I saw a video yesterday on social media. I’d share it here, except this video really isn’t the point, because what happened is so common that not one person commented on it.
It was a video about a homeless boy and his mother who finally got public housing. The family had suffered such a difficult time, a local charity teamed up to furnish the home, including a dream bedroom for the young boy, complete with Star Wars decor and art supplies. The boy had never had his own bed before. He’s somewhere around 10 years old. The happy volunteers turned a video camera on him to capture his reaction as they toured him through his home and showed him all the wonderful things they’d gotten him. He was overwhelmed. He cried.
On social media, people commented on what a sweet story it is, what selfless volunteers those are, what a fortunate mother and son. Some people commented that the video brought tears to their own eyes. All fair. It was an emotional video.
But I didn’t see a single comment on how the adults — volunteers and the mother alike — responded to the boy’s emotions. “Don’t cry,” they said half a dozen times. Finally, his mother said, “Stop crying. Stop it.” Mind you, this wasn’t an effort to control a fit, to stop a boy from knocking his fist through the new drywall; he was simply walking through his new house in amazement, rubbing his tearful eyes, and sometimes covering his face for a few sobs.
In short, the boy was being appropriate. He was expressing strong emotions, and actually expressing them in a restrained way. And the adults wanted to cause strong emotions, remember. Why else would they tour him through the house and show him, using sing-song voices suitable to a far younger and less intelligent child, Look, sweetheart, look at what we got you. Isn’t that wonderful? Remember you said you like art? Well look at this whole table of brand-new art supplies. All for YOU! And remember, too, they followed him with a camera to capture his reactions.
But when he reacted with tears — maybe they anticipated him jumping with glee and saying Aw, shucks, thank you so much — they just couldn’t handle it. That needed to stop.
It was almost abusive. There, I said it. You might not agree. But think about it.
These adults — grown-ups who we assume are more capable of navigating strong emotions and riding out an intense situation — placed a child in a crowd of virtual strangers (and white strangers, surrounding the black child and mother) and whined and baby-talked through a tour meant to elicit a strong emotional response for the camera. And the boy, who has been homeless and alone with a struggling and undoubtedly somewhat broken mother, cried.
And they shamed him. Stop it. Don’t do that. Stop.
The message was manifold: we want you to react for us, but we want you to guess what kind of reaction we want. Oh, no. Not that reaction. Stop it. There’s no room here for those emotions. We did so much for you, and you’re doing something we don’t want you do do.
There was not one adult — at least in the span of the minutes when they paraded the emotional child in front of a camera to show off the touching good deeds of the generous charity volunteers — not one adult who said, “I know, buddy. This is emotional. You’re doing great. It’s a lot to take in. Feel all the feels, kiddo.”
This is a problem.
Let’s try a show of hands: how many of you remember being a kid and hearing, STOP THAT. Don’t have that emotion.
Worse still: how many of you can relate to the poor toddler I saw in a supermarket a couple of months back. Riding in the cart while her mother approached the checkout line, she started fussing. Tired, fidgety. Whimpering a little. And then she did something I didn’t see. Maybe she bucked in the cart and accidentally kicked her mother. But the mother yelled “STOP IT” and smacked the child’s bare leg. The sound of the smack traveled far in the tile-and-metal market. People looked, disgusted by the mother using physical punishment. And then they looked away. Done with it all.
And the child wailed. It was a scream of impotent rage. It said, “I’m already having a shitty day, and I don’t know how to manage my emotions, and I’m hot and tired and trapped in this metal cage-seat. And now you’re hitting me. I’m LOSING IT.”
I felt the child’s rage. The betrayal. The anger that she lacks the words to name. It stayed with me all day. It pretty well ruined my day. I talked about it later that night in my meditation group.
No doubt the mother was having emotions of her own. There are few things more trying than a toddler’s tantrum, especially in a crowded supermarket with others watching and judging.
