Experts tell us that if we get caught in a rip when swimming in the ocean, we should not waste energy trying to swim against it. Instead, we should raise an arm to attract attention, try to stay calm and go with the current until we are out of its pull. Once free of the rip, it’s easier to swim back into shore. Let me use this analogy to address what to do when we’re caught up in an emotional rip.
If we are suddenly thrown into turmoil by circumstance, fighting the emotions can be just as counterproductive and exhausting as swimming against a rip.
Here’s what happened when a client of mine lost her temper with her boss. She’d told him where to stick his job and stormed out of the office. Minutes after that incident, she rang me in a panic. Through hysterical sobs, she explained what she’d done and was wondering where she was going to live now that she would be evicted for not being able to pay the rent after being sacked. Sacked? Evicted? She was whipping herself into a frenzy. Much to her annoyance, I simply kept asking her to focus on her breathing and on her physical symptoms. She wanted to fight me. She wanted me to debate the possibility of getting fired and being evicted. But when she gave in to her emotions and stopped trying to think her way out of her situation while the emotions were still too intense, she began to calm down. As soon as she stopped fighting and stopped trying to solve problems that hadn’t arisen, she was able to slow her breathing and she no longer felt panicky. By allowing the emotions to peak and then start to decrease, she began to see things more clearly. She then decided to go home and email an apology to her boss.
When our emotions are high, we can’t think properly. Our thoughts become irrational and we’re in danger of behaving in a way that could have serious consequences. The decisions we make in a highly emotional state may not be the same decisions we’d make in a calmer state. But it’s impossible to simply calm down. That’s why it’s infuriating when we’re told by another person to calm down or not panic.
Instead, it’s good to recognise that we are caught in an emotional rip and go with the current until the intensity eases off. Then we can find our way back to firmer ground – back to reality and back to safety.
A friend once advised me to always be myself, otherwise it would be impossible to maintain the act. He was referring to my very minor role as a psychologist on TV. It occurred to me recently that this advice also applies to my role as a parent.
For the twenty years that I have been a mother, I have wished that I was a better mum. My children are wonderful people but I have never thought that their fabulousness had anything to do with me. I blame myself for their faults of course, but their strengths are despite my mothering.
I have so often wished that I was that laid back mother who never gets phased by anything. When they were little, I envied the mums who couldn’t hear the noise and couldn’t see the mess. When they were at school, I felt guilty for not being that mother who was regularly in the canteen or on the school committees. As a parent to adolescents, I failed to always stand my ground and now that they are young adults, I still can’t completely relax when they go out or have friends over.
I have only now realised that I am who I am. I may not be the most relaxed mum in the world. I am certainly not the mother earth I wanted to be. But any attempt to pretend to be anything else has never lasted. It’s impossible to maintain the act. My children see right through me. They know when I’m worried. They know when I’m angry or upset. And they seem to have turned out all right anyway. I guess it’s because they know they are loved by an imperfect mum.
The dominant thought principle is often discussed with reference to building self-confidence. Put simply, if you are thinking negatively eg Why am I so unlucky in life?, you are more likely to see the misfortunes in your life. Whereas if your dominant thought is Good things often happen to me, you will find it easier to see the positive parts of your day. Similarly, if you focus on your good health it will feel better than focusing on the possibility of getting sick.
The concept also applies to the messages you send out to others. If you constantly tell your partner that they don’t love you, over time they may start to agree with you. If you are often warning your children not to lie to you, they are more likely to be thinking up better and better lies. If you are forever asking your adult child why they never come to see you, then you are unknowingly encouraging them to stay away.
Here are some examples of statements that are commonly made. It’s obvious which messages are more likely to result in something positive.
I know you don’t want to come with me.
I’d love for you to come with me.
Don’t lie to me.
Please tell me the truth.
Don’t ride your bike so fast. You’ll fall off.
You are always late.
Please be home by 7pm tonight.
Don’t be shy.
Look people in the eye and say Hi.
The trick is to try to catch yourself before you send out a negative message and turn it into something positive – for everyone’s benefit.
When an individual is unwell, physically or emotionally, one of their greatest fears is that they will become a burden to their friends and family. The idea that others will suffer because of your struggle is overwhelming for a lot of people. It’s one of the reason people seek help from psychologists, so that they are not over-burdening their loved ones. And most tragically, it’s one of the reasons people take their own lives. They simply cannot cope with the idea of bringing others down.
