When I was in kindergarten — just four years old — one of the little boys I was friends with invited me to his birthday party and I super duper did not want to go.
I remember telling my mom that I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t tell her why, because I guess I was embarrassed and didn’t feel like I had to.
The reason why I didn’t want to go was because I suspected that I was this boy’s only friend who was a girl (made from observations at school), so I didn’t want to go to a party full of boys where I’d be the only girl there.
I made a big fuss about not wanting to go, and my mom had to call the boy’s mom to tell her I wasn’t coming.
She had to make up a lie as an excuse for my behaviour, telling the other mom I wasn’t feeling well.
After the birthday party, the boy’s mom stopped by our house to drop off a piece of birthday cake and one of those awesome goodie bags kids used to be obsessed with at their birthday parties in the 90s (and maybe they still are these days, I have no idea).
The boy’s mom told me she hoped I was feeling better.
After she left, my mom punished me because obviously from her perspective, she felt guilty that she had to lie to the other mom for my behaviour.
I didn’t understand what was happening, but my mom used her “very disappointed” voice that had a very dark tone to it as I remember, and I was scolded and denied the stuff that the other mom dropped off for not doing what was expected of me.
Naturally, I became wildly upset.
It was one of the many lessons I’d get in coming to understand that I could risk the security of my relationship with my mom if I expressed myself in a way that she didn’t approve.
Pretty normal childhood story, right?
This example of child discipline is the image of good parenting right now, as it has been for a long time.
Kids don’t know anything, so it’s the parents’ perspectives that matter most, right?
It’s their job to mould their kids into the good little boys or girls they want them to be, which sets the foundation for them to grow up to be good and confident adults, right?
But if my parents were such great parents at moulding me into what I was supposed to be, why have I struggled with such neurotic behaviours throughout my life?
Why did I always have such low self-esteem?
Why have I always resorted to isolating myself from everyone I know when something shitty happens?
Why have I always worried so damn much about what other people think of me?
Questions like these got me curious about going past the assumption that “I am the way that I am because I was born this way and blah, blah, blah” to examine the psychological development of some of these behaviours, which are actually quite common.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand.
Let’s start at the very beginning!
As infants, we’re just blobs of awareness.
We can’t comprehend separateness between our mothers / the world around us and ourselves because we don’t yet have the mental capabilities to do so.
Throughout childhood, our brains develop fast and we begin to recognize our sense separateness from our parents and the rest of the world, which spurs autonomy.
As we grow into our “terrible twos” and beyond, we naturally start wanting to make our own decisions for ourselves, but since our minds are still so immature, we largely rely on obtaining love and acceptance from others (a.k.a. our parents) for survival.
A child who’s scolded by a parent or caregiver for doing something that the parent didn’t want the child to do may experience it as rejection from whom they depend on the most, because children can’t yet think well enough yet and instead have to rely on “feeling” everything.
This is why children are so emotional all the time.
Rejection, to a child, can feel like a life threatening experience.
Of course, parents and caregivers aren’t completely aware of the ways in which children experience the world around them because let’s face it — they’re stuck in their own fully developed adult heads preoccupied with their own desires to fulfill the role of good, nurturing, all-knowing, authoritative, protective mom or dad.
When it comes to perspective, everyone is the center of their own universe, and duh, obviously mom and dad know best.
Even a good, compassionate parent who sees that their child is scared or upset or whatever about something they need to do (go to school, dress properly, stop playing with their food, etc.) RARELY knows how to step fully into the perspective of the child — which is mostly experienced as emotion by the way — to explore the problem in a way that puts the child’s emotional wellbeing first.
Parental compassion may often occur initially, but a mismatch in perspective screws everything up after that.
Like I said, parents have their own agendas.
“I want to be a good parent and I know what’s best to raise a good child” gets in the way of “I want to feel what my child is feeling to understand him/her better so that I can help him/her experience reality in a way that best serves him/her.”
And so, traditionally good child-rearing has always been all about control.
It’s entirely centered around teaching “be this way,” and “don’t do that.”
As children, from the earliest ages in which we start to develop our sense of autonomy, we quickly learn that we can’t always express ourselves for what we’re really feeling if we are to maintain love and acceptance from the people we depend on for our own survival.
