Preparing for my talk at Flood Church this weekend on “Parenting in a Culture of Never Enough”, I wrote this slide inspired by a week that stretched me with my own children.
Whether you are parenting your children, caring for your pets, or anyone in your charge – it hurts when your loved ones hurt.
Becoming a parent was not a life-long dream for me. I was wary at best. Then I met my husband and I took the dive into this role knowing he was a voice of reason and strength at my side. Now I am all in with two little people who expanded my heart and continue to stretch me in ways I did not know I could be stretched.
My husband and I found new edges in our relationship when our first child was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. While the diagnosis gave us a framework to understand her brain and nervous system, she was her own unique person who did not fit into any mold.
There is a saying within the autism community: If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.
Parenting a child on the autism spectrum may not be very different than parenting any other kid – there are good days, hard days and days you can barely breathe.
However we get there, I believe we all can relate to the roller coaster of emotions involved in being responsible for a loved one.
This week took me to the ‘barely breathe’ edge as my daughter’s nervous system made wearing clothes, smelling certain smells, seeing anything she deemed “gross”, hearing sounds at a certain volume unbearable.
Everything hurt. What feels like a tap to you and me felt like a punch on her skin. Noises we barely notice were causing her to cringe.
And when that kind of assault on a nervous system is going on, she responds like most of us – fight and flight, but mostly fight. My girl can scream and turn on herself in an instant. It can be dizzying.
And when her brain goes into limbic mode, she has her own shame spiral to reckon with as she hates feeling different and doing things that may not respect herself or others.
It takes a lot of energy to hold space in these moments.
When those I care about hurt, I hurt.
Their hurts + my hurts intersect and in a millisecond my brain decides whether to let the feelings wash over me or go into fight, flight, freeze or numb out.
I love my passionate, deep, brilliant, brave daughter.
My love does not waver but I sure want to shrink from it when others give witness to her pain, my pain.
There is nothing cool, smooth, elegant about a public meltdown.
In a culture that says you are not: enough, doing enough, strong enough, Christian enough, calm enough, professional enough, wealthy enough, cool enough, skinny or fit enough, have-it-all together enough – the pressure can feel like something fierce.
It hurts to see my daughter misunderstood. I know it hurts her, too.
And my own stories of feeling misunderstood, ashamed and alone get activated during these times too – whether I know it in the moment or not.
Both of our nervous systems were hot messes this week.
My colleague Bobbi Hannah, an occupational therapist here in San Diego, sent me this chart after we recently were geeking out talking about the nervous system. She shared how the impact of too many “dings” on our nervous system can lead to us feeling flooded, shut down or taking measures to defend ourselves from more triggers. I gave her an ‘amen’ as I see this so much in my daughter, myself and many of my clients.
This metaphor also fits with all I have learning in my EMDR training and other trainings + readings from people like Bessel van der Kolk, Dan Siegel, Richard Schwartz and more.
When we get enough dings on our nervous system, our hearts, our souls – we start to engage in protective choices which may not be aligned with our core values. Shame creeps in and we may begin to believe the lies of scarcity mindset which is a cocktail of shame, comparison, competition, fear and loneliness.
In those moments of feeling exposed, confused and helpless – it is a nervous system overload.
The shoulds, the supposed to’s, the rules, the plans – they can get all jumbled up between your loved one’s pain and your pain.
The default is to stop the pain of your loved one so you stop hurting – and sometimes we attempt to shut down this pain in ways that lead to some serious empathic failure.
Making the choice to stay calm, respectful and patient happens. But not as often as I would like. Frustration, fatigue and vulnerability can get the best of me during these times.
I suspect you can relate.
We all mess it up and want do overs.
But that is the awesome thing about grace and failure – we get to teach how to fall and fail well – and rise again after those moments where all we know to be true and right goes out the window as we jump to shut down the pain in ways that make everyone feel crappy.
How we handle struggle – our struggles and the struggles of those we love – can potentially be powerful medicine for our relationships and communities if we dare to be vulnerable.
The pressure to never fail, mess up and make a mistake can be immense. Perfection says if you are not perfect, you are letting your loved one down.
But one of the biggest gifts we can do is show how we recover when we mess up.
THIS is the space of courage, grace, learning, inspiration and connection.
Yes, falls and failures invite the naysayers, the shoulders and the I-told-you-so voices.
Digging in and dealing with past and present hurts is ground zero for responding differently when the hurts of our loved ones collide with our hurts.
All of us on the Potentia team are honored to support people who desire to respond to differently to discomfort, pain and shame so not hurt themselves or others. Sometimes this work is nuanced and takes time. And sometimes it just takes a period of getting outside your head and finding out you are not alone in your struggles.
It is brave work loving people and navigating the messiness of real, honest, meaningful relationships. And when the dings get too much, remember you are not meant to struggle alone.
Daring to reach out and ask for help is a powerful example to model to those you care about. Keep showing up. The dark emotions are part of being human. And never forget we are all on this deeply human journey together.
With gratitude –