Breathe in the Pain, Breathe out the Love

It’s become increasingly clear to me that one of my primary roles as a mother is to help my kids learn how to soften their hearts to pain so that it moves through their body and the passageways can remain open to experiencing joy and love. I’ve watched too many people – both personally and professionally – develop a belief system early in life that said, “I can’t handle pain,” which consequently caused them to harden their hearts, find ways to numb out and disconnect via various addictions, and suffer from anxiety.

I’m using the word pain as an umbrella term to include any uncomfortable feeling that you want to push away or resist: frustration, disappointment, heartbreak, jealousy, irritation, fear, anger, disappointment, vulnerability, loneliness, helplessness over outcomes and feeling out of control.

Why and where do we learn that we can’t handle pain? It’s largely human nature to avoid pain, both physical and emotional. Just as a starfish contract when we touch its soft underbelly, so we instinctually contract when something hurts the vulnerable place of our heart. The dominant parenting and educational models also teach us as children that pain isn’t acceptable. We live in a “buck up and deal with it” culture where kids are discouraged from crying even over physical pain, let alone emotional pain. In our Western spirit of pursuing independence, we generally view crying as a sign of weakness and dependency, as exemplified by the phrase, “Don’t be such a baby.” Babies cry; little kids don’t. Even if this message isn’t transmitted at home, once a child begins school, he’s inundated with the “toughen up” mentality and often teased or bullied if he cries about physical or emotional pain. (I’m intentionally using “he” here as the taboo against boys crying is stronger than it is for girls, but it certainly applies to girls as well.)

Another reason we develop the false belief that we can’t handle pain is that very few of us grew up with parents who role-modeled how to attend lovingly and responsibly to their own pain. More powerful than any words, children receive their parents’ emotional intelligence via instant download, meaning that even if a parent is saying, “It’s okay to cry” but isn’t role-modeling responsible crying where their own loving adult is showing up for their pain, the children receives the message that pain cannot be handled. In other words, kids learn what they see, not what they’re told.

I’m not sure where my husband and I fall on the spectrum of transmitting the message that our kids can handle the pain of life. I would like to think that we communicate both verbally and through action that it’s okay to cry and that crying is not only a healthy response to pain, loss, frustration, and disappointment, but often the only sane response. However, somewhere along the way, our son seems to have learned that he can’t handle the pain of life.

I’m sure my husband and I have plenty of blindspots in our parenting, but I also know that when you’re parenting a highly sensitive child, his or her attunement to the pain of life extends beyond the more tougher-skinned among us. It sometimes seems as if my son was born without any protective layers around his heart and, as a result, he feels every pain, every loss, every news of death, every sight of a dead animal on the side of the road, every mention of violence of any kind, every mention of wars or guns, every change, and every transition with searing intensity. I was certainly a sensitive child, but I never experienced the level of awareness of the subtle and existential layers of life – including death – that he lives with daily. In working with clients who were also highly sensitive as kids, it’s clear that being highly sensitive is like living without a skin which causes you to be painfully sensitized to pain and lack of control in all of its manifestations.

Thus my opening statement that it’s one of my primary jobs to teach Everest how to handle pain without shutting down his heart.

How do I do this?

I wish I had a guide. How many nights have I longed to live in an indigenous culture where my elders could mentor me and teach Everest how to work effectively with his sensitivity, to hone its gifts, channeling it toward creative and spiritual avenues instead of allowing it turn into the curse of anxiety. But since that’s not the case, I’m forging the pathways on my own and doing the best I can (with many fantasies of picking all of us up and moving to a Tibetan monastery). I’m doing my best to tune into my own source of guidance and follow my heart’s knowing, trusting that there isn’t a single answer and that the plan is sometimes re-written daily. If it helps any parents who are also struggling to teach a highly sensitive child how to keep their heart open to pain while still functioning in the world, or anyone learning to re-parent their inner child as you learn that you can handle your pain, these are the tools that I’m currently using:

1. Whenever I see that his pain is causing him anxiety, I remind him to practice Tonglen: the simple practice of breathing in the pain and breathing out a prayer of love. For example, if he sees a dead animal on the side of the road and I see him rubbing his eyes or trying to stop or control the loss in some way, I say, “What can you do when you feel loss?” I’m hoping that, with enough reminders, he’ll incorporate the practice on his own and he’ll develop a habit of moving toward the pain instead of away from it.