Most of the beliefs we have about ourselves, about other people, and about the world around us are programmed into our subconscious minds between the ages of birth to 7 years old.
So when we’re told by our parents to not do something, or to do something else instead, we feel defeated as autonomous beings because we simply can’t not have our parents if we want to keep on living.
As deeply ingrained into our subconscious minds as those beliefs are, they shape us in adolescence and adulthood, blending in our fears of judgment and rejection during social experiences with other people as well.
On an emotional inner child level, we learn at a very early age that “it’s not okay to just be me,” which means we also learn to suppress and reject parts of ourselves in favour of survival.
I like to call it the divided self.
It’s a split we create in ourselves between the self image we want to embody and all the other stuff that everybody unknowingly taught us to reject about ourselves.
This is what creates an attitude of, “I like myself when I am this way but I can’t stand myself when I’m this other way.”
We only embrace the part of ourselves we’ve been taught to embrace, leaving the other part emotionally suppressed.
Rejecting a part of ourselves means we can’t develop a completed sense of self-worth, which can give rise to children who have low self-esteem and adults who beat themselves up for not living up to the personal expectations they’ve been taught to value so damn much.
It creates neurotic behaviours that cause adults to seek major approval from other people (like by jumping from relationship to relationship) or isolating themselves in solitude to hide that part of themselves.
It creates a gap between the two parts of ourselves.
It creates a self-perception based on a feeling of “I am not enough.”
Parents, teachers, and other authoritative figures have no idea that they’re invalidating the emotions of children in ways that can cause such messed up consequences in later years.
But they do it, they do it well, and it’s totally normal.
Not to play down the severity of PTSD, but we are essentially all suffering from some form of it in ways we would never think would occur, because we’re led to think that trauma can only occur when it’s a huge and scary event — like being raped or having to deal with the sudden death or a parent, for example.
The truth is, circumstantial significance doesn’t precede emotional significance, and everyone experiences trauma differently.
This is especially true for children versus adults.
A child whose emotions are being invalidated by the people he or she depends on is traumatic, regardless of the circumstances.
Emotional invalidation teaches emotional suppression so the emotional cycle is never completed.
An incomplete emotionally traumatic experience doesn’t just “go away.”
It stays suppressed in our bodies, in the rejected part of ourselves, sometimes manifesting years later in mental or physical forms.
Those suppressed emotions may even be triggered by our external environments without any context, which is weird, confusing, and enough to make us question our sanity.
While they may often be quite subtle enough to pass off rather quickly, I went through a big one just last year.
Last August, my family threw a birthday party for my dad’s 60th and I showed up the afternoon before the day of the party to help plan and whatever.
In the evening, around 5 or 6 p.m., an incredibly powerful wave of emotions just hit me.
I was alone, just hanging out in my childhood bedroom, when I burst into tears randomly without any change in my environment to cause me to do so.
I cried all night by myself for no reason at all, and I guess both my parents just thought I was working or sleeping, so they never checked in on me before going to bed themselves.
I slept, and the next morning, I expected everything to be back to normal.
I burst into tears again as soon as I went into the bathroom after waking up, and I had to go back into my room for several hours because I was so confused about what the hell was happening to me and of course I didn’t want my parents to see me like that.
The thing about parents, or my parents at least (well, my mom), is that they always want to fix their kids’ emotions.
Good friends are known to do this too.
In fact, we all do this, because we have so much trouble putting ourselves into other people’s perspectives that we just can’t feel what they’re feeling and act appropriately.
The people who care about us the most can still invalidate our negative emotions in a “nice” way by trying to make us feel better immediately since they think that’s what will serve everyone best.
It’s the same as saying, “I don’t want to fully feel what you’re feeling, so if you feel better about it as soon as possible, I’ll feel better too.”
Good parents only want the best for their children, even as adults, so when their children are feeling bad, they’re still not really allowed to just fully feel bad and complete the emotional cycle — because parents feel it’s their overwhelmingly loving parental responsibly to help fix their children’s emotional state in order to help them feel good again.
Anyways, I hid in my stupid childhood bedroom and eventually got found out because I was obviously not coming out of my room.
