When I was a young girl I thought the thing to be was happy. I'm not clear when or how this misbelief was first planted, but I managed to carry it well into my adult years nonetheless.
The narrative in my head went something like this:
"If I am happy, then I am good."
"If I am good, then others will be happy too."
This narrative held true with other feelings as well. Excited, silly, joyful, kind, relaxed; I mistakenly told myself that these were the “good” emotions. These were the only ways I wanted to feel.
Other feelings became the "bad" ones, so much so that even when other people felt not happy feelings, I felt like I was failing. Not happy feelings were never my goal and, when I felt them bubbling up, I instinctively worked to push them down and away as best I could.
The entire process was draining and I didn’t realize how pervasive it all was until I had children of my own.
One day last year, in the midst of a toddler meltdown about something I could not wrap my head around to save my life, I said to my then three-year-old son, “You seem mad.”
My son screamed back, "I'm not mad!!!!" And then, adding in a much quieter voice, "Mad is bad.”
My mama-heart skipped a beat.
"Mad is bad?!"
Where did he pick that up I wondered. Despite the way I'd been raised, this was not something I'd ever said out loud. And yet, it felt all too familiar.
I wanted more for my son and I wanted more for me.
Emotions And Feeling Charts
We had just started using time-ins as a family the week before. Setting up a small nook in my son's room and calling it our Calming Corner, I had told my son that we were not going to be using time-out's any more, but we were still brand new to time-ins and I really had no idea what I was supposed to do with this raging little person in front of me.
My son had just confided in me that he thought feeling mad was bad, and in that moment I was sure of one thing --- this was not the message I wanted to pass down to the next generation.
Feeling a bit clueless about what to do next, my mind jumped to our new time-in space. It was the single reason that even amidst all the screaming and crying, I'd not put my 3-year-old in a time-out.
Instead, we went to his room together and sat on the big pillows we'd placed there just days ago. Following the prompts on the big poster, I learned that my son was feeling mad because all the snow was melting and he had wanted to build a snowman. “Like Frosty,” his voice trembled.
Once the tears had dried and his face had softened, I said, "Thank you for telling me that you are feeling mad. I feel mad too sometimes."
This got a curious look. I definitely had his attention.
We looked at the feelings chart full of kids feeling all sorts of feelings, and my son started pointing, asking me what each face meant.
Sad, mad, frustrated, worried. Tired, silly, anxious, scared.
Emotion after emotion, my son pointed and we talked about each one, sometimes making the faces ourselves and laughing.
As we got up off the floor, I knew that I had some learning to do as well if I was going to pass on something other than "Mad is bad" to my son, because, truth be told, when he'd been stomping around the house and crying, all I wanted to do was to make it stop.
I wasn't feeling so accepting. I knew my son was mad, but I had no idea why and frankly before he'd uttered the words, "Mad is bad" under his breath, I'd been thinking about putting him in a time-out on our kitchen steps like we used to do when he was acting out.
That night, after my son was in bed, I got out the manual that came with our Time-In ToolKit and read it front to back, unearthing some of what I'd missed the day we set up our calming space without actually reading the manual.
The few golden nuggets I read about emotions would change the way I viewed my son when he was having a hard time and the way I parented.
It was then I realized that these tools are not just for my son. I am learning about how to be with big emotions as well --- this toolkit was for both of us.
EMOTIONS ARE SACRED
It was right there, page one of the mini-manual that came inside the box. The Time-In Manual had a coloring page for me to color with my son that read: Emotions Are Sacred.
These three words went against everything I'd been taught growing up. And, when held as true, they contained so much of the wisdom I wanted for myself and my son.
If emotions are sacred then my feelings are valid, and so are my son's.
If emotions are sacred then I have the right to feel my feelings, and so does my son.
And if emotions are sacred, every emotion can teach me about myself and the world around me, and the same is true for my son.
The Four Emotion Groups
A bit further into the manual, I read about why and how the posters in the Time-In ToolKit organize emotions, inspired by research from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
The approach is designed around four main mood groups depending on whether an emotion feels pleasant or unpleasant, high energy or low.
As I let the concept of labeling emotions instead of judging them sink in, I flipped back to the feeling faces poster my son and I had been playing with earlier that day.
I took a long look at all the feelings and how they were grouped, each one, as valid and accepted as the next.
- Red (unpleasant, high energy): angry, determined, anxious, frustrated, scared
- Blue (unpleasant, low energy): sad, bored, disappointed, tired, lonely
- Yellow (pleasant, high energy): happy, brave, silly, proud, surprised
- Green (pleasant, low energy): calm, reflective, grateful, loving, relaxed
This single chart was turning so much of what I had been taught about feelings on its head.
Emotions Are Useful
I thought about my own life, and all the many not so happy feelings I'd felt along the way. Feelings that for so long I'd judged as bad that were admittedly not pleasant to feel, but that served me well none the less. Hard, big, sometimes confusing feelings -- avenues for change, guiding me through challenging, necessary and worthy things.
- Determination, a red emotion, and one that carried me through my son's long, complicated 32-hour birth.
- Critical, a blue feeling that led me to re-work a proposal for my company, landing use a big account.
- Sadness and grief, more blue emotions I felt after losing our first child at birth, leading me to become an extremely grateful mother when at last our healthy newborn son I held.
Things were beginning to fall into place. There is nothing "bad" about feeling unpleasant, and my red and blue feelings are just as valid as my yellow and my green ones. Valid, and helpful.
Frustration can help me complete a challenging task.
My sadness can be channeled into empathy, and even my fear can sprout growth.
These feelings may not feel as pleasant as, let’s say, excitement but they are informative and can serve as a catalyst for new things.
Through using the Time-In ToolKit with my now four-year-old son, I have come to embrace all my many moods and feelings.
My goal is no longer to be “happy”, and I no longer think it's my job to "fix" my son when he's feeling sad or mad. My new job is to stay curious. To name my feelings and to listen when my son is naming his.
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