The Tonglen practice has shifted recently to a simple prayer I learned from Thich Naht Hahn’s book, “Anger.” I’ve changed the words to reflect the feeling that Everest is struggling with and have taught him to respond to the loss by saying, “I see my sadness. I’m taking care of my sadness.” The sentences are accompanied by hand movements, where he brings the sadness into his heart with the first sentence, then moves both of his hands in a circle around his heart with the second sentence.

2. We spend time every night talking about what made him feel sad that day. As I hold him on the bed, he unloads the daily list, which often includes snippets of conversations he may have overheard years ago. Here was tonight’s list:

  • The raccoon I saw on the side of the road on our way to the science museum.
  • That people die.
  • That sometimes babies die before they come out of their mommies.
  • A couple of years ago I heard P (our neighbor across the street) tell you about a girl that went to his school who drowned.
  • That you and daddy are going to die one day.
As I gently rest my hand on his heart, I ask him to breathe into the pain. I say to him, “There’s a lot of pain this world, and there is also so much beauty. One of my jobs as your mommy is to teach you that you can handle the pain, because you can. Pain is energy. It hurts to feel it, but it hurts more not to feel it. When you cry, the pain moves through you and you cleanse your soul. So let’s breathe into the pain, and then say a prayer for the raccoon and the parents of the girl who drowned.”
Then we talk about all of the happy parts of his day. Here was tonight’s list:
  • When Asher made me laugh.
  • When I took care of Asher because his toe was hurting.
  • The beautiful trees.
  • The beautiful full moon.
  • Throwing berries in the creek and catching them downstream.
  • The bees. (He loves bees.)
At other times, especially when he feels sad that I’m going to die one day, I’ll say to him, “Everest, when it’s my time to die, you’ll be okay. You’ll cry a lot and it will hurt in your heart, but you’ll be okay. Most likely, I’m not going to die for a long time, and by the time I die you’ll be a grown man with a wife and kids that you love more than anything in the world. Right now you love me and Daddy and Asher more than anything and it’s hard for you to imagine that ever changing, but it will change. One day you’ll love a woman so much that you’ll want to marry her, just like Daddy wanted to marry me, and you’ll have kids with her. When I die, she’ll hold you when you cry. You might cry for many days and you might grieve on and off for a year, but you’ll be okay.” I don’t want to set up false hope that I’ll live into old age, but I do want to communicate the message that when I die, he’ll find the comfort and resources to handle it.
It has occurred to me lately that, perhaps, the reason why sensitive kids fear their parents dying so much is that parents are the lifelines; Everest believes that he couldn’t handle this life without me right now. But when the fear of losing one’s parents carries over to adulthood, it’s indicative of a lack of internal, loving parent that knows that you can handle life. This is why I say it’s one of my highest priorities to teach Everest that he can handle pain, which really means teaching him to develop his own loving adult.

3. We work with a meditation teacher to learn the practice of mindfulness and we try to practice every night. We’re now up to ten minutes, and the change on his face afterwards is visible 100% of the time. I’m also encouraging him to take mindfulness breaks throughout the day if the pain starts to feel overwhelming and brims over into anxiety, but he’s not quite able to practice alone yet.

4. Deeply inspired by Charlotte Reznick’s brilliant book, “The Power of your Child’s Imagination” (which is very similar to Inner Bonding® but tailored for kids), I purchased her CD and downloaded it onto our iTouch. Her guided visualizations, with titles like “Finding your Special Place” and “Your Personal Wizard”, are designed to help kids connect to their inner resources of wisdom, comfort, and clarity. Everest listens to these at night while he’s trying to fall asleep. Although I’m in the room with him, I no longer lie next to him (I haven’t for years) and when he comes to me for comfort I remind him to ask his personal guides instead. Again, this is a process as his tendency is to want me to give him the comfort, but what I’ve seen as he grows older is that my comfort only lasts a moment and the lasting comfort has to come from inside of him. He also listens to a beautiful CD called “Indigo Dreams”, which teaches similar tools for kids.

5. A few nights ago, Everest landed on his own tool. He was trying to fall asleep and he said, “Mommy, I want to say a prayer for the dead moths that Asher finds,” then proceeded to whisper the most beautiful, heartfelt prayers I’ve ever heard. In its purity, it was like poetry whispered from the mouth of an angel, the words too vulnerable and sacred to share here. Then he wanted to say a prayer for the mice that our new neighbors recently found, dead and decaying, in the walls of the house that they’re renovating. Again, his entire being shifted into a higher frequency when he allowed the words to spontaneously be carried from his heart to his lips, like little boats of light. He finished with a big smile on his face and fell asleep more quickly than he has in months.

6. We create rituals to acknowledge and contain the loss and rebirth on the solstice and equinox. We use these transitional days in the calendar to practice letting go, often writing down things we would like to let go of on leaves and sending them down the creek.

