Time to read: 5 minutes
This past year has been filled with some of the hardest moments in my life. One after another, after another. There were many days I felt like it would never stop, and I wouldn’t be able to catch my breath.
Work, family, health, finances, no matter the category it felt like it was all on fire.
I found myself unhappy, complaining and feeling a consistent buzzing moving from my belly to my chest all day long that I call anxiety/overwhelm.
Amidst the inferno I decided to work with a therapist. I wasn’t exactly sure how it would go or the goals we were heading towards but I trusted that talking to someone who could hold space for me and help me sort through what was happening was going to be positive.
Each week we chat, and slowly she’s getting to know me, my life, my tendencies.
During one of our sessions I talked about a particularly hard day where I was “nap trapped” for a total of 3 hours. Side note: yes, nap trapped is a real term I just learned that refers to when your baby will not nap unless they are in your arms. I tried to explain the discomfort I experience when I get stuck there, in the darkness of her room, rocking her.
She got curious about a common thread she was noticing – “what is it that makes it so hard for you to simply be?”
The truth is, just “being” is really painful for me. It really does feel like physical pain. I have spent a lot of time meditating, journaling and backpacking through nature which many consider in the “being” category however I have always found a way to see them as skills I was using to progress. I was getting better at meditating (whatever that means), journaling to discover my blindspots so I could grow and collecting experiences I would tell my grandchildren about.
Sitting in the dark rocking my daughter all I could think about were the things I wanted to get done. But there I was, nap trapped.
I am a compulsive “doer” and have an addiction to progress.
I have built up an immense work capacity in large part to be externally validated and worthy of love. I wrote more about this in The Most Undervalued Skills.
Now that I have two children and my main gig is being a mom it is very difficult to find space and time to make progress on my own budding passions – not impossible, but we can save that for another post entirely.
Without the dopamine hit I get from “doing” I was finding myself anxious and unhappy.
While my life felt completely unstable I wanted to turn to one of the best self soothing tools I have – getting things done – and I couldn’t find a way to make it happen. It felt like all I had was motherhood and unfortunately for me there is no clear way to determine if you are progressing or not.
So my therapist asked me a question that led to this blog post: “How do you know you are doing a good job as a mother?”
My initial answer was: “How regulated I am. At the end of the day I look back, and if I was able to regulate my emotions I consider it a success”
At first glance this is a pretty good answer. My therapist agreed.
In general, our society doesn’t prioritize emotional regulation. Growing up I wasn’t taught the power of my breath or taking space. One of the biggest priorities in our household is to teach our children how to identify their emotions and regulate themselves back to a calm state. We know that in order to do that we have to model it ourselves. They do as we do, not as we say.
There are few moments that make me prouder than when Shai is in the middle of a tantrum and he takes an unprompted deep breath in through his nose and out through his mouth or tells me he is going to take some space and come back when he’s ready. My heart nearly explodes. It is so cute.
During our next session she brought up how I measure my progress in motherhood again. She told me after thinking about it that maybe my answer wasn’t a great one after all. If “how regulated I am” equalled “how good of a mom I am” then I wasn’t leaving much room for being unregulated, and if you are a parent you know that dysregulation is unavoidable.
She made a great point.
I have woken up to literal shit all over Shai’s room, held a crying baby with no idea what is wrong and how to soothe them, gone many months with no more than 3 hours of consecutive sleep, watched my kid take a plate at a restaurant and smash it on the ground and had my hair pulled so hard I could almost cry. Was I regulated? no way! How on Earth could anyone stay regulated in these moments? And what I know is true is that it is absolutely and completely OKAY to not be. I am human.
When I take a second to think about it, I want my children to see me feel my emotions just as much as I want them to see me regulate. I want them to see me in the mess of it all while giving myself grace – because I am not perfect. I want them to see through my example that it is okay to feel your emotions. Some days are harder than others so if I am only successful when I am regulated I can be sure that I will encounter failure on a regular basis.
I don’t want my children to feel like being “perfectly regulated” all the time is the goal and I can see how I was trying to put that standard on myself.
Something even more interesting happened next.
I noticed that when I was feeling what I call “anxiety” or “overwhelm” there was a buzzing moving throughout my entire body. My therapist suggested I start to become more aware of the buzzing.
Within a few days, I started to notice that it arises when I am alone, nap trapped, bored, or trying to just be. It builds in my chest and moves slowly down into my belly – up and down, up and down.
What is that?! What is underneath there? Anxiety doesn’t seem to fully encompass it all.
Is it fear? is it sadness? is it grief? anger? joy?
All of a sudden I had this aha moment. “I don’t actually know what I am feeling.” Let me say that again in another way, when I try to identify what I am feeling at any given moment I am lost. I have no clue what is there – sometimes I can spot anger, anxiety, frustration and gratitude but this is the extent of my emotional vocabulary.
I’m using the perpetual doing as a way to distract myself from feeling. If I let myself feel, truly feel, how could I get all the things done that I want/need to do?
I discovered that what was underneath the “anxiety” was fear. A fear that allowing myself to lean into my own emotions would overwhelm me. Paralyze me.
The problem is that by not allowing myself to go into the valleys of sadness, grief, guilt, despair, disappointment, insecurity, fear I am also inhibiting my ability to reach the peaks of joy, peace, acceptance.
Sure, I get a lot done but when I look back on all I have accomplished it doesn’t taste as sweet as I had imagined.
So while Shai is playing in his room and I see him overtaken by frustration, I am reminded that I too am like a child learning, maybe for the first time, to feel. My hope for him, Noa and myself is that we continue to allow our emotions in, get to know them and remind our bodies that it is safe to do so.
They do as we do, not as we say.