The meditation teacher Tara Brach tells a story of a grandmother taking her young granddaughter through the store. The child is fussing, asking for everything she sees, and complaining when she’s told she can’t have those things. The grandmother keeps repeating calmly, “Just a few minutes, Cindy. We’re paying now and we’ll be home soon.” The cashier smiles understandingly at the grandmother as she repeats her little mantra a few more times during checkout. “You’re doing fine, Cindy. We’ll be in the car soon, and just a few minutes later we’ll be home. Maybe you can take a nap.” The child continues fussing.
As the grandmother finishes paying, the cashier says, “You’re being very patient with Cindy, and I hope the rest of your day is happier.”
“Oh, I’m Cindy,” the grandmother responds. “That little handful is Susan.”
That little story is so much fun, because while everyone is having a hard time, the grandmother is simply injecting some compassion in the moment. Compassion for herself, for her granddaughter, for the surrounding shoppers listening to a toddler do what toddlers do. And she’s reminding herself and everyone else that this will pass.
It’s about compassion. It’s about letting others have their feelings.
This month, I’m saying goodbye to clients. Some have been with me 10, 15, 20, and even 25 years. I’ve relied on their consistency for my livelihood, and I’ve valued their trust in me. Now I’m ready to move on. But some of them aren’t yet ready. Their visits with me have been a source of comfort, an important part in their self-care, and sometimes a significant relationship in their lives. Some of them have had dramatic recoveries too. They have feelings about this.
It’s hard to navigate the emotions of others, especially when their emotions run counter to our emotions at the moment, or when their emotions are uncomfortable or inconvenient for us.
It’s okay. There’s a tool for that. The RAIN technique works for others’ emotions as well.
One caveat: we don’t make space for others to be abusive or harmful in any way. I’ve fired clients in the past because they yelled or slammed doors or used abusive language.
But those are the exception. We can make space for others to have their emotions. We don’t have to identify with them or take them on. All we need to do is allow them to be. We can do this in a few short steps.
Recognizing that people have their feelings. Sometimes they’re even mysterious and foreign to us, because their feelings are so different from how we’d respond to the same situation. Try to name the feeling. Or even ask the person if they can name what they’re feeling. “Aww. You’re really feeling this. This is a big change, I know. Are you feeling sadness?”
Allowing people to have their feelings. You can still honor your own boundaries. I can’t sit with a client for two hours while she processes her feelings; I have other clients to see and other things to attend to. I can’t allow a client to yell at me or call me names or mistreat me. But I can allow a client to feel whatever she’s feeling. “I understand,” I can say. “It’s hard when someone you rely on retires and they aren’t there for you like they’ve always been.” There’s no need to fix it or offer a solution or ask the person to feel anything different. Just acknowledge and allow what’s happening.
Investigating the situation. Because I’m a bodyworker, it’s most consistent with my scope of practice to ask the client where she’s feeling the reaction. “Tight shoulders? Can you breathe into them and invite those muscles to let go?” And it’s okay to investigate how I’m feeling about it. Defensive? Tired? Checked out? Resentful? Grieving? That’s all okay. No need to do anything about it. Let it be.
Not identifying with the feeling or reaction. That crying client is a human with a full range of other emotions. I’ve had some interaction with their emotional well-being and their level of skillfulness at navigating life’s challenges, so sometimes I can begin to anticipate how clients will react. But sometimes they surprise me, because people don’t fit labels. Oh, she’s the dramatic one. That’s the stoic one. That’s the needy one who will try to demand that I do something to erase her feelings about this. Truth is, one of my most stoic clients was the most emotional and resistant to my retirement announcement. One of the neediest has been (so far) relatively level about this change. That’s because emotions come through us like weather passes through a valley. Emotions are not our identity. They change. They are fluid.
At some point, we are all that crying boy in the video, feeling strong emotions in a crowd of people who refuse to allow space for him to feel. And sometimes we’re that toddler, feeling rage at being punished for having a crappy day. And sometimes we’re the person with the video camera, or the exhausted mother, wanting the drama to stop.
Using the RAIN technique, we can all keep our sanity. We can keep our dignity too. This quick technique may take only moments, or you can turn it into a longer meditation if you have the time and space. But this simple, powerful tool reminds us to allow feelings to arise and pass. There is nothing we need to do. It will be okay.