Back in college, a good friend and I had our hearts broken at about the same time. I remember being embarrassed by how physically sore I felt. It wasn’t cool to have your heart broken. I knew I was supposed to tell myself the break-up was ‘for the best’ and bounce back, but I felt incredibly down emotionally and I had physical symptoms as well like headaches and nausea.
I didn’t really even have any words to fully explain it; I had half an idea that something wasn’t fully right but I was too focused on getting over it and moving on to really know that there was anything more that I should understand about this.
During a conversation with my friend, who was not someone I considered to be ‘emotional,’ he told me he felt like he’d been hit by a bus. He described the tightness he felt in his throat all the time, and the constriction in his ribs, and how he felt these were connected to the emotional loss he had just experienced.
When my friend said he was experiencing physical issues as well (even though his exact experience was different from mine) – as a result of a psychological situation – I found it incredibly validating.
I wasn’t making it up.
My body ached, and I was feeling lost and vulnerable and wounded, and it WAS connected to the break-up. The exact same thing was happening to my friend.
In a way, I hadn’t fully connected how I was feeling physically to the break-up. And the part of me that was aware of it was embarrassed about letting it ‘get to me.’ After all, I consider myself to be a pretty rational person, and this relationship clearly wasn’t going anywhere so it was for the best that we ended it now.
And yet…I still had this ever-present aching that I wouldn’t have even thought to try to understand in any greater depth – I didn’t even know I could understand it in any greater depth.
It was like I didn’t even trust myself to identify my own physical sensations, and that these were trying to tell me something about my experience.
Is it all in your head?
There’s a persistent myth in our society that causes us to disconnect our bodies from our brains; we see them as two separate systems. When our bodies are sick we go to our general practitioner. When our minds feel unwell we go to a psychiatrist. And since both of these doctors usually avoid discussing each other’s issues, we ourselves don’t see the connection between what’s happening in our bodies and our minds.
This issue is, of course, compounded by the stigma that says when physical ailments are connected to psychological factors, they are less valid than other ‘real’ ailments. We don’t even connect physical problems like heart disease and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease to psychological challenges we might have faced decades before, even though the links between the two are well-understood by scientists and doctors. The implication is that if we are suffering physically because of something psychological, it’s our own fault. We aren’t tough enough.
We are supposed to be in control of our emotions.
Of course, being ‘in control’ of our emotions looks a lot like pretending they don’t exist.
This belief encourages us to separate our minds from our bodies, and it ignores what centuries of wisdom and modern science prove: the mind and body are inextricably linked.
Yoga has more than 5,000 years of history. To the yogi, the fact that your mind can influence the functioning of your body is obvious.
Thanks to a growing body of research, the medical profession is gradually realizing that “the causes, development, and outcomes of an illness are determined by the interaction of psychological, social, and cultural factors with biochemistry and physiology.”
When I think about what science has proven about the long-term effects of childhood trauma on our health, I’m amazed that there was ever a time when the connection between our minds and our bodies was brought into question. It is even possible to map the places in the body where we feel different emotions.
Many of us were taught to apply logic to our feelings; to cognitively understand them so we can ‘fix’ them. This can be helpful, but it ignores an entirely different avenue that’s available to us to process our emotions in a way that is sensational, emotional, and intuitive.
Continuing the body/brain divide: applying logic to emotions
In their book The Whole-Brain Child, Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson talks about the problem of ‘dis-integration.’ When the different areas of our brain – like the logical reasoning and emotional areas – aren’t integrated, we aren’t able to think rationally about our problems. As parents, he says, we can learn some simple techniques to help our children’s brains integrate. When our children’s brains are integrated, they will be more able to manage their emotions.
Everything that we experience impacts the ‘wiring’ in our brain structure. Children’s brains develop rapidly, but it doesn’t stop when they reach adulthood. Your brain is still developing as well.
According to Siegel and Bryson, well-being is dependent on our ability to stay in a place of balance between chaos and rigidity. When we’re cut off in traffic, or when our child is pushed out of the way on the playground, it feels chaotic. The rules are being broken. Our world isn’t predictable. As a result, we may swing as far away from the chaos as possible and become very rigid. Suddenly we’re angry about people who forget a turn signal or children who are running too fast.
