Who are we trying to comfort?
Updated: Jan 31, 2021
Were you ever told to 'be brave' or not to cry? It's a very common thing for parents to say to children and it's most often not said with any malicious intent. It's our learned way of comforting children because it's what our parents said to us and it's what their parents said to them. Most of the time it was said with genuine love and desire to comfort us. The trouble is that we then grow up as adults believing that our emotional states are not normal, and not welcome. We learn to self soothe, to push aside how we feel and to put on a brave face.
For some parents, who themselves are not accustomed to the display of emotion, the emotional state of a child is unfamiliar, uncomfortable and even quite threatening because it triggers in the parent, a sense of being ill-equipped and not good enough. The way out of the discomfort is to encourage the child to stop
their emotional 'outburst' so that the parent no longer feels inadequate or overwhelmed. "Be brave for Daddy", "Be brave for Mummy". We find that it's not all about the child and their emotional state, but about the parent and their capacity to experience and hold that emotion with the child.
We find ourselves asking our sons to be "mummy's little soldier" and encouraging our daughters to be "daddy's brave girl" It's a subtle manipulation that is not conscious on the part of the parent and the effects are noticed by the child only in adulthood when repressed emotion starts to affect their relationships and their sense of self. Acknowledging our emotional state is important, but allowing ourselves to feel and show it is vital to our mental and physical wellbeing. "Repression—dissociating emotions from awareness and relegating them to the unconscious realm–disorganizes and confuses our physiological defences so that in some people these defences go awry, becoming the destroyers of health rather than its protectors." Dr Gabor Mate. It's not just our children that we need to teach - it's also ourselves. We have to relearn what it's like to really feel what we're feeling. To sit in the discomfort of it for long enough that it becomes comfortable; to make ourselves vulnerable enough let the unfamiliar in until it starts to feel familiar, and to normalise the display of emotion with, and for the people around us so that we all begin to see it as normal. Parents these days are much more emotionally aware than they were a generation ago but we all still find ourselves saying the things our parents said to us. The next time it happens stop and ask yourself; who am I really trying to comfort?