I remember when I was 5 years old, the highlight of my week was Miss Stella’s School of Dance. I loved the moving, jumping, twirling, laughing… a whole bunch of us little girls having a total blast. One day my mother told me, on the steps of our house, that she couldn’t take me any more because it was too much for her with the new baby coming. I was disappointed. Well, heartbroken is a better word to describe it. And there was nothing I could do about it.
That memory of me and my mother standing on the steps of our house is as vivid as if it happened yesterday.
In my work, I hear a lot about disappointment. People come in and tell me something that happened that they are not happy about and they get used to hearing me ask the question, “What does that remind you of from your childhood?”
Disappointment is when our idea of what we want to happen does not match the reality of what actually does happen. And it begins early in our lives.
Take a journey with me. Imagine yourself before your birth, floating in a warm, cozy environment, temperature controlled, constant feeding, listening to the meditative sounds of your mother’s heartbeat. Your needs are being well met at this point in your budding life.
Then you are born into a new, strange and fascinating world!
Things are different out here. For one thing, you have to breathe. That’s new. Luckily, you are perfectly adapted to make the switch. You are, in fact, prepared to make all the changes required of you. But how does your tiny body know what to do?
I have heard Native American people use the term “original instructions” to describe how any living thing knows how to be what it is. “Original instructions” tell a bird when to fly south for winter, or a seed when to sprout in the spring. And “original instructions”, they say, tell us how to be human.
So here you are, adjusting to this new world, peering out, your vast intelligence taking in everything it can. Your “original instructions” are pulsing out directions to your body and mind. You scan the room looking for connection because you cannot survive without it. You are totally dependent, which is not frightening if you find another pair of friendly human eyes. At least one person who will feed you, change you, keep you warm. It’s even better if there is more than one and if they look happy to see you!
Babies can instinctively tell whether the faces they are looking at are pleased or frightened or angry.
Now let’s switch to the grownups in the story. Usually, they are pretty busy when you are born-- boiling water (well, maybe not that anymore), checking to see if you are okay, tending to your mom. So you might have to look around awhile before someone actually notices you….really notices you. And that may take a frighteningly long time. Even a few minutes feels like an eternity to a newborn.
No matter how well meaning the grownups were in our lives, no matter how much they tried to give us attention and love, none of us gets as much attention as we can use to satisfy our huge capacity to understand this new world, to feel safe and connected all the time. Inevitably, there are times when, like baby birds, we call out for something, and the momma and poppa birds just do not come. Or they come with funny looks on their faces, like annoyance or frustration or exhaustion. Sometimes anger.
And that means there are times from the very beginning, when we become very, very disappointed, confused, frightened.
So what do babies do when upset? You’ve seen it yourself, that spontaneous eruption of emotions that happens fast and loud. We cried. I once read that human babies have the loudest cry of any mammal. And when we cry, we are reaching out for help in order to get some attention and hopefully, to remember that we are connected.
Our “original instructions” bring us a wide variety of emotions-- sad, mad, scared, joyful, peaceful. The whole human enchilada! We are perfectly adapted to have these emotions wash over us. And we like to let people know what we are feeling, so we call out. And when we do, things can go a lot of different ways, depending on what the bigger folk do in response. If they listen and reassure us, the difficult feelings drain away and we come back to safety and connection. If there is no one to listen well, then that feeling stores itself in an odd way in our memory, popping up again and again when something happens in the present that is similar.
Early disappointment, from when we are small and helpless can leave us very vulnerable to feelings of disappointment now.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I had planned to go to see a movie. She called to say she had the flu and could not go. I really like hanging out with this friend. We have fun. And I was so looking forward to seeing that particular movie. I felt flooded with a feeling of disappointment. I asked myself “Emmy, what does that remind you of from your childhood?” The answer popped into my head right away, “Miss Stella’s School of Dance”. As Yogi Berra said, it was “Déjà vu all over again”.
So what if disappointments in the present are connected to disappointments in the past?
Try this on for size: The next time you feel let down, search in your mind for a memory. See if you can bring yourself back to a place and time when things did not go your way, when you felt something in the past with the same flavor as this new and current emotion.
Let yourself stay there awhile, listening to that younger you. Just give that little disappointed person a moment of recognition for those difficult feelings.
The great American psychologist Carl Rogers said, “When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, …without trying to mold you, it feels …good. When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and go on.”
That someone listening could be you yourself. You can’t change the past, but you can change how you feel about it. And when you do that, you begin the to change how you feel in the present.