We need to get back to a place of balance, or flow, where we are flexible, adaptive, and stable.
Brain development, of course, is very complex, so Siegel and Bryson simplify it. They tell us that the left side of the brain is focused on logic and order, while the right side is more emotional and whimsical. The left side is verbal, while the right side is non-verbal and experiential. Children develop first on the right side of the brain. Their language isn’t yet developed, so they are more dependent on feelings and images.
To manage big emotions, we need to help our children integrate the different areas of their brains. We want children to find the balance between emotions and logic; between chaos and rigidity.
One of the main strategies Siegel and Bryson recommend using with young children is called “name it to tame it.” To use this strategy, parents engage their children in telling the story of an event that the child found upsetting. This takes the event from a completely emotional, experience-based memory and applies order to the experience. As the child tells the story, they sort out the order of events and put the experience into words. They draw the experience from being entirely right-brained and chaotic using words and logic. Now they are able to have an integrated perspective and approach the situation more logically.
Telling the story of an event helps us make sense of the world and our place in it.
Should emotions be tamed?
When children are thinking about an event purely in terms of the emotions they experienced, the emotions are overwhelming. When we help them put the event into words, they are able to make sense of the emotions.
I do think that storytelling is an incredibly valuable tool to use with children, but the way the “name it to tame it” strategy is presented presumes the superiority of reason and logic over being with the physical sensations and emotions. The authors are apparently unknowingly buying into the terms of a patriarchal society, in which emotion is inferior to reason and logic. Emotions need to be ‘named and tamed’ so we can get back to communicating on a ‘rational’ basis again.
To explain my thinking, I want to put us on the same page with regard to the word ‘patriarchy,’ since this is commonly conflated with the idea of ‘man-hating.’ When I’m speaking of patriarchy, I’m referring to an underlying force in our society.
This is the force that defines human characteristics as either masculine or feminine, equates male with masculine and female with feminine, and then and prioritizes the masculine over the feminine.
Patriarchy tells us that experiencing emotions is feminine; communicating using logic is masculine.
Looking inward and understanding intuitively are feminine; looking outward and taking an active stance are masculine.
Tenderness, kindness, and nurturing are feminine; confidence, discipline, and being assertive are masculine.
Both boys and girls experience the force of the patriarchy as they grow up. This isn’t an idea that says all men are bad or pits women against men. It’s the idea that our culture isn’t working for us as humans. Feelings are not feminine. Thoughts are not masculine. Feelings are human. Thoughts are human. And one isn’t superior to the other.
While “name it to tame it” has been shown to help people to regulate their emotions, the assumption that the physical experience of the emotion, as well as the emotion itself, have nothing to tell us, is flawed. In fact, the dissociation between our brains and our physical sensations and emotions creates enormous problems for us as we age. The longer we ignore the signals our body is trying to tell us, the harder the body tries to work to convey its message. We feel distressed – and we can’t tell why!
Using mindfulness to understand big feelings
So what can we as parents do to help our children learn to manage their feelings and yet still teach our children that what they feel in their bodies and minds has just as much to tell them about their experience as what they can put into words?
How can we support our children in understanding the knowledge of their bodies and emotions that they intuitively already possess (remember, these skills develop before the logical/verbal ones!)?
How do we help our children with their big feelings without subtly teaching them that logic is superior to feelings and all the patriarchal baggage that goes with that idea?
Rather than trying to tame emotions, I think we teach our children to notice their emotions. We teach them that experiencing their emotions – even when they feel difficult – is a useful practice. The book Dancing With Life by Phillip Moffitt provides some guidance that I find helpful with my daughter – as well as for myself.
When something goes wrong for a child, their feelings can spiral out of control. What starts out as, “I don’t want to brush my teeth,” becomes, “it isn’t fair that I have to brush my teeth, and it isn’t fair that I have to share a room! My sister annoys me. No one else has to share a room. I just want to have my own room so my sister can’t break all my stuff the way she broke my necklace. I loved that necklace! I’m never going to get another necklace as beautiful as that one and my sister broke it!”
