I was 8 when I watched an episode of Full House where one of the Tanner girls was writing in her diary. I found the idea of having a place to keep your secrets and deepest thoughts liberating. It was lonely not having anyone as a soundboard to talk to. I suppose instinctively I saw that writing was a way to get my thoughts and feelings organized, and I had lots of those. My very first (and only) page written in that little black-coiled bound book was a poem of how I felt at that time. It went something like this:
“A nest with 3 little baby birds, the mother bird flies away, she comes back with a worm, all but one baby bird is full.”
I signed the poem off with Hungry Baby Bird and tucked it under my mattress. As luck would have it, my mom changed my bedding sometime that week and found that book. She called me into her room, and she had my diary with that poem opened, confronting me. She was a very furious mother asking me very tough questions. Questions like “you think I’m a bad mother for always keeping you hungry? do I not provide enough for you?” and because I didn’t know how to answer, as clearly the truth would not set me free, I kept quiet. The quieter I was, the angrier she was, and the angrier she was, the more hurt and pain I felt inside. My own self needs slowly diminished away.
The rounds and rounds of questioning and colliding emotions went on for what seemed like an eternity. She was quick to list off all the things that she has done for me and what I should be grateful for as she burst into tears shouting at me that I was an ungrateful child. I felt conflicted, lonely and sad. I honestly just wanted my mom to hold me more and spend quality time with me. I, internally, was begging for some connection with her, some connection with anyone. I couldn’t understand how my sadness and what I longed for could make her so angry? Shouldn’t she be hugging me? Should I not get some acknowledgement in this?
I ended up owning all faults with her that day to end my misery. I apologized for writing a poem of what she thought to be untrue. I apologized for hurting her and making her cry, even though inside, I was drowning in my own tears. I left her room feeling so empty. I was the parent that day, and it was the last day I ever wrote any emotions down or shared my feelings with anyone. I said all the things I knew I needed to say to satisfy her pain but traded in a bit of my humanity for it.
The truth is I did feel like I was often starved from her love, and to this day, I still do feel that way. What hurts more is that when I try to express this to her, it’s often misunderstood and leads to even more pain. As a mom myself now, I can’t fathom making my child’s feelings about me after learning that they felt lonely and unloved. Pain is pain, and knowing that my child is experiencing pain is good enough for me to want to take that feeling away for them. How can a child understand logic or any other side of the story when they’re emotionally hurt, and that hurt is genuine. Where’s the empathy? Where is the compassion?
Perhaps it was my mother’s egotistical mind that allowed her to react the way that she did. Maybe it’s the cultural aspect of filial piety that has allowed her not to see me as a human in need and that I was hurting too. I’m not sure what the answer is. But I know that the lack of nurture in my childhood stunted my personal growth and set forth a horrible standard of how I carried out my relationships.
It’s crippling not being able to express myself. Being in any relationship and feeling emotions without being honest to them is agonizing. Denying myself of my truth while making others happy was degrading myself as a human being, and that is not living. I was a big fan of the phrase “nothing, I’m fine” – I wasn’t fine. This mindset was unhealthy for my relationships with my husband, myself, my kids, and anyone else around me.
The suppressed feelings never go away, and they will only amplify over time. And when I couldn’t contain these emotions anymore, many hurtful things will be said and reacted on. My body felt like it was constantly on edge. If any triggers triggered what score my body has already kept, I was ready to add those points to that past scoreboard and multiply them, even though I played against a different person in a whole different game. Those around me were receiving my years of pent-up pain that had been piling up within me because I was projecting them through real-time issues that had nothing to do with my past. Not only was my mind and soul hurting, but I was spiralling.
The worst part about it was I had been doing this for so long I was on autopilot, and that was dangerous because I no longer knew what it felt like to be down from these emotional highs. How is that living a full life? How could anyone have a relationship with me if I didn’t even have an honest relationship with myself? How could I be honest with myself if I’ve conditioned myself to ignore my feelings? It is my emotions that make me who I am. I had lost myself. But to be accurate, I never had a chance to get to know myself and my temperaments, and that makes me who I am.
