“Hell is a fear of pain,
while heaven is the faith that things will be OK.”
Cloud Cult, Lights Inside My Head
Over the last month or so, I have been exploring why boundaries, structures, and guidance are necessary for our kids to grow into their full potential. Here is a quick recap:
Healthy boundaries and loving guidance are necessary to
- Keep our children safe
- Guide them towards healthy living
- Help them develop into responsible beings
- Support them in becoming emotionally resilient
Having already written about the importance of keeping our children safe and healthy, and supporting the development of responsibility, I will now move on to discuss the development of emotional resilience.
The main driver of human maturation is emotional vitality.
Neurobiologists are now re-stating what developmental psychologists have been saying for a century:
When the full repertoire of a child’s emotions are allowed to remain intact, their brain wires up in an optimal way that results in maximal maturity at every phase of their development.
In some mysterious way, emotional fluidity and openness are at the heart of growing up. This stands in contrast to a life filled with relationships and circumstances that cause children to become chronically reactive, defensive, and hardened. A hardened heart — which is a metaphor for a defensive mind — stunts maturation.
Defenses are natural, protective, and are meant to come up and down fluidly.
When emotions become too intense for a child to handle, the brain moves reflexively to protect the child and to preserve his or her functioning in the moment. These brain defenses — such a numbing out or tuning out — are helpful in moments, but are not meant to be kept in place for long periods of time. If a child is exposed to difficult emotions that are too intense or too prolonged — say chronic fear or shame — these defenses will harden into patterns of resistance, sucking up attention and energy that would otherwise be used for maturation. Fluid defenses are helpful; chronic resistances deaden us and stunt our development.
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to ones courage.”
One of our primary responsibilities as parents is to help preserve our child’s emotional vitality.
Our kids need our protection, care, and guidance in life — especially in the early years. When we do this well, their nervous systems will spend a healthy amount of time in the state of rest, and chronic defenses will not be necessary. Most parents get the protection and care part, but often ask “why is guidance necessary to preserve emotional vitality?” Guidance is necessary because feeling safe is not solely — or even predominately — about controlling the outer circumstances, but requires an inner capacity instead: growing the muscle of emotional resilience.
Guiding our children within healthy boundaries helps them confront their vulnerability and develop resilience.
For most of us feelings like joy, love, peace, strength, and connection are relatively easy on our nervous systems and do not evoke strong reactions and defensive posturing. But in contrast, feelings like sadness, disappointment, disconnection, rejection, fear, anxiety, weakness, and shame tend to be very uncomfortable and our minds and brains do everything they can to get rid of these feelings. We run away, we blame, we attack, we shut down, we numb out, we compulsively seek to get our way — we do all variety of things to avoid these difficult feelings. Children need a loving caregiver who can guide and support them in times of great vulnerability, and help them exercise and recognize their inherently resilient nature.
“You came up from the ground
from a million little pieces.
You’re a pretty human being…
When it all comes crashing down
try to understand your meaning.
No one said it would be easy;
this living it ain’t easy…
But everything you need is here
and everything you fear is here
and it’s holding you up,
it just keeps holding you up!”
Cloud Cult, No One Said It Would Be Easy
Emotional resilience develops by fully feeling and surviving the vulnerable territory of the human heart.
When difficulty arises — both the outer circumstances and the inner feelings that are evoked — we have instincts to close down, act out, or run away from those feelings. Staying with vulnerability is a muscle that needs development.
The practice is simple, but not easy:
- Fully feel the vulnerability without moving into reactivity or defensiveness.
- Stay with the feelings until they deliver their lesson; a lesson about a person, about you, or about the nature of Life itself.
- Experience the effects of surviving the difficulty, and how you have been changed as a result.
Each time we survive these feelings by staying with our vulnerability we become stronger, wiser, and more emotionally resilient.
The ability to tolerate vulnerability is key to developing compassion, wisdom, and the living of an authentic life.
When we exercise our capacity for emotional resilience, we begin journeying towards the development of unconditional confidence. This is the path of opening up to life rather than closing in acts of self-protection. A hardened heart can not feel emotional pain and thereby loses access to its compassion. A tuned out mind can not see that which distresses or is difficult, and is therefore cut-off from its wisdom. A person not capable of tolerating vulnerability is left without access to their true feelings, their deep desires, and the courage to live these out in world. The deepest gifts we have to offer this world lie buried in our vulnerability.
Take Home: We all want to protect our children from pain and the emotional bruises of life, but we can’t stay physically by their side forever. In addition to being appropriately protective of their outer circumstances, we must also help them develop the muscle of emotional resilience that is at the heart of the adaptive process. You hold the key to unlocking their gifts.
Try: What are some of the feelings that are most difficult for you to tolerate?
Rejection? Fear of loss or disappointment? Shame? Powerlessness?
What are the patterns of reactivity or defensiveness that arise to protect you?
Do you get angry and aggressive when people dismiss you? Do you collapse into self-loathing? Do you eat, drink, or spend hours mindlessly watching TV to distract and numb-out? Or do you get busy trying to make yourself appear smarter, more capable, more beautiful in order to win back favor and recognition, thereby avoiding dealing with the vulnerability itself?
How do these patterns affect your life?
Note: The purpose of this exercise is not to lead you to judge yourself. We all have reactivity and defenses and these patterns developed in order to protect us. The purpose here is to see our patterns more clearly in order to better help our children in developing into their full potential. We may not have grown up in an environment that supported the development of resilience, but today is a new day. We can do better for our kids.
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Thanks to Gordon Neufeld and Pema Chodron for their valuable insights on this topic.