It always jars me when a child is hurt — on the playground, in a soccer game, or just horsing around — and when he tearfully staggers towards his parents, he is immediately directed to “brush it off.” His natural reaction to pain and injury is perceived as babyish, weak and unappealing, or at least inconvenient for others to see or hear. Rather, he is supposed to be tough, suck it up and ignore his feelings. The child takes a deep breath and usually obeys. But I wonder, is it possible to brush off feelings?
If we could really brush away all our feelings, just imagine how neat and tidy life would be!
Imagine this… It begins with a newborn. Instead of receiving mechanical swings and pacifiers as shower gifts, expectant parents are given a special brush, the “Easy-Off Pain Remover” with its patented “anti-emotive, no tears formula.” When a baby makes even a peep, she is gently brushed over her torso, from chest to belly, and voila! The feelings are brushed away like specks of lint, and then, while wearing a ‘gasp mask,’ parents carefully sweep the baby’s feelings up and pour them out into a special re-psycho-able, insanitary container. (Well worth the trouble to never have to hear a baby cry!)
And, as children grow, they are taught to self-brush uncomfortable feelings. They learn to “get it off their chest”, literally, from the age of 2. Since everyone learns how to groom their feelings, the human experience loses its nasty, rough edges. Everyone is calm, contented, and emotionally self-sufficient. Life no longer zigs and zags wildly like Space Mountain at Disneyland. It is a smooth, elevated ride on the Monorail.
In reality, of course, life without emotion would be dull as lint. The disownment of discomfort, pain or sorrow would mean the death of joy and ecstasy. There is no yang without yin. Devoid of passion, we would no longer be inspired to create art, music, or literature.
Our pain, like our joy, is connected to who we are. Ultimately, it is our soul. When we whisper to a baby, “Shush, don’t cry,” when we tell a hurt toddler, “You’re okay,” or ask him to “brush it off,” our intent is to calm the child, but what message are we sending? The child does not feel okay. The parent’s well-meaning words convey to him that his feelings must be wrong, or at least unimportant.
We all want to raise healthy children with strong coping skills, but a child who is not allowed the opportunity to express his feelings fully, to ride out waves of emotion to the end, does not acquire the basic knowledge that all feelings pass. No matter how horrendous we feel in the trench of the wave, the pain gradually subsides, and we can move on. So, when we are allowed those experiences as children, we gain self-confidence. We still feel the pain of the next wave, but we know it will crest and that we will survive. We can cope. Pain strengthens us.
So, since feelings cannot literally be swept away, we must work to be patient, calm ourselves, and acknowledge a child’s feelings, rather than rushing in to arrest them. Then we can imagine another future, one where we are free to be our most joyful, sorrowful, beautiful, ugly selves, and embrace the highs and lows of a messy, imperfect, but authentic life.
I share more about nurturing emotional health in