with him so he could voice his concerns, recognize his emotions and move on. My hope is that if we can learn to sit with and listen to ourselves, maybe we can learn something useful.
His body was wracked with tears as I opened the school’s front door. Immediately I assumed he was in pain, as he had called me from the nurse’s office to tell me he had an earache and wanted to go to the doctor. I felt guilty I hadn’t taken him earlier, but this was the easiest time for an appointment. As I opened the door he fell against my body, hugging me and sobbing, “I don’t want to go to the doctor’s office. You made me miss extra recess.”
Extra recess. He had talked about this for days. As a reward for being exemplary students the teachers gave the second grade an extra hour of recess. His 8 year old self had been so proud, so excited. I had ruined it. He was crying hard. He hadn’t let himself cry in public for months, so I knew he was really upset.
When we get angry profound changes happen in our body and brain. Emotions start in the amygdala. That’s our “lizard brain,” the part that operates without thought. Our brains are so efficient that the amygdala reacts to a perceived threat before the cortex (the part of the brain responsible for judgment and planning) can respond. In essence our brains are wired so that we can respond first and asses second. Which, may be great if you are being chased by a predator; but is not so great if you are dealing with more mundane threats, like missing extra recess.
I tried to reason with him, which infuriated him more. He started yelling at me while his arms were wrapped around my body. I was flooded with emotions. Primarily I was feeling anger at being yelled at, and embarrassment; after all the school administrators were watching this unfold. I wanted to yell back at him. I wanted to pull away. Instead I took a deep breath and hugged him. He sobbed and yelled and hugged me back squeezing a bit too hard. I wanted to pull him off of me. I wanted to disappear. But I knew that wouldn’t actually help the situation, and honestly, I didn’t want the school staff to see me unhinged. So instead I took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry. I know how much you were looking forward to this, and you must be so disappointed.” He continued yelling at me, “You did this! You ruin everything! You’re the worst mommy in the world!”
As we become angry, our brains release neurotransmitters which do a host of things including lock our attention on the thing which is a threat. We are ready to fight, potentially for a sustained period of time. In an adult, this is when (we hope) the prefrontal cortex (planning and judgement) comes online. But the prefrontal cortex doesn’t really fully develop until sometime in the early 20s. So in my 8 year old son we were contending with someone who had very big feelings and very limited coping skills. In this moment our best hope was that my prefrontal cortex was going to step it up.
I took another deep breath and said, “I’m sorry that this happened this way. I wish it was different. I understand you are angry at me. But you have a doctor’s appointment, so let’s see if we can make the best of this.” Now, although he was still yelling and crying, he followed me into the car. As we drove I kept my attention on taking deep breaths and attempted to met his anger with softness. Eventually the sobs were quieter. After a few minutes he said, through his tears, “I’m sorry that I’m yelling at you.” I took another deep breath, quelled my wish to lecture him, thought for a minute and said to him, “I don't like being yelled at, but I really do understand that you are super upset and I wish that this had happened differently. I know that you were really looking forward to extra recess.” His breath was coming in big hiccups now as he was calming down. After a few minutes longer he said, “Can we get ice cream afterwards?” I exhaled, felt my body relax a bit, and agreed that sounded like a good compromise.
In essence, managing your anger means learning ways to strengthen your prefrontal cortex so it can regulate how you react to the feeling generated by the amygdala. The most basic of ways is using relaxation techniques, such as taking mindful breaths; or using cognitive awareness, like my knowledge that things don’t go well if I react with anger, to bring judgement into play.
I am proud of my son, for being able to put words to his hugely intense emotions. That’s a big task for any of us human beings, and kids biology makes managing emotions even harder. And I’m proud of myself for taking those breaths so I could meet his anger with softness. Much of my pride comes from the knowledge that there have been loads of times I’ve met his anger with anger of my own. Without fail, that unravels into a bigger mess. I'm sure that I'll fail again. This time I managed to squeak out a win for us both. So I gave myself a mental high-five for a job well done.
As a couple's therapist I get questions often about "what should we *do*?" This article from the New York Times gives some great ideas. For some reason I can't quite embed the link properly, so until I figure that out please just copy and paste to get to the original article.
This is the fourth in a series of posts about Attachment and Parenting
Discipline is an action that requires us to be involved in an on-going way. Contrary to how we behave ourselves, discipline isn’t one and done. This means if you don’t like the way something went down, you can always address it later.