7. We laugh, dance, tickle, and hug as much a possible.

I have no idea if this is enough, or too much, or entirely missing the mark. But it’s all I have: the guidance of my heart. I imagine that learning these tools may take months, if not years, so I try to be patient, both with him and with the journey. And then I practice Tonglen for myself: breathing in the worry of mothering and breathing out faith, acceptance, and love. Breathing in the loneliness of forging a new path for my son, one not based on pathology but based on a spiritual context that understands that his sensitivity to loss is a reflection of the depth of his capacity to love, and breathing out the almost unbearable privilege and subsequent feeling of gratitude of being his mother.

8 comments to Breathe in the Pain, Breathe out the Love

  • Sarah

    This is a really beautiful post! I feel like I could keep referencing this for years! My husband and I are talking through having kids, and what’s come up in my heart most often is that I have no clue how to care for their big emotions. I’m only just learning myself that tears are ok…I think it’s only been the last few months that I can let my tears come freely without judging myself or wanting to run. How can I do that for a kid? I think that’s a reason I like this site so well. 99% of what I read is focused on the “stuff” of pregnancy/parenthood: breastfeeding, sleep schedules, what to buy, potty training, tantrums, etc. I’m finding it overwhelming and largely unhelpful, especially because I have few fears in the physical realm of parenting. I nannied for years and while I know having my own kids will be a lot different, I also don’t feel fear with what to do with them. Emotions though…that’s another story. I love the idea of talking over the fears and sadness of the day, and the happy parts too. Thanks for posting this! It helps to know that this is a journey for every parent…not a fixed model of “I know exactly the right thing to do.”

    • Yes, there really is no template for parenting, and the physical stuff of diaper changing and potty training is the easy part! Just remember that the more you learn how to attend to your own big feelings, the easier it will be to guide your child.

  • my dear sheryl,

    i love your posts and this one is truly exceptional.

    as a former highly-sensitive child, now a highly-sensitive adult, let me say that you are right on the money. what you’re doing is enough (in the sense that “enough is as good as a feast.”) that you model and teach everest to identify and feel his feelings AND to know that he CAN handle them is a priceless gift. i especially love that you recognize and encourage him to connect with and trust his personal guidance…this is huge in and of itself. it really is all any of have: the guidance of our heart, as you say.

  • Liz

    Again, your post is so in tune with what I am experiencing at this moment. I am highly sensitive as well and right now I’m doing an internship at a lovely company. But the thing is, I am doing work that doesn’t satisfy my soul and leaves me empty. I notice that I withdraw a lot from my boyfriend and have, as you described, closed off the hurtful, but also the warm feelings. I will surely try to implement your ideas. Thank you. Also, I am at awe at the way you understand and help your child. Your children are truly blessed.

  • Dona lofland

    Beautiful and nurturing words, thanks:)

  • Selena

    I love all your blog posts and this one is no exception. I have by no means the experience you have in rearing a child, I just know the worries of being a child with an unhappy childhood. With this, I have three nieces and nephews and all of them have a way of suffering under the hands of my sibling adults who had the misfortune of sharing that same unhappy childhood. I found your site through being an Alanis fan and wondering what you were talking about in that hour long phone interview you put online. And during reading I realised that what you teach your clients to do is what I had taught myself to do to be able to save my relationship and myself in the process.
    This is what I can say to you, this method of handling past pain works really well for people who had already been searching on their own what kind of meaning their lives is supposed to hold. Long lonely hours have been spent in opening their mind and soul in ways only they could find on their own. Like the proverb says: one can show you the doorway but you are the one who has to walk through it. During my own psychology study in university there was a wonderful workshop called “How to talk to kids” and it entailed all the values you hold high in raising your son, except maybe one thing: tell them their emotions back to them and watch how they come to you with what is bothering them and often enough you need not say anything or offer any kind of solution and they’ll go off on their own and handle it. What I read in this blog post is that you guide him so well that maybe he doesn’t feel like he needs to guide himself as much.
    When my niece lay inconsolable on the bed for something her other aunt said insensitively I just said: you’re sad, aren’t you? And angry, right? I know what she did was insensitive and mean, but it’s okay. I did not need to do much more than this. I can leave her after me saying that feeling what you feel is good, and to acknowledge it in the face of ignorance even more. To be honest, I rarely see my niece but I know I made a lasting impression. Sometimes once is all you need to make a difference in someones mind, and just to listen is to offer the solution a child so desperately seeks. Like the silence in oneself you so often praise.