We need to keep addressing the issue of suicide in our society. Yes, we need better mental health services. Yes, we need to publicise the symptoms of depression and the avenues for treatment and support. And we also need to tell the people closest to us that they are not a burden. Anyone who is grieving (and grief is lifelong) knows that they would always prefer to have their loved one alive and be there to support them than to be relieved of that responsibility. Being a carer is one of the hardest things to do in life, but not being a carer after the death of their loved one can be even harder. We need to support the carers so that they don’t burn out (something that needs a lot more attention), AND we need to understand that the burden of caring is one most of us would choose over grief.
If someone you love is struggling with a serious illness, disability or depression, tell them that they are not a burden and tell them often. And if you are the one who is suffering, know that you are loved and that your supporters want you here – no matter what.
Should competitiveness be taught to young children? The AFL is about to expand their approach of not scoring games or having league tables and best and fairest awards for the under 10s age group and below. Many adults have expressed their outrage at this approach via social media. Their argument is that a good dose of competition never hurt anyone and we should stop wrapping our children in cotton wool. Kids need to learn resilience, they say and winning and losing is part of life.
I agree that children need to learn resilience and helicopter parenting is not helpful. Children are not silly. They know when they have just received the best player award because it was their turn. They think they know who the best player on the field is (although young children often don’t know the value of a good defender or a fabulous team player). But they also know when it’s important to play well and get in a good team for their parents’ sake. And ugly parent syndrome is a large part of the problem.
Playing a team sport is good for children for physical and social reasons. The AFL has obviously looked into how children can get the most out of playing AFL. What will keep them playing? What will draw kids to the sport? Not all children can be superstars on the field. How can we stop them dropping out if they love playing but are not the best? Kids who are never picked in decent teams or who are always on a losing team may give up. And those children who are the stars of their teams in younger age groups don’t necessarily continue playing past puberty, especially if the pressure gets too much.
Surely the key to encouraging children to do anything is to reward genuine effort. Whether we’re talking about academic performance, playing sport or a musical instrument, dancing, drama or debating, celebrating effort has got to be good for them. If they come off the field or stage or receive their school report and they hear us applauding how hard they tried, then they are more likely to keep trying. And isn’t that a good life lesson? Not everyone can be professional sportspeople or musicians. We’re not all CEOs or company owners. But if we work hard and find things we enjoy, then the rewards should flow.
Children who shine in their younger years often do so because of natural talent. They might be naturally sporty, artistic or musical or they may be highly intelligent and so they stand out amongst their peers. But as they go through adolescence and into adulthood, they will discover that natural talent only gets you so far. Others who have worked harder and have enjoyed doing so will start to reap the rewards in terms of success and happiness.
I believe in teaching children how to cope with winning and losing, it’s just that learning the value of effort is even more valuable.
Thanks so much to Josie Thomson for coming onto Studio10You this morning to talk about her journey back from cancer with the help of conventional medicine combined with meditation. Your generosity in making your CD – Simple meditation for busy people available to download for free on your website is fabulous.
Anyone interested in learning this valuable life skill can contact Josie directly at www.josiethomson.com.au
I ran into a young man this morning who has recently lost a friend in tragic circumstances. I had heard what had happened, so when I saw him I told him how very sorry I was. He looked incredibly sad and thanked me for my thoughts, but was quick to point out that he wasn’t the person who’d been most affected. There are people who were much closer to him, he told me. The idea being that he shouldn’t be given much sympathy or empathy because there were more deserving people. While it’s a lovely sentiment to remember that others are suffering just as much or more than us, it’s still important to allow ourselves to grieve.
It’s a very common strategy – to remind ourselves that others are worse off and sometimes it even makes us feel a little better. But it’s also healthy to have some temporary self-pity. It’s perfectly understandable if you are disappointed to have missed out on a promotion or upset that you didn’t succeed at an auction for your dream home. Your newly diagnosed illness may not be terminal, but it’s still okay to be distressed or even devastated before you learn to adjust to living with the symptoms. Couples who experience fertility issues after they have already had one child still struggle.
It’s even okay to complain a little about the small things that can upset or irritate us. Yes, we don’t want to sweat the small stuff, but a little sweating before we put things in perspective is perfectly normal.