It was a short time after moving in with Mike, my husband, in my twenties, that he soon realized that ‘fine’ doesn’t mean fine. I’m blessed to feel safe enough with him to share my inner thoughts and feelings. It took many years of practice, many, many fights, and a lot of self-exploration to begin to understand why I do the things I do and feel what I feel. Asking myself hard self-discovery questions and answering them honestly and specifically allowed me to be self-aware and gave me room to make behavioural changes. The biggest part of all this was self-acceptance and learning the grace of being vulnerable. Overcoming my own ego and inner self conflicts was the healthiest thing I could do for myself and everyone around me. It allowed me to be more open and honest in a compassionate way. Most importantly, it gave me the strength to be my best self without the feeling of conflicts and limitations.
As I began to heal these issues, I also began to recognize that over the past 30 years, I had been carrying my mother’s selfishness from that day, but I had convinced myself it was a selfless act that I was doing to make her happy. I realize now that I no longer have to carry that burden.
It was not my responsibility to parent her that day, and it’s unreasonable for me to feel guilty for feeling unloved. I chose to give this all back to release myself from the boulder I was carrying that prevented me from being honest to myself and everyone else around me. I chose to be fair to everyone that I love as I was inadvertently giving them my past pain, my mother’s pain, my brother’s pain, the pain from the bullies at school, and any other pain that I had accumulated over the years. I chose to live happier.
The emotional scars that I have from my childhood have served as an excellent motivator for becoming a better parent every day. Recognizing how my parents nurtured me and what I needed as a child has allowed me to understand and be open with my children to support them and lend them insight as they grow appropriately. As parents, we tend to dismiss our children’s emotional state, especially when they’re young. We may think that good parenting, at minimum, only requires bestowing knowledge to our children, but it’s more than that. Good parenting also requires emotional connection, which will create empathy and, in turn, will build a trust-based influence over your children.
Having empathy is the ability to understand and respect what’s driving your children. Once you tackle this, you can change their outlook and decision-making. This also means having the ability to enter their present moment, respecting and understanding their reality, but not needing to agree with it. By doing this, you’re providing an authentic connection with your child, rather than just making your case to ‘win’ them over, and together you can create the best outcome possible for the situation.
Empathy is such a strong and powerful tool that former FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, coined the term ‘tactical empathy’ and has used it in over 150 hostage negotiations. Since then, he has found the Black Swan Group and provides negotiation and tactical empathy training for businesses and individuals to solve communication issues. Voss has pointed out that we are in negotiations every day. Every time we look for a ‘yes’ from someone or start saying “I want” or “I need” we are engaged in negotiations. Although Voss’s work is within the corporate and criminal justice field, he has proven that empathy is a useful communication skill. Therefore, I consider it an asset when negotiating with terrorists that may or may not have teeny tiny fingers and toes and look up to us.
I can’t stress enough how being empathetic with your children is of great importance to their development. In fact, I’m very passionate about it. One of the world-renowned researchers and clinical psychologists, Dr. John Gottman, who has done extensive research on parenting and coaching styles, is also passionate about this. He has found that those who are emotionally coached are better equipped to self-soothe, bounce back from distress, and are more productive throughout their life. These kids can build healthier relationships, have higher academic achievements, and have fewer behavioural issues. Dr. Gottman’s research findings are so immeasurable that he wrote a book about it, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, and I highly recommend you reading it.
I want to clarify that emotional-coaching does not provide the end to family arguments, disciplining and setting limits with children. It is a parenting tool that provides you and your children a deeper connection so that you can assert a stronger influence over them. Use it to motivate and guide your children. The more we’re able to be emotionally available to our kids, the more resilient they will be. In turn, they will be able to navigate their chaotic life and cope with stress better without shutting down.
I ever so often tell my boys, I’m not raising kids, I’m raising adults.
Much love to you my friend.
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