Mindfulness. Mindfulness. Mindfulness.
With a side order of humility, please, except can I have that on a separate plate? Thanks.
This morning, I am triggered. I am triggered by my 15 year old.
When I am triggered, I “kitchen sink.” It’s not a productive or healthy pattern, but it’s mine, and I have been known to treasure it like a precious heirloom. I have “kitchen sinked” in my intimate relationships, in my friendships, and as a parent. It’s how I am. I “go there.”
Oh. Some of you are lost. Sorry. For those of you who are not familiar with “kitchen-sinking,” it’s the pattern by which, when we become upset with someone or someone offends or harms us, we are flooded with–and frequently respond with–the emotions associated with all of the prior times that something similar happened, all the mistakes and violations that that person has made in the past, all the things that we have been proudly thinking we have “let go and moved on” until, voila, they show up unbidden, having grown to three or four times their original size. Its expression often involves words like “never” and”always”, as in “You never put away your clothes,” “You never listen to me,” or “You’re always too busy to sit down and talk.” And then of course, there’s the ubiquitous hyperbole of quantity: “I’ve told you a million times!” You’re frustrated, or angry, and instead of dealing with the one thing that is frustrating you in the moment, you start throwing in (or at least thinking about) “everything but the kitchen sink.” Kitchen-sinking. You get the idea.
I do that. I’m not proud of it. I know it’s destructive. I’m always working on it.
So what is going on in those moments, really? Well, to be perfectly frank, it’s neurobiological. Our anger or frustration triggers a part of our brains and all of the things that fit in that category also get triggered, and start flowing, like a great and mighty river to the sea. If we’re lucky, we are able to see the locks open and the waters begin to rage out, and we can divert them or hold them back before they reach the sea, where the mouth of the river takes the form of our actual mouths, out of which flows all of our rage and experiences of violation or injustice or disappointment or failure.
This, my friends, is what mindfulness offers us. I’m not convinced (yet) that mindfulness can stop the water altogether, that it can eliminate the neurochemical trigger that sets the current in motion. But I am absolutely convinced that mindfulness provides us with an opportunity to notice when the flood gates open, to notice that the waters are headed toward possible ruin, and to remember that this is a triggered reaction which almost definitely does not have a basis in reality, at least right here and now.
So what does this have to do with parenting? You mean, aside from the fact that parenting is the most fertile ground for triggering behaviors known to humanity? Okay. I think we can agree that it has everything to do with parenting. Moving on.
Maybe a better question is: why am I writing this post, right here, right now, on this day?
Well, first of all, as I said above, I took a little trip to Raging Waters this morning myself (which, thankfully, I noticed and diverted…this time) But that’s not all.
Since we’re speaking of triggers, I will confess that, since we’re naming our triggers this morning (“We are???”) I am often triggered by the proliferation of complaints by parents about their children, usually accompanied by pleas for solutions so that the kids will “change” or “listen” or “eat” or stop-doing-whatever-they-are-doing-or-being-however-they-are-being-and-do-and-be-something-else. It’s ironic, I know that. It seems ironic to be triggered by that which you do for a living. You see, this is what I do. I listen to parents and caregivers–I listen (with a fully open heart and immense empathy) to the behaviors and situations that are leaving them exasperated, exhausted, and frustrated, and work collaboratively with them to forge solutions. I’m good at it. And I love it. Confused yet?
It’s really not as ironic as it seems. Because it’s not actually the complaints about the children or the desperate search for solutions that frustrates me. It’s the implication that it is the children that need to change.
Think about it. We’ve all sat in our workshops, talked to one another, attended our meetings, and posted memes, all the while reminding ourselves and others that “You can’t change another person. You can only change yourself” (or some variation thereof). It’s true, you know. So here’s where it gets tricky. It’s math, really (isn’t everything?). If we believe that “you can’t change another person, you can only change yourself” (nodding all around)…and we believe that children are people (nodding all around), it would logically follow that “you can’t change children, you can only change yourself.” Right? I mean, RIGHT?
