“I’m so distressed,” Stephanie said, immediately reaching for the box of tissues in our first session. “I’ve never felt this much sadness in my entire life. The last few months have been hell. I’m having trouble sleeping. I feel like my life has fallen apart. Can you help me not be so upset?”
As Stephanie told her story, I understood why she was so distraught. During his senior year of high school, her son Alex got into trouble. Big time. Alex wasn’t a great student, but he was popular and a good athlete. He liked to have a good time and party with his friends. He drank and smoked weed, as did the other kids. Stephanie and her husband, George, looked the other way.
However, things began to unravel when Alex was caught selling drugs. His high school expelled him, and the college he’d chosen rescinded his admission. Not knowing what to do, the family sent him to an outdoor wilderness program for the summer to learn “discipline and responsibility.” He’d soon be coming home for the holidays, and Stephanie was getting nervous. They hadn’t told anyone what had transpired. “When people ask how Alex is, I say he’s just fine,” she told me. “I try really hard to keep up the illusion. As soon as he gets home, he’ll get a job, apply to other colleges, and get his life back on track,” she continued with sudden determination in her voice. “And I’ll do research and find a college where drugs aren’t a problem. I’m sure there’s one somewhere.”
“Stephanie, I see you rushing in to fix this, and to manage your distress, and I understand that. Of course you want to make this better. But before you do, let’s slow it down a little and just stay with the sadness,” I said.
“That’s hard for me,” she responded. “In my family, we didn’t feel feelings, we just moved on. That’s why I haven’t told anyone. My dad would tell me not to have ‘a long face’ if I was sad about something. We just kept going full-steam ahead.” She shook her head. “I became a runner in high school and college. In fact, we all were runners.”
Often when we have an intense emotion, we respond to it as a call to action. We feel we have to “do” something. Yet emotions reveal important information, and they’re here for a reason. It’s good to get curious about them, to notice them, to allow ourselves to feel them in the body, rather than push them away.
I wanted to help Stephanie get underneath her painful emotions so she could get in touch with what was at the heart of it and see what needed attention. She was willing to try.
I taught her this eight-step practice as tool to help her get curious about her feelings and develop a new relationship with them.
1. Start by sitting comfortably, noticing where you might be holding tension in the body. Invite these tight places to relax. Check in with your shoulders, neck, jaw, eyes, belly, and hands.
2. Bringing a relaxed curiosity to what you’re feeling, let yourself be with the emotion as it is, rather than rushing in to “do” something about it.
3. Where do you notice it in your body? Try putting a hand, or two hands, there.
4. Acknowledge that this is a time of distress, of difficulty. This is hard.
5. Most parents experience painful times when raising children. You are not alone.
6. See if you can bring some kindness and compassion to yourself.
7. Try not to add to your distress by beating yourself up or calling yourself a bad parent.
8. Let yourself rest before returning to your day.
"Wow,” Stephanie responded. “I didn’t realize I was clenching my jaw and gritting my teeth. I feel more relaxed now.”
As we continued to work, Stephanie realized that she didn’t have to do Alex’s work for him. He couldn’t test out his hard-earned skills from the wilderness training if she started to micromanage his life out of fear that he wouldn’t make good decisions. She tried to keep in mind what Alex’s drug counselor had told him: “Don’t worry, kid. You’ll turn this around. I believe in you. I can’t tell you how many times I was in the back of a police cruiser. This is tough, but it’s a powerful lesson.”
“And I as practice letting go and looking at my role in this,” Stephanie said, “I can see what the counselor meant. Alex is a great kid. He made a mistake, but he doesn’t need to be defined by it. And I can support him, rather than try to control him.”
Susan M. Pollak, MTS, EdD, is a psychologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the mother of two grown children. She’s cofounder and senior teacher at the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance, and president of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. She’s the author of Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself.
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