Tonight helping Echo fall asleep, after round four of "Hush Little Baby", I suggested she close her eyes. She grumbled and complained. She said she hated night and wanted it to be morning already. I've heard this for the last several nights, it wasn't a a road I wanted to travel down, I just wanted her to fall asleep. For many nights now, before starting the lullabies she asks me if she is safe and in order to avoid the hour-later conversation about hating nighttime I usually spend a bit of earnest time describing to her just how safe she is. I mention her sturdy house, her strong parents, the watchful dogs, her safe town, and her parents' determination to do anything to protect their children. We had this conversation again tonight but it didn't prevent her from feeling scared later.
A couple rounds into the lullaby is not when I want to re-start a conversation of any kind with my daughter. I just want her to fall asleep. Most of the time I don't even have anything in particular I am in a rush to do after bedtime I just know it's bedtime and I want to get the job done. Other times I do have something I want to do and I want Echo to fall asleep quickly so that I don't fall asleep as well. The nine pm "nap" ruins my evening plans and energy every time. I just never recover all the way and find myself stumbling into the lit kitchen all befuddled. So of course I tried to reassure Echo she was safe and that falling asleep makes morning come more quickly but it all felt so empty. In my well-intentioned motherly way I was just trying to fix her problem long enough so that she'd fall asleep. I wasn't actually helping her.
So I went down the counter-intuitive path and really engaged her in exploring her scared feeling. I asked all kinds of questions about the feeling's size, shape, location, name, and weight. It turns out her scared feeling is shaped like a puzzle piece with a whale tail. It's heavy and dark purplish bluish. It is 1600 nights old. The feeling begins right after stories, disappears after she falls asleep, and then returns the next night right after stories. It is painful and the size of her chest. If she could grab it she'd throw it out the window and into the window of two guys she doesn't like. It doesn't have a name. She can't tell if its solid or airy and she can't smell it.
This exploratory path is counter-intuive because it feels time consuming and it feels like I am making the problem even bigger by focusing on it. It feels more intuitive to shush lovingly and repeat assurances of safety. Detailing the terror with specifics seems ludicrous, unwise, and above all else, a postponement of the go-to-sleep goal. But here's the thing, after Echo answered all of my questions I asked her if the feeling was still there. She was silent for a moment, then she said.
"It's smaller! Much much smaller!"
Then I sang one more round of "Hush Little Baby" and even before I reached the end she was a limp sack of sleep.
In a general sense this is what always happens with feelings. If you honor them and feel them they break into mist and wisp away. If you try to avoid them or logic yourself or another out of them they stick like glue.
Someone close to me is struggling with another loved one about feelings. Person A is really irritated by Person B's emotional story and all the attention getting behavior and the LAST THING she wants to do is find and offer empathy to Person B because she fears that the emotions will just get bigger and steal more of the show than ever before.
Isn't this a common scenario? I myself was bothered by Echo's feelings because I didn't want her to have them anymore, I just wanted her to fall asleep. So I tried logic ("you're completely safe honey", "morning will come quickly if you fall asleep") and fixes ("just close your eyes and think about things you like, like moving rocks at the river") and it didn't work. I didn't want to give her fears any attention because I didn't even want them around and certainly didn't want to make them any bigger by shining a spotlight on them.
I see parents every day that don't want their children's feelings to be there or get any bigger so they try methods of distraction, disdain, logic, and even tom foolery to get them out of the way. We think this might work because it feels more intuitive and regardless, we aren't willing to risk the consequences of stopping and really looking at what's going on.
But our bedtime example makes the perfect case for just going right to the heart of things. The last two nights, with my reassurances and avoidance, it took Echo an hour and a half to fall asleep. Tonight after going full-boar into the fear it took her ten minutes. And of course, like icing on the cake, our connection as she fell asleep was like a glowing ember, rich and honey-colored. Instead of putting her off until sleep overcame her, I walked with her right through her fear and into a better place. Emotionally I never left her side.
If you can get around your own fears, irritation, or concern and pause for a moment with another person - right in the middle of their "stuff", unexpectedly you make that stuff (fear, pain, worry) get smaller. It takes some time in the moment to explore with them, but it saves time in the long run because, as the feeling dissipates, there is nothing left to address.Try it.
p.s. The technique of delving right in and asking questions about an emotion's physical qualities etc. is a classic Life Coaching technique. The first time I experienced it was when I was pregnant and losing my shit. Nathan pulled it out of his coaching hat and helped me find some relief. You can schedule an appointment with him for your own dose.
p.p.s I want to be clear about one thing. Looking closely at an emotion, with empathy and a clinical microscope of sorts is not the same thing as "juicing up" the emotion, stepping into that emotion yourself, or agreeing. Doing any of the following actually does have the ability of making the emotion worse/bigger.
The difference would be:
"Tell me about that feeling. What's it like?"
Juicing up: "Oh man! You must be TERRIFIED! That's horrible! Let's think of all the SCARIEST things that happen at night!"
Stepping into: "Oh my god! Now you have ME freaked out! Let's hold each other because I am so scared now!"
Agreeing: "Oh yeah, I totally agree with you. Nighttime is the worst! You have every right to feel scared. You never know what is going to happen."