While we might feel that the child is overblowing their frustration, we need to accept that these kinds of things are a big deal in a child’s life – just like your struggles are a big deal to you. We can express empathy by saying, “It is really frustrating when we have to do something we don’t want to do. I don’t like it either.”
Then we can use mindfulness-related techniques by asking them where they feel the frustration in their bodies (is it a rock in their stomach? A tightening in their throat?). We aren’t necessarily trying to stop them from feeling frustrated. We want them to put 5% of their focus on naming the emotion, and the other 95% on just being with the experience of frustration in their body.
Then as they practice this over time, they will begin to notice the rock in their stomach or the tightening in their throat, they can think “Oh, I know this. This is frustration. When I’m frustrated I can…[insert tools that we’ve previously discussed with our child, like taking a break, asking an adult for help, or trying a different approach to the issue].” The felt physical sensation and the emotion become important tools our children can use to better understand themselves, not just things that have to be named and tamed on the way to logically reasoning the problem away.
Introducing emotional and body awareness to children
This technique will take time to practice (perhaps your whole lives!). Don’t be surprised or discouraged if they say – or scream – that they don’t know what they’re feeling; after all, up until now we haven’t been using this language and might not even have known that it was important ourselves.
There are some things parents can do to support this new way of approaching big feelings.
Ask the child where in their body they feel ‘good’ feelings. Ask them where they feel excitement, pride, and surprise. Ask about where they feel embarrassment, nervousness, and jealousy.
Some children will struggle to find the words they need to answer your questions. You can have them point to places where their body feels different. Another strategy is to ask yes or no questions. Do you feel it in your feet? Do you feel it in your knees? Do you feel it in your stomach? By following the same logical sequence when you ask these questions you’ll be teaching them how to do a body scan, which is a key tool that parents can use too to better understand the body-mind connection.
Talking to your child about feelings when they are calm is also important (and may initially be more effective than trying to do it in the moment). When your child comes running to you with stiff limbs that are vibrating with anger because another child ripped a page out of their sticker book, you can first empathize and then work to fix the book, and while you’re doing that you can chat about what they experienced when they felt angry and how fast their experience of this emotion shifted.
Books provide a great opportunity for discussing emotions. Not only do they show situations that children can relate to, but in many cases illustrations support the idea that we experience feelings in our bodies. Characters might have red faces or even smoke coming out of their ears when they are angry. They might be slumped over when they are very sad. They stand up straight when they are proud. You don’t need any special books to work on this but if you’d like one, we found Listening to My Body to be particularly useful.
You can also work with your child to learn to describe different sensations. You can offer choices of ways to describe a sensation. Is the feeling big or small? Is it hot or cold? Is it sharp or dull? You can invite your child to draw a picture of what their body feels like.
By allowing and encouraging your child to acknowledge their emotions and explore them, you’re encouraging them to use their whole self, not just their rational mind, to process their emotions, which takes the ideas presented in The Whole-Brained Child to the next level. Siegel and Bryson encourage teaching children to develop the left – logical – side of their brains so they can tame their emotions. I’m also in favor of using our right-brained tools to help us better understand ourselves.
When we teach our children to sit explore their emotions and understand how their bodies are functioning, we’re developing the right side of the brain. If we’re focused on applying logic and pulling emotions from the ‘messy’ right side of the brain into the ‘orderly’ left side of the brain, we’re implying that one side is better than the other. To truly use a whole-brain approach, we need to develop both sides of the brain equally and see the value and validity of both the rational and the emotional.
Many of us are just learning about patriarchy and the fact that we (women) have likely been ignoring the signals that our bodies have been trying to tell us for years – or even decades – by now. By uncovering this information now, and by helping our children to understand the connection between their bodies and their emotions, we are equipping them for a lifetime of understanding themselves in a way that was never even an option for us. Our children won’t have to question their own emotions or wonder why they have these physical sensations that are trying to tell them something but they just don’t know how to figure out what.
In a way I’m almost jealous of my daughter for this – but I’m also incredibly grateful that she will get to live her life more fully than I have been able to do. My hope is that we will support each other in developing this understanding together.