Monday, June 21, 2010

What if...#2

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.

What if…#1

Friends often tell me that I should write down some of the zany things that emanate from my mind. So when I got a note under my office door from Betsy, inviting me to write for this new hometown newspaper, my first reaction was YES!!

Then of course that old voice of self-doubt in my head, we can call her Mabel, had to start up as she does when I think about doing something fun and risky. That old girl started whispering in my inner ear…”what if you are not really that good a writer, and besides that, who do you think cares what you think”. I won’t bore you with the details because as far as I can tell, you already are quite familiar with this phenomenon.

So I called Betsy, to see what this new thing was all about and she said it is an online newspaper. My column would not have to fit into a framework of inches. Good, no math! Then I noticed that doubting Mabel was quieter? Maybe she remembers all those years of writing in school and getting papers back graded and marked with red ink. No paper, no red ink, no grade….confounded that Mabel. She’s not so good with computer stuff. And one more plus, no paper. I have enough newspapers lying around my house to start my wood stove for at least 2 years!

So I began to think about how I would do it if I were to say yes, which I sort of already had.

I thought about calling it “Reframing your Life.” But I had more of a lighthearted picture than a serious psychological bent. So I rejected that. Too preachy anyway.

I needed an overarching theme, an umbrella that would allow me to bring in all sorts of things seemingly unrelated… could I do that? I began to mull it over as I went on with my day.

Later, I was driving to a great little gift shop to find a birthday gift for a friend, and on the way I thought I could call it “What if…..”. In each column I could propose a new way we could look at something. Sort of a “try this idea on for size” theme.

As I was mulling over this and starting to like the possibilities, I walked into the little store and began looking around. I found a great pair of earrings, not too expensive in her favorite color, for my friend, and as I was paying, I noticed a box of those slogan buttons that some people who are passionate about causes wear all over their hats. I am sure they are related to the folks who have bumper stickers all over their cars. I dug into the box and randomly picked one up. It said “What if the hokey pokey IS what it’s all about?”

Whoa. Did that just happen? I picked up a button with a “what if”? So, what if the universe gives us signs, little nudges to guide us? And what if that button was a sign that I was on the right track with my “what if….” idea? Maybe this is magical thinking but whimsy is nice sometimes. So here I am taking the leap into cyber-news columning and trusting my mind (gulp).

Here is my first “what if”:

What if you can trust your mind? What if your mind (and mine too) is just as ordinarily brilliant as any mind that ever was, comparable to what we call the great thinkers. What if your unique thoughts about life and the world are interesting and important? What if the difference between most of us and those great thinkers is that we don’t think anyone wants to hear our deepest thoughts so we keep most of them to ourselves? And those others, well they think their ideas are important and they tell lots of folks. Zany, I know.

So, try this on for size: Ask someone to exchange time with you, so you can tell them something you have been thinking about. Just maybe five or ten minutes each. Talk about something you have been thinking about. Something ordinary or extraordinary, something spiritual or mundane, something funny or serious, an old story you can’t help but remember for some reason. Try on the possibility that what you think matters. And then, ask them to tell you something they have been thinking about. Anything. And just listen, no debate, just watching each others’ wonderful minds go, pouring a little of the great well of unexpressed thoughts out into the space between you.

I am taking my own advice first (seems like basic wisdom) by trusting my mind with the zany idea that someone, somewhere (you in particular) just might find these spewings somehow, somewhat interesting! And I look forward to hearing your spewings back. We’ll talk about the hokey pokey later.

Emmy Rainwalker is a child, adult and family counselor with offices in Ashburnham and Watertown, Massachusetts. You can contact her through her website at