Perceived Weakness: Break the Cycle, Open Your Heart

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Ruby 2011

For some people, our grandparents and parents taught us not to feel, that feeling your feelings is not safe, it hurts too much, will make you go crazy.  Now we are telling our children to acknowledge their feelings and express how they feel.  We are teaching them that feelings are a form of information. Information that can help them navigate through the emotional landscape.  We are teaching them that the more connected they can stay to their feelings the more centered and self confident they will be as people. 

A couple of summers ago while visiting my parents, my mother uttered a phrase I’d heard many times come from her mother’s mouth.

“You know, you’re letting that little girl manipulate you.”  It could have been my Granny talking to my Mom some thirty-plus years ago about me.  She used the same tone and had the same stone faced look as she said it.

My then nine-year old daughter and I gone to visit my parents and I had a dilemma.  I was faced with an old and I believe misguided assumption, that kids are the problem, the manipulators, the ones who get away with everything, the ungrateful ones.

In that moment I had to make one of two choices:

1) I could treat my daughter the way kids for generations have been treated and see her as manipulator and conniver who needs to learn to control her behavior.

2) I could try the opposite, a little empathy parenting — just to see what happens and then compare the two outcomes.

From the old way described above children need to be controlled and disciplined first then listened to later. I’m not condoning a free-for-all here, I’m just saying that when the concept of punishment is overused anyone treated like that will become immune to the punishment and stop thinking for themselves. This mode of behavior in the extreme will end up as some sort of reactionary rebellion or worse.

From the empathic view, a kid at nine years old is still very connected to their feelings and the waves of feeling flowing from others.  Their ability to pick up information on this subtle level often gets them in trouble because they don’t use reasoning, or an overintelectualized brain to filter the information.  They act on feelings, on impulse and this usually translates into ‘bad behavior,’ when most of the time all they want is to be heard, to be acknowledged.

At the heart of the idea, “You’re letting that little girl manipulate you,” is the idea vulnerability is weakness and weakness is shameful (as author Brene Brown so eloquently articulates.)

After trying both parenting styles and comparing outcomes I have found that vulnerability has become my compass. Not the old idea that vulnerability is weak. On the contrary, vulnerability is packed with so much information, so many emotional cues and feelings that can be navigated and explored – it almost feels like I’m an archaeologist in a vast ancient tomb.

Meaning, when emotions are exploding out of us like bottle rockets they are rife with information. Like the cache of an ancient tomb this information can be vast, rich, mysterious and also be harboring some really ancient stuff. A lot of this stuff is part of an ages-old cycle of shame, guilt, punishment and judgment that is not helpful or useful for happiness and connection.

Since the time I started this blog post over two years ago, I have seen my daughter come into her own – sure of herself when her boundaries are pushed and confident in her awareness of her own emotions. Sure she’s got teen angst, the closed bedroom door and the eyerolls are coming in more and more frequently. I’m okay with all of that as long as she stays true to who she is.

I am also happy to report that in the last couple of years I have watched my parents transform. The main reason I had not yet published this blog is because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings in writing about this. In the last few years they have become more adept at the empathy parenting, or grand-parenting thing than I ever imagined.

Mom grew up in a stern and rigid environment with little kindness and understanding. She never had the permission  or the roadmap she needed to respond with empathy. Like me, she is working to break the cycle under which she was raised. Ruby, Mom, Me – our relationship is ever-evolving, each generation meeting the next with the love and lessons we need to open our hearts a little more.

This new approach has given us all the freedom to respond in a way that keeps our own emotions and energy intact. Our awareness of the power of vulnerability and the necessity of striving for an open heart continues to develop our relationships together in new and exciting ways.