A student in tears. A friend blowing their stack. A coworker lashing out. An intimate partner making a sniping comment after a long day.
Sometimes we fear checking in with someone about their emotions or mental state because we don’t know if what might get shared is more than we can handle, or we don’t know what kind of services are available if they need help.
We might instinctively wonder if we might be overwhelmed by someone's problems or whether they will just blow up even more. Will we know how to help? Will we know where to send them for help? Or maybe it will all feel too personal and hurt our feelings. Maybe we have compassion fatigue, and Just can’t even, as one of my favorite T-shirts reads.
Maybe we have to learn not to be afraid of difficult emotions or difficult life events and to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. It isn’t always easy to “hold space” for another person without feeling that our own boundaries are being transgressed or having our own reactions triggered or emotional reserves depleted.
Emergency mental and emotional "first aid” is increasingly necessary with students and even with our friends and families. We can learn to hold boundaries and hear the pain in another without becoming overwhelmed or triggered ourselves. We don’t have to fix or appease. And yet we also shouldn’t go into paralysis (freeze) or flight.
Many of us vacillate between these polar reactions, either going into overdrive and trying to save others or else becoming avoidant and not wanting to deal with students’ or others’ emotionality or life issues.
Sometimes we may even be concerned that students are trying to manipulate us, make excuses for not doing work or meeting deadlines, or are even practicing “attention seeking” behaviors. We may even be right! Learning to hold steady ourselves while responding and not overreacting or retreating can help us tolerate the increase of emotions in the educational setting (and everywhere else!).
This is not an easy thing to learn for those of us who feel highly empathic, and many who go into teaching or service fields are highly empathic, yet we have to face the dark side of empathy: part of our coping strategy, developed in childhood, was to be hyper vigilant to the feelings of those around us in order to protect ourselves, and if we have not learned that our life does not depend upon the feelings of other people, and we are still hyper vigilant out of that early existential wound, then we tend to take on the pain of others because we are desperately trying to fix our own wounds by helping them.
We cannot fix other people. We must practice emotional hygiene ourselves, which will help students and loved ones to do so.
Knowing the resources that are available when a real crisis unfolds is important, but knowing when not to overreact is also a key stress management strategy. Knowing when not to take on someone else’s issues is critical. There’s an old joke: Not my circus, not my monkeys. A sign often seen tacked to office walls reads, Lack of planning on your part does not mean an emergency on mine.
Letting students or others feel the consequences of actions (or inaction) is important for their growth. Over accommodation leads to learned helplessness. Lack of responding to someone leads to lower self-esteem.
Supporting others as they solve their own problems is crucial to developing their bounce back skills and resiliency.
Yet, we seem to break into two camps:
We are in a time when starting to learn how to accept and work with our emotions is finally being acknowledged. For those of us not used to feeling the feels, this can be overwhelming. We can be overwhelmed by our own feelings, as well as threatened by the (seemingly) uncontrollable display of emotions by others.
Our first job is to understand what each of our emotions is telling us, and learning to sit in ambivalence, confusion, grief, shame, anger, all of the more challenging or unpleasant emotions. Rather than repress or suppress them, we need to work through them with mindfulness. And listen to and validate other people’s experiences (without agreeing with or accommodating them) as they work through their feelings. Trying to fix them teaches them they can’t regulate themselves. Ignoring them teaches them to be ashamed of their feelings. Both of those strategies are about covert control.
Acknowledging our own fears of falling apart or the ways we were shamed by others for being sensitive is a start. Recognizing that the ability to cope with the pain of hard emotions increases our capacity for the ones we all aspire to, such as joy, delight, happiness, is also part of understanding emotional health. Shutting down any emotion blocks off the possibility of others.
My Mama used to say that life is one long exercise in learning humility. It means accepting our vulnerability and asking for help. It means being grateful. It means accepting our own shortcomings and working on them. It means making generous space for others to work on theirs. It means honoring the defeats as well as the successes as all part of life. It means being glad for others' achievements. It means learning to laugh.
My other favorite T shirt reads: Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff. While this isn’t precisely true, it’s close. Here’s something I don’t think is small: actively seeking out the good in others and telling them what you admire. And being grateful for someone’s tears because they are doing the hard work of being human, and every one of us who does this work makes it a little easier for the next person to be more fully themselves.
My Mama used to say, For everything that happens in life, there are a set number of tears, and you either cry them now, or you cry them later.
Heard, Mama, heard.