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June 9, 2019

Mirroring Emotions: How Key Moments of our Childhood Affect our Ability to Feel.


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How do you feel? No, I’m asking how do you feel?

I am not just asking you to label the 64 colors in the crayon box in your personal collection of feelings. I am asking how we come to feel—how our ability to feel develops over time.

What emotions are developed and which are extinguished, and why?

We are all born with at least 64 colors of feelings: Laser Lemon, Mango Tango, Outrageous Orange, Atomic Tangerine, Jazzberry Jam. Which of these color feelings do we have intact and which are now broken, tossed out, or melted on a nearby radiator, or a summer sidewalk? How many can we still access in our adulthood?

Propped up in a pink plastic high chair, baby Sally is placed so she is out of reach of the hot food being served. She begins to protest, which mellows into curiosity, as she watches her mom cut up the chicken that will soon be hers. Delighted to be a part of the feast, she smiles and places the food into her mouth. Her nose then cringes to say “Ugh, what did you feed me?” Sally throws the bowl onto the floor and looks at her parents and laughs. In just these few moments, we are delighted to see the vitality in a child who takes the liberty to scribble with all the colors in her crayon box of feelings.

The burden of a child’s creative endeavor is on her parents. Can they hold these scribbles without tearing? Do they have the capacity to bear their child’s expression and facilitate her striving to create herself—to become herself?

In an easy moment, this capacity may be present when Billy pumps on a swing set. His heels kicking toward the sky is echoed in his mother’s pitch rising and then falling as the toddler comes down, to be then swept back up as his mother’s pitch rises again. This simple act of mirroring tells the child, “I see you, I see you in your glee, in your strength, and I am here with you.”

In another moment, a mother’s capacity to bear may be thinning. If Billy’s mom is depressed or preoccupied, it might not be that easy. Maybe her voice does not tilt up with his glee. Maybe she has emails to catch up on. Maybe it’s been 20 minutes too long on the swing. Maybe, she wants to leave.

“Let’s go,” she says. Billy shatters. He is confronted with an unbearable frustration. Running away, refusing to get off the swing, kicking his mom, turning over the stroller, he protests. “No!” Can this mom digest what is being spewed? Like a mother bird helping a baby bird digest, she is called to help her child through his emotional experience.

She may use her words, so he will some day be able to use his own, “You are angry because I said it is time to leave. You were so happy, and now you may be confused as to why we would ever have to stop having such fun.”

Or, she may have to spit out his rage, “Enough! It is time to go home, I am leaving you at the playground if you don’t come now.”

Disclaimer: We all have both types of responses—whether to our children, kids we babysit, our friends, or our spouses. Sometimes we just can’t bear another’s experience. We are done.

Psychology has a rule of thumb that if we can mirror another’s experience 51 percent of the time, we are doing well.

The planet of perfect parenting does not exist.

During infancy, babyhood, toddlerhood, childhood, through teenage times, and into adulthood, our most intimate relationships shape which emotions are acceptable or not acceptable for us to express.

Over time, the erosion of feelings that are not mirrored begins to contour the terrain of our internal landscape and compromises the sturdiness of our self.

At our mother’s knee, when faced with the choice of feeling a potentially problematic emotion, we will choose not to threaten our security—it is simply not adaptive to do so. The crayon must be broken; the mirroring of our emotions is broken.

Over the course of hundreds, maybe even thousands of micro-interactions, we learn.

Does our mom have the ability to bear what I am feeling? Or, will the mirror crack? If a feeling, time and time again, cracks the mirror, we learn not to express, maybe even not to feel, the offending emotion. In time, this erosion weakens the integrity of our self.

I remember my first therapy experience as a graduate student working in a small Catholic school in Southern California. My first hour was with a kindergartner—a skinny, reticent, and silent girl. She would not speak in the classroom. On the rare occasion that she did talk, it was on the playground and she spoke in only a whisper. She was referred to me, to see if I could get her to talk. Following the rules of child-centered play therapy, I was there to mirror her. I was to ask her a rare question and was not to lead the play in any way without her guidance.

During our first session together, we sat on the scratchy carpet and soon settled into the silence that we were sharing. Over the next few sessions, we settled into her drawing quietly on a large pad of grey paper while I made an occasional reflective comment, “you are using a blue pencil” or “that is a curly shape,” while the tone, pitch, and cadence of my voice tried to match the mood of her drawing. Most often, nothing was said. Over the next few months, a sense of safety grew in the silence. Then, one day, she started to scribble louder and louder, and I finally asked, “What would happen if you talked as loud as you are scribbling? She answered, “The world would fall apart.” These were her first words to me.

The world would fall apart.

Most parents come to see me with good intentions. Most parents want to show up for their children. Most want to give their children the life that they didn’t have. Most want their children to be happy. Parents often bring their child to see me because they want to make sure he or she “has a good self-esteem.” I always respond by saying, “a child needs a strong sense of self, and then a good self-esteem will follow.”

A strong sense of self is born from the ability to be centered in one’s self—to be well-situated within the context of our subjectivity—one’s internal world filled with our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the spaces between all of these elements.

Over time, in my work with parents, we learn together what feelings are harder to bear, what crayons were broken over the course of their lives. In sharing their stories, they have a chance to resurrect and experience the once warded off emotion. They begin to understand that a new adaptation is possible to secure an attachment. The emotion that was cut off to save the attachment with one’s own parents is now the very emotion that needs to be felt to save the attachment with one’s own child.

For it is the ability to feel an emotion that stretches our capacity to bear it with our children.

In building this mental muscle, we take the tape out and mend the crayons that were broken; we can color—with our child, for our child, and for ourselves.

Our children give us a second chance. From their first cry, they invite us to take out our crayons and create. In learning to use all our crayons again, we give our children the security they need to create from the center of their being, And, this sense of sturdiness and security that comes with being centered in one’s own experience—in one’s own truth—now, that is true happiness.

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