My youngest had not had the best day at school. Over the course of the evening, her unhappiness with her friends had turned into a string of complaints about everything she didn’t have.
I knew that she needed to empty her heart to reconnect with her head. But I just wasn’t finding the time to sit with her and hold the space while she did so. I wish I’d just dropped everything and turned towards her, but isn’t hindsight always 20/20?So the misery prolonged until bedtime. As I bent down to kiss her glum face, I tried to rub sense into her by giving her some perspective.
“Honey, its time you think about the millions of little children who don’t have the privileged life you do.”
“Its not my fault that they don’t, and don’t try to make me feel bad about it,” came an angry response that threw me off. Too tired to argue with an equally tired child, I said goodnight and left the room.
She dragged her way to school the next morning. But she came back home chirping and singing. She’d made up with her friends, and life couldn’t be better! I forgot about the whole incident, but then it came back up in my mind a few days later.
I guess I still needed to learn my lesson.
I was with a client, and the topic of gratitude came up. She was describing the amazing gratitude of her parents, who had managed to focus on the good even when they lost a daughter. I was in awe of their strength.But as the session wore on, I began to realize how their gratitude had adversely affected my client. From her story, it seemed as though they had used it as a defense mechanism to deal with the intense emotions they would indeed have felt, a kind of “selective neglect” as Dan Siegel describes it. Although it’s a time-honored strategy to calm the insatiable demands of dopaminergic pathways, perhaps they were simply avoiding a deep pain they were too fearful to face.
Having lived a life garbed in gratitude, my client had silenced an important part of her being, and hence deprived herself of the ability to feel, understand, or express her own emotions. She had become a stranger in her own skin.
It’s true that when our heart aches, an intellectual understanding does little to bring our full selves to life. Positive emotions, whether gratitude or cognitive empathy, remain static knowledge unless they enter every part of our physical being and transform into lived experience. Because our bodies influence our minds, paying mindful attention to our emotions is essential for well-being.
Attunement NeededThere was my lesson. What my child needed was my attunement to help her make sense of her emotions. By shushing them down with a glassful of gratitude, I was simply shirking my responsibility. I’m glad she refused to take my offering because it didn’t “feel” right. She wasn’t ready, and she let me know. I need to honor that, so that she preserves her wholeness and maintains her capacity for inner connection.
This is where the true magic of gratitude comes alive. Bob Emmons describes it as a construct of two components: an affirmation of goodness and the recognition of where that goodness comes from. As such, it’s also a social strength, but only when embodied. As Barbara Fredrickson says, “When your mind and body are infused with good feelings, those feelings lift and expand your chest, a subtle nonverbal gesture that makes you more inviting to others, more open for connection.”
My client had missed out on this. An intellectual understanding of gratitude had not imbued her with the benefits of what openhearted appreciation felt like. She was grateful for everything she had, and yet lived life in a lonely cocoon. I could finally help her make sense of her current life.
I’ve thought about this many times since: Does wisdom really come with age? Or is it something that we’re born with, lose, and spend the rest of our lives trying to reclaim?
If a large part of wisdom is indeed inner connection, we need to be better guardians of our children’s emotions.
Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. Hudson Street Press.
Siegel, D. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Oneworld Publications.