ON THE PITFALLS OF ADVICE FOR PARENTS WHO “LOSE IT”
Every parent “loses it” sometimes. "Losing it" means losing our temper, shouting, screaming, accusing, blaming and being otherwise out of control. I love the term "losing it" because indeed, something has been lost - namely, the ability to appear confidently in control and appear reasonable.
There is a common misconception about the best parenting advice on “losing it,” which is to count to ten or walk away. The misconception is that you are supposed to, in the moment of feeling crazed, act reasonable and behave yourself. As most parents know, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to act reasonable in moments when you have completely lost your ability to reason.
Counting to ten or walking away is not about forcing yourself to adopt an action despite what you feel, though. It’s about finding the place of calm or reason within yourself so that you don’t have to lose control.
Unfortunately, when parents "lose it," it is usually because they feel psychologically or even physically trapped. Imagine being trapped in a corner by a huge monster that won't let you out. You’re trapped, and you can’t get out. You can’t count to ten or walk away; you’re struggling, and the frustration is unbearable…finally, you start to SCREAM! The tension needs discharge, plain and simple.
There are thousands and thousands of reasons - little monsters - why parents can arrive at feeling trapped in moments when they lose it. Perhaps, they are trapped by time: the bus is coming in five seconds, and little Henry is still tinkering with his shoe.
Some mothers are trapped by resentment and guilt: they don't really WANT to be driving their child to two-thousand activities, and they feel bad about the feeling. So then, if one little complaint from Charlie comes down the pike, there is no positive energy on reserve to deal with it.
So here’s the real deal: you have this parent, who feels trapped and unable to wriggle free of this huge, oppressive monster of frustration. She or he then starts to shout to release the unbearable tension. To believe that this problem can be resolved by simply telling ourselves that we have to behave is to suggest that a band-aid should be used to treat a gushing wound. It doesn't work that way. The truth is, not "losing it" takes tremendous inner strength.
Parents who embark on the journey for inner strength learn that it helps a lot to accept the monsters of frustration. Many parents I know believe that they "accept" their negative feelings for their children. They say they accept that their kids are frustrating and enraging and even that they feel like “killing” them, as the expression goes. But, inside, they secretly feel terrible about all those negative feelings. I have met many, many parents who are incredibly weakened, psychologically, by the awareness of their negative feelings. What they have is AWARENESS. Not ACCEPTANCE.
True acceptance comes from embracing what you are capable of feeling in a given moment. It means knowing that everyone - your child, your mother, your spouse, yourself - EVERYONE has a dark, exceedingly negative, destructive side.
The monster, when we accept him, becomes a screaming, flailing mass of energy, but it does not terrify us or overwhelm or throw us, is just simply flails around. But we can walk away from it, or breathe through it, or decide that it is just a feeling. Just a feeling.
Accepting our feelings in the moment means they don't have to weigh us down with ripple-effects of remorse and guilt and self-reproach and despair. Those ripple-effect feelings sometimes do more to create the monster that causes us to lose it than the actual frustration itself. We could handle the frustration itself better if it did not threaten to create so many additional bad feelings about ourselves and our children.
Learning to truly accept feelings in the moment so we don't have to feel unbearably trapped by them is not a cognitive process. It does not happen by reading this column, or any other commonplace advice. It comes from embarking on a long and never-ending journey in search of a new, positive feeling about our orchestra of emotion and about who we basically are. That new feeling is what we need to give us inner strength and fill our pockets of emptiness and helplessness with ever strengthening self-love.
I don’t know if people can give themselves this feeling if it is truly lacking. How can you give yourself something you don’t have? The quest may have to happen outside the stillness of our thinking mind, and it may take a long time. However long it takes, it’s what I recommend for the problem of “losing it”: searching for a new feeling - not for the right answer - one that can truly strengthen us against the monstrous ravages of rage. It is that essential feeling that makes it possible to count to ten. To walk away. To find the stillness known as “patience” every parent yearns for.