Yeah. I saw the nodding stop. That last part, we don’t really believe. So, DO we really believe that children are people? DO we really believe that we can only change ourselves? Or do we believe that parenting and our children are a “special circumstance” because, well, it’s our responsibility to teach them and guide them, whereas it’s not our responsibility to teach and guide other adults? Yeah, I can see that. It’s a pretty good argument (I do so appreciate a good argument.)
Here’s the thing. You may not like it. To be perfectly truthful, I often don’t like it myself. But it’s true nonetheless: Parenting is an inside job. It’s almost all us. And solving problems is (sigh) also almost all us. Yeah. Really.
Yes, it is our responsibility to teach our children and guide them, which does make it different than our interactions with adults. No, I’m not denying that there may be some differences between our interactions and relationships with other adults and our interactions and relationships with children. What I am saying is that triggers are triggers, and our neurobiological state and conditioning is our neurobiological state and conditioning, whether we are relating to a spouse, a coworker, an employer, a driver on the highway, a cashier at the grocery store….or our children. That part is us. And we’re the only ones who can recognize it and do anything about it.
This is why complaints about children–especially online–are so triggering for me. With limited exceptions, so many of us are so often behaving as if the children are the problem–as if the problem resides solely within them–and we are so often looking for solutions about how to change them and the behavior.
We’re missing the boat.
So many water metaphors today.
Don’t get me wrong. We all need to complain. We all need to vent. We all need support. We all want ideas, suggestions, sympathy, empathy, to feel the loving arms of the larger community of parents–past and present–around us. All of us need that. It’s perfectly natural, and although it may seem at first that I am condemning it, that’s not what I’m trying to say at all. In fact, that’s exactly the point…just because it is a trigger for me does not mean that other people are doing something wrong. I’m going to say it again. I really want for you to hear this:
The fact that something is a trigger for us does not mean that the behavior is wrong.
It means–in the case of my being triggered by parents complaining about or “badmouthing” their children-I have work to do on it. Not the ones who are complaining about children or are implying that the problems belong solely to the children or are begging people to tell them what to do so that the kids will change or be fixed. If something you say triggers me, that’s not your work to do. It’s mine.
Ah, but there’s the rub. I would argue that the same goes for us and our children (math again.) The fact that something our children do is a trigger for us does not mean that our child’s behavior is the problem. Bingo.
Our children are picky eaters and we’re making two dinners and it’s driving us nuts? Maybe our anxiety is making the situation worse. Maybe our tendency to please and our fear of our children’s big emotions is keeping us in that loop. Maybe our struggles with setting clear boundaries need some attention. Maybe our expectations for them are not realistic. Maybe the degree to which we involve them in meal planning needs to be reconsidered. Maybe the pressures we are putting on them (even though we think we aren’t doing that) are producing resistance. Maybe our projection and fears about this pattern persisting into adulthood or our embarrassment that our children “don’t eat what everyone else’s kids eat” or “won’t be able to go to that wedding with us because they won’t eat anything and everyone will look at us like we’re bad parents” are taking a firm grasp on the handles of those flood gates and threatening to send us off into a torrent of fears about our children surviving in the world and all of the accompanying ways in which we are failures as parents. Maybe. So many maybes.
So back to my morning for a minute. This is what happens in a “kitchen-sinking” triggered moment for me. We were on our way to school. I got asked to help with a task that I think she should be doing herself. And far more importantly, she demonstrated extreme apathy about the task, something I think she should be passionate about. There it is. Two sentences. Two shoulds. The apathy is what really got me–it’s a trigger for me.
