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.
- 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.)
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”, 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.