It sucked, because not only was I a child again with worried parents wanting to fix me, but I was also bombarded with questions about what happened, which I couldn’t even explain, because literally nothing happened.
The best explanation I could come up with was that I was at the end of my menstrual cycle and tried to chalk it up to a possible case of PMDD (a severe form of PMS) that I had never experienced before, but knew about, and maybe was experiencing just this time because of unusually low estrogen and progesterone and not enough serotonin and all that hormonal jazz.
I did well to even convince myself that was the cause.
I stayed in my room from morning until the next day and missed the party because I couldn’t stop crying uncontrollably.
My mind was blank almost the whole time as emotion consumed me.
I mostly stared around the room at the walls and the ceilings and tried to browse the internet a bit between my tearful episodes, but had no interest in doing so.
I experienced cycles of emotional bursts that came and went, which I could only explain as waves of what felt like insanity to me.
Imagine crying uncontrollably with no thoughts going through your head at all.
I’ve never been clinically depressed, but that meltdown gave me a direct experience of what clinical depression might feel like.
A day and a half later of uncontrollable crying while doing nothing (also having no appetite whatsoever), I was back to normal.
The morning after the party, my parents still asked me what happened and I still had no real explanation — as if I had to validate my emotions with a big external problem like the loss of a big client or the death of a friend or something.
It wasn’t until a year later, this past month or so, that I looked at what really triggered that meltdown that spent me spiralling out of control to try to better understand what happened.
As I remember, the tears burst out of me immediately after hearing something my dad said in a very dark, disappointed tone while going down the stairs.
What he said wasn’t directed at me, and I don’t even remember WHAT he actually said, but my emotional body must have been triggered by the tone of his voice in such a way that brought up previously experienced and suppressed feelings from a childhood trauma without my mind begin able to recall the memory it was from.
My dad didn’t yell at me or even discipline me very much as a child (my mom, the elementary school teacher, was the one who mostly did that), but looking back on that trigger, the “feeling” I got was disapproval / disappointment from my dad.
This was something I probably felt when I was too young to remember and something that was stored in me for decades, waiting to be completed, until finally I was in a vulnerable enough position (hormonally speaking) that my emotional body said “screw you, you’re going to feel this RIGHT NOW.”
Here’s the thing about the emotional body…
It doesn’t experience time in the linear way that the thinking brain does.
When it’s truly emotional, everything is just NOW.
So when triggered, that emotional trauma that may have happened decades ago will be felt as if it’s happening in the present, whether the corresponding memory can be recalled or not.
You can find proof that this is true by looking at how you experience dreams, which is a state in which all parts of the body — mental, emotional, and physical (sensory) — are integrated.
You’ve probably had dreams of being back in school or being back together with an old boyfriend or girlfriend as if you’re experiencing it all in the present once again, when in fact you may have graduated or broken up years ago and haven’t thought about it in forever.
While memory may play a big role in these types of dreams, it’s the emotional parts of them that cause them to be brought back up and felt like you just took a wild trip back in time as if it were the present again.
Learning to understand how we experience emotion has helped me understand what happened to me when I had that god awful meltdown last year.
I now know that this was a part of my suppressed self stemming from a childhood experience that needed to integrate by completing the emotional cycle.
I totally bawled my face off, and it was the release I guess that I really needed.
Emotional crying — like, the really ugly kind — has a way of making you feel exactly like a child again.
It’s like a suppressed part of the inner child finally gets let out.
The way I experience it is extremely childlike and even primal.
It’s an unfortunate reality that as children, we learn that being “good” is better than being ourselves fully and open-heartedly, all because of the way our human minds are wired to depend on love and acceptance from others for survival.
If you don’t think being unloved or unaccepted by others is a direct threat to your survival, you’re fooling yourself.
Consider the pain in your chest you might feel after breaking up with someone — actual heartbreak.
Consider the loss of appetite you might experience when you’re betrayed by someone you love.
Consider the lack of sleep you might have to deal with when you’re worried about losing your job.
Consider the people who choose to take their own lives because their families, friends, or society rejected them or invalidated them in some way.
Those are all very real physical responses to emotional distress caused by threats to the security of relationships with other people.
