I am a sensitive person. I have sensitive children. None of this is news.
I have often in my life felt as though I have to get a grip, get over it, be less sensitive, be less intense, stop taking things personally. These admonitions to myself are deeply embedded in my self-conscious, and I am frustrated with myself on a nearly daily basis. I feel like my reactions are my fault.
Often, this is true. I know it is. When I wrote 10 Things I Want my Daughter to Know, to and for Grace, I included a specific point on this:
8. It is almost never about you. What I mean is when people act in a way that hurts or makes you feel insecure, it is almost certainly about something happening inside of them, and not about you. I struggle with this one mightily, and I have tried very, very hard never once to tell you you are being “too sensitive” or to “get over it” when you feel hurt. Believe me, I know how feelings can slice your heart, even if your head knows otherwise. But maybe, just maybe, it will help to remember that almost always other people are struggling with their own demons, even if they bump into you by accident.
It did not to take me long to realize I was writing to myself as much as I was writing to Grace. These ten things – life lessons, central points about the human experience – were things I wanted to know, too. This one for sure. And I’m still struggling to learn it.
I’ve written before that parenting is an exercise in coming face-to-face with our own demons and flaws animate in another person. Also, of course, our gifts and our deepest joys. But it’s the demons and flaws that are on my mind right now. When Grace and Whit come home with bruised feelings, I often feel torn about how to react. I want to honor their reactions and sensitivities while not playing too much into them. Does that make sense? I don’t want them to develop the internal voice that I have, the one that says get over it already (not saying my parents gave this to me: they didn’t. I’m not sure where it came from). I do want to honor their feelings. And I do want to help them develop the coping skills not to be buffeted by their every reaction.
Sometimes I worry that responding too emotionally to their hurts will actually create anxiety for them – oh, wow, wait, there is a real reason to be worked up here! I also fret that if they engage with me mostly or exclusively around hurt feelings, they’ll think that that’s the best way to get my attention. But I know instinctively that telling them to not worry about it is dismissive and doesn’t validate what I know are authentic feelings.
What I try to do is to say I get it, I know that this hurts, and I would feel badly too, but you have to remember that it really isn’t that big a deal. Try to remember that it is likely not about you (again, a lesson I’m still learning, at 41).
I haven’t figured out how precisely to honor Grace and Whit’s feelings while simultaneously helping them learn to manage them. Just one of parenthood’s many liminal areas, places where what I think is the right answer lies in a gray, murky zone. Or maybe it’s not murky at all! Maybe saying I refuse to dismiss your feelings is crystal-clear. And maybe saying you can feel something and at the same time choose to not be gutted by it is also entirely straightforward. It doesn’t always feel that way, but maybe what’s muddying this matter for me is my own sometimes-intense empathizing.
I don’t know. But I’ll keep trying to figure it out.