It’s equally important not to enforce this way of thinking onto another person. It’s not terribly empathic to tell someone that there are others who are facing tougher times. Far better to validate their feelings by saying that you’re sorry to hear about whatever they’re going through.
We are incredibly resilient creatures. We are adjusting to life’s rocky road all the time. We just shouldn’t feel bad if we take a brief detour down an emotional path before rejoining the road to recovery.
On Christmas Day, we will have four extra people around our table. If they didn’t come to us, they would be alone. What’s so lovely is that I didn’t invite them, my daughter did. She wasn’t comfortable knowing that our extended family would be enjoying time together while others were on their own.
A lot of people find the holidays extremely difficult – those who are grieving, those whose families live overseas or interstate, and those who are struggling with depression. It can also be a hard time for couples dealing with fertility issues, those whose relationships have recently ended, and children whose parents are not coping after a split. Many people would prefer to bunker down and wait for the festive season to end. We obviously need to respect people’s wishes to do what’s best for them.
But there are many others who don’t want to impose on anyone else but would jump at the chance to be included – we just have to ask. And then there are those who don’t want to join in a big celebration, but would certainly love some company over this difficult period. Taking an hour to drop by with some Christmas cheer may be the difference between a person feeling totally isolated and invisible to feeling valued. Such a simple gesture can mean the world to someone else. What a fabulous life lesson to give to our children.
As a general rule, whatever we feel like doing is usually the opposite of what we need to be doing for our physical and mental health. When we are lacking energy for example, we often crave sugar. But is that what we actually need? Probably not. We really need some protein, or some exercise, or some sleep!
One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to give in to that desire to withdraw socially. When we’re not feeling confident or we are feeling down, there is often this strong compulsion to hide away at home and see no one. The trouble is, when we avoid socialising, our confidence and mood drops ever further. If we force ourselves to accept that invitation to meet a friend for coffee or have dinner with a mate, we usually come away feeling a bit better.
Exercise is often avoided due to a lack of energy or motivation. But what’s the best way to increase energy and motivation? Exercise.
In fact avoidance nearly always makes things worse. Avoiding ringing that person you think you’ve upset, staying clear of bridges or tunnels for fear of collapse, or ignoring that lump you noticed months ago are all going to potentially cause more problems. Play the opposite game – ring your friend, tackle the smallest bridge you can find, make an appointment with the doctor.
Most of us are great at giving others advice. Notice how many times you’ve advised a friend or family member to do the opposite of what they’re wanting to do. Now it’s time to give yourself that same great advice.
We are the parents, we should know best – or do we? When it comes to adolescent romance, it can be hard for parents not to interfere. We are understandably protective of our children’s feelings – no matter how old they are. We want to make sure that they end up with someone fabulous. We want to stop them from getting hurt and making bad decisions. But not only is it unrealistic to think that we can shield them from any pain, we may actually be causing some of that pain if we meddle in their relationships.
Adolescence is a time of insecurity and self-doubt. Rejection is keenly felt and acceptance and popularity are so important. Our job is to be their greatest fans and their strongest supporters. We may not be the best relationship counsellors. That’s because we take our years of wisdom and experience and try to put their issues through our baggage-laden filters. If we have been cheated on, we risk teaching them that boys or girls can’t be trusted. If we have been crushed by rejection or abandonment, we risk teaching them to take control of things by dumping someone before they get dumped themselves. If we have been blissfully happy in our relationships, we risk teaching them that any conflict should be a deal-breaker.
If your child is happy in a relationship, be happy for them. If your child is having relationship issues, be a non-judgmental sounding board and allow your teenager to come to his or her own conclusions. If you don’t like your adolescent’s boyfriend or girlfriend, try to see more of them. By having them spend time with your family, they might start to grow on you as you get to know them, or your child might come to see what you see.
It’s just as important that we don’t attach too strongly to our teens’ partners because that may make it difficult for everyone if the relationship breaks down. Our children shouldn’t stay in a relationship to keep us happy. And herein lies the tricky path we must negotiate – staying neutral, yet supportive. Unless of course you see anything worrying. If your child is being treated really badly or you are worried about the negative impact the relationship is having on them (they are more withdrawn, losing confidence, or becoming insecure), then gently express your concerns and encourage them to talk about how they’re coping in this relationship. Tell them how much they are loved and how they deserve to be treated. Then sit back and hope that they make a good decision.