We care way too much about what other people think because of that gap we’re taught to create between our real self and the socially conditioned self image of “goodness” we learn to desire in early childhood.
Today, we’re a society that’s subconsciously obsessed with being “good” rather than being “whole.”
From a purely emotional state, we’re all just children wanting to fully be ourselves.
I shared that story of my mom punishing me when I was four to demonstrate the reality that there are two people feeling things in such a situation, and when one is a child, the child’s emotions are often invalidated and the adult always wins.
I shared the story of my emotional meltdown last year during my dad’s 60th birthday to demonstrate how emotions that were suppressed from a childhood experience can be triggered and potentially come up decades later without any memory of it.
But to get one thing straight, I’m not trying to say that we should all blame our parents for our emotional crap, nor am I blaming or judging you, the reader, as a parent if you are a parent.
After all, parents don’t invalidate their children’s emotions on purpose when they’re so young and vulnerable, and we’re still living in an era where traditional child-rearing is done through teaching right from wrong, good from bad.
That will shift when society comes to realize the deep significance of emotional health and how it shapes our wellbeing into adulthood.
The most important thing parents can do is learn how to put all of their own stuff aside and step into the perspective of their child to share what they’re feeling so they can then guide them in some way that serves their awareness and growth.
Children may decide they still want to do the thing that doesn’t match up with the parents’ expectations, but trying to control them or pass their feelings off as unimportant does the exact opposite of serve their awareness — instead causing them to suppress very real parts of themselves.
If you’re like me, maybe you can relate to this divided self that was split apart long before you had the mental capacity to think logically and even form memories.
If you’re like me, maybe you’re sick of feeling like this.
Here’s what I know, and what you might like to know too:
- If you’re human, then you’re emotional.
- All of your emotions are valid, no matter what anyone says and no matter what the circumstances are.
- You deserve to fully feel everything that you feel.
Here’s what I’m doing, and what you might want to do too:
First, be open to feeling all of your shit.
All of it.
Not the just good stuff, but literally everything.
You can do one of two things to start tuning into your emotions more often:
1.) Take some time every night to sit quietly and close your eyes so you can tune into what you’re feeling.
(I like this approach best because in the evening our circadian rhythms cause our emotions to generally be more heightened after tiring out our thinking minds throughout the day.)
Or you can do this, instead:
2.) Set 3 to 5 reminders on your phone at various times of the day to do an emotional check-in wherever you are.
As I’ve experienced it, this is what tends to happen:
- You develop greater self-awareness.
- You develop greater self-acceptance.
- You develop greater self-compassion.
- Finally, you develop greater self-love.
Self-love, as entirely cheesy as it sounds to those who don’t understand its significance, really is a state of wholeness.
It doesn’t mean feeling good all the time, nor does it mean being self-obsessed.
It mostly means being super in touch with our own emotions and being open to feeling them fully without judging ourselves.
That’s the state of “it’s okay to be me.”
Several years ago long after a bad breakup, a friend of mine asked me why I hadn’t started dating again, and I remember replying:
“I think I don’t want anyone to really know me.”
I didn’t know what I even meant by that when I said it, but now sure I do.
It was a reference to my divided self.
“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection.” ~ Henri Nouwen
Self-rejection ironically doesn’t come from the self at all.
It stems from learning to care too much about what other people think.
All humans in their natural, genuine state love themselves.
The inner child knows it.
‘Finding yourself’ is nothing more than peeling off years of social conditioning to find a self as it existed during childhood, un-masked.
Image via Hieu LaVoce
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- 30 glorious snippets of wisdom worth knowing by the time you’re 30 (or any age, really) - December 31, 2016
- The divided self: Why we care way too much about what other people think - August 14, 2016
- What everyone gets wrong about “being authentic” - July 3, 2016
- 7 eye-opening ways to forget about your goals so you can let happiness flow - June 20, 2016
- Why you won’t do all the things you want to do this summer - June 13, 2016
- 50 everyday things you can give up to make time for more important stuff - April 30, 2016
- How to go from waking up miserable to exhilarated every morning - April 18, 2016
- How to align your mind to get exactly what you want - April 3, 2016
- Why we’re so bad at sticking to good habits (and what to do about it) - March 19, 2016