There are many, many moments when I have all sorts of feeling that I am not proud of or don’t like. There are many times that I respond my kids and I wish that I had a do-over. For example, recently, after asking the kids for the bazillionth time to get ready for bed I realized that I was using a tone that I didn’t like. I wouldn’t like being spoken to that way, and I know that they don’t respond well to that tone. So I stopped and took a breath and said, Hey, ya know I’m sorry I’m speaking to you so sternly. I don’t know why I spoke to you that way just now. I shouldn’t have. My son said, “Its okay. You usually talk to us like that when you are tired and just want us to go to bed.”
Wow. He got it. He understood what I’ve been trying to show him. He was climbing the scaffold that I've been building. He got that feelings are complicated. He got that love and frustration and closeness and exhaustion and amusement and boredom can all exist together in one person in one minute. He got that it’s okay for me to make a mistake and it’s important to take responsibility for your actions.
As an aside , don't mistake that interaction to mean that the kids magically became better behaved and started listening to me. Nope we still struggled that night but it somehow felt different.
This parenting thing is not easy, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. I’m constantly shifting and learning and trying to keep up with the changes. But those moments keep me engaged, the ones that sneak up and show me that my kids are becoming their own people right before my eyes and they are helping me grow up too.
This is the third post in a series about Attachment and Parenting.
My fastidious and strict German grandmother used to say: a child needs to eat a certain amount of dirt to grow up right. I always loved this. As a child it allowed me to get messy and have an excuse. As a mother, it helps me to know that a child does not need a perfect parent. A child needs a parent who is present and available.
Children need to learn about disappointment and how to overcome greed and selfishness. They need parents to teach them about limits and appropriate behaviors. They need to learn about everything from rules of conversation, table manners, what feelings are and how to mange them.
Whenever I get to this point, people ask about discipline. Each parent had their own question about the topic which I can summarize here as: How do I discipline my child the right way? I wish that there was a straightforward answer to this, but I don’t think there is. Instead I try to keep a couple of ideas in mind to help me.
First is to understand the difference between guilt and shame; guilt about something that you have done and shame is about who you are as a person. A guilty person feels badly about taking a cookie from the cookie jar. A shameful person feels they are bad for taking the same cookie.
Little kids have a hard time understanding that their feelings are transient, confusing and not the totality of themselves. They feel things intensely and assume that everyone must feel the same way that they do. If you are angry at them, they cannot fathom that you still love them. Likewise, if they are angry at you, they assume that you must also feel angry towards them.
The way that I tried to explain this idea to my kids was to tell them over and over again: I love you even when I am angry at you, and even when YOU are angry at ME, I still love you. I would tell them in the midst of the angry feeling, and at other times when we were feeling closer. I wasn’t sure if it was registering until once when I was very angry my son patted my shoulder and said: Mommy, just remember I still love you even when you are angry at me.
Turns out that was a great reminder to us both.By saying that, he reminded me that he pays attention to what I say as well as what i do. He reminded me that our connection was the primary thing, and the anger was the fleeting feeling. He reminded me that I have a choice about how I manage my feelings, which is what I'm always busy telling him he can do too.
This is a continuation of last week's post about Attachment and Parenting.
Donald Winnicott was a British Psychoanalyst who coined the phrase “the good enough mother.” For our purposes I’ll use parent in place of mother, but the idea remains the same. This ground breaking idea was that rather than being omnipotent and perfect, the Good Enough Parent keeps trying despite ongoing trials. As one person said, less goddess, more gardner.
I remember the days of having an infant. I had read that mothers are supposed to know the difference between their babies cries. Supposedly one cry meant hunger, and one meant tired, and one meant something else….this left me feeling hopeless and inferior. I could never differentiate between the cries. As hard as I tried I never was able to differentiate between a cry of hunger and a cry of exhaustion or frustration or loneliness. Nope, I felt like dismal failure at that. When I could get past that feeling of failure, I was able to notice other cues that I learned which helped me to understand what my babies needed, so that we were able to create a wordless communication.
Later I discovered that recent infant-parent studies found in the BEST CASE SCENARIO mothers were able to understand their infants needs only 30% of the time on the first go. Let me repeat that 30% of the time the BEST parents were getting it right. That. Blew. My. Mind. 30% is the best you can shoot for? Seriously? I can do that!
This is so important to remember because it means that the bond is not created by instinctively knowing what your child needs. Nope. Importantly, the bond is created in the space between the mistake and the repair. Mistakes and missteps are inevitable. And actually, the attachment bond is strengthened each time the parent realizes that they haven’t fixed what ails and tries again....and again...and again. The bond is created in the behavior that says: I’m here. I hear your pain. I’m not going away. I will try to help you.
As a parent we don't have to know what we are doing all the time. We just have to be able to communicate that we are willing to try to help them figure out a solution.