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I Feel Like... by Jessica Shattuck for Babble.com.

I Feel Like . . .

We should stop talking about feelings so much.

by Jessica Shattuck

October 13, 2009

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A friend of mine picked up her five-year-old son from kindergarten the other day and arrived to find the class bully throwing his shoes at the bookshelf in a fit of anger. “Stop doing that, Carson,” his mom was pleading. “When you do that, it makes me feel like you don’t care about me.” Carson was apparently undeterred.

Wow – later, she and I laughed about this. That kid is going to spend years on some therapist’s couch. The weird illogic her particular Jedi mind-trick of pop psychology made it almost impossible to unpack (The equation of me with the bookshelf? The meaning of “care” to a five-year-old?). There was something so depressing about the passivity of the plea, something so desperate about the invoking of her own fragile ego as a reason the kid should behave.

It gave me one of those smug, moments of self-congratulation (I may be a model of inconsistency when it comes to bedtime and mid-night wake-ups, but at least I don’t threaten my children with my own hurt feelings) that always come back to bite you.

Sure enough, I began to notice my five-year-old whining about “feeling like” she just needed something sweet (never mind whether it was time for desert or five-thirty in the morning), or “feeling like” she would never, ever fall asleep. I recognized that, she was, not infrequently, having tantrums involving the accusation that I just didn’t understand “her feelings” (that, for instance, she didn’t like time outs, or that it made her furious to be told we were not going to watch a movie tonight).

This is not to say that I was suddenly flooded with recovered memories of emotionally blackmailing my children, but I did start to think about how often I bring up “feelings” (my own, my kids’, their friends, the dog next door’s . . . ). I did start to think about how often I, like so many women of my age, begin way too many sentences with the unnecessary declaration (or caveat, depending on how you see it) of “I feel like…”.

“I feel like my kids are driving me crazy” or “I feel like we need raised garden beds if we’re going to plant veggies.” At least half the time the phrase is totally unnecessary. Why not just my kids are driving me crazy? Or I need raised beds in the garden – when there’s really nothing subjective about it.

It’s just a pattern of speech of course, like adding “like” to so many sentences. But it is also a reflection of a sort of generational uber-attention to feelings. The awareness of what we feel is prominent enough to shape the idiomatic pattern of our speech.

Like so many thirty-somethings I know, I grew up on the doctrines of Sesame Street (remember Gordon’s heart-felt exhortation to “Let Your Feelings Show?”) and Free To Be You and Me (which made sure we knew “It’s All Right to Cry” practically before we knew how to walk). Our parents, those children of The Greatest Generation – whose own feelings were steadily and consistently shut down by their stoic war veteran fathers and questing-for-perfection 1950s moms – went all out to make sure their kids had the vocabulary, the awareness and the comfort to express their feelings and be emotionally sensitive beings. Maybe it is only logical that, consciously or not, we perpetuate the trend.

I Feel Like . . .

We should stop talking about feelings so much.

by Jessica Shattuck

October 13, 2009

400x236.jpg

16

But watching my own children articulate and attend to their own feelings with enough gusto to turn blue in the face (“Mama!!! Come!! I feel like a monster is behind me,” my three-year-old screams from midway up the stairs), I have to wonder if all this emphasis on feelings is such a good thing. Feeling like there is a monster doesn’t mean there is a monster. Feeling like you need to have ice cream doesn’t mean you need to have ice cream.

“Feelings aren’t facts” a friend of mine always quotes a sage uncle as saying. In my own life as an adult this has been extremely helpful to remember. Feelings pass. Feelings aren’t rational. Feeling something doesn’t make it so. And while it might be too much to ask children to understand this concept, modeling it by overlooking irrelevant feelings and talking a little less about how everyone feels might work to that end.

We ask our children so much about their inner state – does that make you feel happy? Did that make you feel sad? There is the whole Dr. Barry Brazelton school of “reflecting back,” as in, “I can see you’re feeling angry about giving that hammer back to me but it just isn’t safe to play with.” And the Dr. Sears focus on finding new ways to express feelings.

They don’t have the life experience to put their frustrations and hopes and fears in context.So it’s hardly surprising that our kids are held in thrall by their own volatile feelings. Their feelings are extreme (what toddler doesn’t feel devastated when told he can’t have the bag of gummy bears calling out to him in the grocery checkout aisle? What five-year-old doesn’t feel mad when her little sister knocks down her intricately arranged Calico Critters palace?) They don’t have the life experience to put their frustrations and hopes and fears in context.

“I feel blamed,” a friend of mine’s seven-year-old step-daughter cried in indignation when confronted by the fact that she had taken a younger girl’s ball. But the “feeling” wasn’t what was important here – the general boundary-observing principle of civil order was.

Conveying the idea that “feeling” is not the most important element in every situation might be anathema to a Romantic poet, or to Morris Albert, song writer of “Feelings” (Whoa, whoa, whoa feelings . . . ), but as someone prone to worry, fear, and sadness, I think it might be reassuring. A little less focus on my feelings might actually have helped me get a handle on my own as a kid. It is all right to cry, but the fact that you’re crying about having to share your dump truck doesn’t mean it really is a tragedy. It is alright to feel bad that you were blamed for something you did wrong, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be. You’ll get over it, and isn’t that actually the most steadying thing?

Article Posted 6 years Ago
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