I saw the floodgates open. I felt it in my body. My jaw clenched. My muscles tightened. I wanted to “start a fight.” Hey–it’s HARD to hold back a wall of water. And the messages started:
“You have failed as a parent.” “You have raised a child who has adopted none of your values.” “She’s never going to get anywhere in life with an attitude like this.” “I let her watch too much tv and her brain has turned to mush–that’s it, I’m shutting off the cable this afternoon.” “All the other kids are involved in x, y, and z, why isn’t she like them?” “What did I do wrong?” “Maybe she’s depressed. Maybe I don’t have any idea what’s going on in her life. Maybe I’ve turned into one of those parents who doesn’t have a clue” “Why can’t she do anything for herself? Why won’t she do anything for herself?” “Why does this always happen on the drive to school or at the beginning of a work week, so that it just wrecks my whole day?” “I’ve modeled these values her whole life, over and over again, and she’s exactly the opposite.” “She’s spoiled, we spoiled her.” “God, she’s so incredibly selfish and self-absorbed!”
Mindfulness. The goal is to watch the river flow. Not to set sail upon it, not to step into its current, not even to wade, because we all know how the power of water can sweep you off your feet unexpectedly. The goal is to watch the river flow, paying attention without criticizing it (“how can I be thinking such terrible things?”). The goal is to stand close enough to be attentive to the waters, and yet remain at a safe enough distance, as sometimes water hits a rock and surges up to sweep an unsuspecting observer into its path.
The goal is to remember that this is about us, and our reactions, and our anxieties, and our fears. And to wait until the river has poured into the sea or receded to make decisions about what to say or do next.
Because here’s the tricky thing, something I know you have experienced at one time or another: How is it that, when I breathe and relax and get some space for myself, and calm down, none of those things are true anymore? When I come back into myself, the “tapes” sound a whole like more like:
“She is really such an incredibly wonderful kid. I’m so lucky to have her in my life.” “She is so much more aware of gratitude and so much less self-absorbed than so many kids that we know.” “Remember all those teachers who have spoken about her maturity, kindness, and empathy? I see that too.” “I love her playfulness and sense of humor.” “This kid can do anything–she can go anywhere and be whatever she wants.” “So she needs my help and support–who doesn’t need that sometimes? I feel lucky that she still wants me involved in her life!” “No, she’s not like all the other kids–she’s herself, and I’m grateful for that.” “She’s so forgiving.”
Hmm. There I was, twenty minutes before, fully convinced that she was all those terrible things. And now, here I am, remembering her for all the wonderful things that she is. All within the space of a half hour–she went from a horrible kid to a great kid. How could this possibly be about her?
You probably want to know how I did. I did okay. Not as well as I’d like to. Nowhere near as badly as I am capable of. Okay. I stayed calm. I said a bit of what I felt, but not much, and my voice remained calm (or almost calm). I didn’t go on and on (a downfall of mine.) I watched the river flow. I knew it was mine. I couldn’t keep it all contained but I didn’t let it destroy the town. I did okay. Better next time.
“So, you’re essentially saying that we’re to blame, that everything is our fault.”
No. I’m not talking about blame or fault. I’m talking about possibility. About making our lives easier. I’m talking about calmer, more peaceful, more enjoyable lives with our children. I’m talking about the ways in which our brains take our whole lifetimes of experiences and shape our responses, with or without our conscious awareness. I’m talking about neurobiology, about neurochemical responses. I’m talking about the opportunities that exist for us to make our lives with our children more like the lives we imagined. I’m not only not talking about blame or fault, I’m saying that those are irrelevant concepts. We are neurochemical beings. And we can alter those patterns to help to bring about the lives that we want.
The opportunity to stand by the river and watch it flow, knowing that we are not it and it is not us. Waiting for the water to grow calm again so that we can react from our full selves, in which we know our own value and we trust in our children and their own paths.
No one does this perfectly. Sometimes the destructive messages make their way from the inside to the outside, and perhaps inadvertently harm those with whom we are in relationship. We apologize, we forgive ourselves, we move on, we look for a better and higher place to stand next time the flood comes. We recognize or remember that this parenting journey is so much more about us than it is about them. We start over.