Recently I was working with a mom who had this to say about raising her four children: “There’s always a tension between how dependent my kids are on me and how responsible I feel for their wellbeing and balancing that with my desire to teach them how to be self-sufficient.”
This got me thinking: how can parents model self-sufficiency for kids and is it connected to the ways we distract ourselves from how we feel?
Previously, I wrote about why you should pay attention if you’re pouring a drink to celebrate bedtime and about the difference between numbing and relaxing. If you think you might be numbing, I’ll explain how to take the next step and start changing that habit.
Numbing, or distracting yourself from how you feel, takes you in the opposite direction of self-sufficiency. Instead of being able to sit with your emotions and stay present, you end up relying on something external to cover up stress, anxiety and unhappiness. If escape becomes a nightly pattern, you’ll find it harder to make headway on what’s really bothering you.
So how do you change this habit: by staying present with what you’re feeling. It seems too simple to work, but it can really make a big difference. To begin, you have to change your understanding of emotions.
Most people have no problem naming emotions: happiness, anger, sadness, jealousy, boredom, loneliness, excitement, anxiety, etc. But when they’re asked to describe what an emotion feels like, most focus only on the thoughts running through their mind. “I’m so happy tonight is date night.” “I’m nervous for Ben’s interview.” “I’m so bored at home.” “I’m really angry with Sarah.” Here’s the thing: when you have an emotion, you’re not just thinking thoughts; you’re also experiencing physical changes in your body.
You might not be practiced at describing the physical sensations that accompany emotions, but you’re familiar with the concept. You have butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous. Your heart swells when you feel pride. Fear causes a shiver to run down your spine, or you go weak in the knees with desire. Every emotion causes your breathing to slow down or speed up, your muscles to tense or relax, and different parts of your body to flush, feel cold, or experience other sensations.
Most people pay very little attention to the physical part. We’re so used to thinking of an emotion as something that happens in our minds that we completely miss what’s happening in our bodies.
So what does this have to do with numbing and self-sufficiency? If you want to learn how not to numb and distract yourself from what’s going on, you need to learn how to be present with what every emotion feels like. The more you know you can tolerate what you’re feeling in your body, the less you’ll need to cover it up.
The ability to withstand your emotions is crucial to self-sufficiency. It means that you can take risks, weather set backs, and know that you’ll be okay because you’re able to see yourself through fear, anxiety, and disappointment without hiding. These are the very same skills that you probably want to teach your children.
The next time you want to pour a drink, grab a bowl of ice cream, or tune out in front to the TV, try tuning into your body. Set a timer for two minutes and see if you can focus on what’s happening in your body rather than everything that’s running through your mind.
Try to name what emotion you’re feeling and describe how it feels physically. Are there any areas of tension? Is your heart racing or your breathing shallow? Scan yourself from head to toe, and see what you discover.
Now, ask yourself what makes these sensations so intolerable that you’d rather use something to cover them up?
With practice you’ll see that no matter what emotion you’re experiencing, you’re more than capable of withstanding it without needing to tune out.
Rachel is the author of Why Can’t I Drink Like Everyone Else?: A Step-By-Step Guide to Understanding Why You Drink and Knowing How to Take a Break.