Why following through is hard

This week my daughter is out of school on yet another break. I swear she has a full week off of school every other month. Thankfully we’re abroad with this type of schedule because attempting to find childcare or vacation days to cover all of those days would be a nightmare in a place like the US.

Kampala unfortunately does not offer extensive activities for kids to do, so I decided that we would be explorers and set out on a mommy-daughter adventure. We packed our bathing suits and some snacks, downloaded the Frozen 2 soundtrack, booked ourselves in to the ViaVia guesthouse in Entebbe and set off into the great unknown.

This was my vision: We’d arrive at some enchanted forrest, skip through fields of exotic flora and fauna, oo and ah over different bird chirps, chase butterflies, splash through puddles trying to catch lizards, dip ourselves into the pool when the sun got to warm, and obviously end the day with a campfire and some hot cocoa while listening to grasshoppers chirping. Maybe I’d even let her stay up late to look for shooting stars. It was going to be magical.

The reality of this trip, alas, did not quite match the description above. While I do give myself gold stars for doing the trip in the first place AND saying yes to my kiddo more than I said no, I still found myself at my breaking point on more than one occasion.

Like many parents before me, I found myself snapping with an “DO YOU WANT TO GO HOME RIGHT NOW?! WE’LL LEAVE RIGHT NOW IF YOU CAN’T DO WHAT I ASK!!”

Cue face palm and a disappointed sigh. Even when you KNOW what to do, doing the thing doesn’t always come easy.

In my defense, after every snap (in therapy terms – a rupture), we did repair within a few minutes, so on the whole we both had a positive experience. But it happened enough that even my daughter (who is a wizened 5 year old) told me “Mommy, you don’t have to yell. You just need to calm down first and then talk to me”. #kidsoftherapists

A few days ago I wrote about the importance of breath work in battling stress, anxiety, anger and general emotional distress. I am completely and 100% fully on board with using breath as a tool to calm my nervous system. I know the science behind it. I’ve personally experienced improvement in my mood when I do it. It doesn’t even take a long time to incorporate.

And yet, when in the midst of a stress tornado, I let the emotions consume me and I turn into a snarling, grouch monster.

Come on. Do Better.

That’s what I hear in my head after the anger wave has receded. Not only do I allow my emotions to take over, but then my inner critic gets in on the action and throws a few quick jabs. It’s incredibly frustrating, on both fronts.

So what can be done?

In the short term:

  1. Wait til the dust has settled. Sometimes we get hijacked by our emotions and we don’t always feel fully in control. At the first inkling that your hands might be back on the wheel, start taking corrective action.
  2. Breathe breathe breathe. The emotion has likely peaked by this point, so now work on getting yourself back to homeo stasis. Release whatever tensions has been stored up in your muscles.
  3. Scan your thoughts. See if you can reroute any lingering negativity. Now is a great time to practice some CBT thought exercises. Is my daughter REALLY a little demon sent to annoy me? Do I have any evidence that she is doing this on purpose? Or is she just being a 5 year old who has different ideas of what appropriate behavior is? And even if she is intentionally acting like a turd, is it really worth exploding at her? Are there other options for how to react?
  4. Survey the damage/Fix what can be fixed. Take responsibility for your actions. You may be entirely justified in the emotions you’re experiencing, but sometimes actions aren’t always necessary nor are they most conducive to getting what we want. Apologize as needed. I find myself apologizing often to my kiddo and then use the opportunity to explain what was frustrating me about her behavior. She’s usually more receptive to these conversations than if I were to just yell at her and give her the “because I said so” line.

In the long term:

  1. Remind yourself that this is the work. I was listening to a Tim Ferris podcast a couple of years ago of an interview with meditation expert/Buddhist monk Jack Kornfield. Kornfield commented on how the day-to-day living can be just as transformative as doing a 10-day meditation/yoga retreat in some isolate enclave. Kids, family, customer service reps, whomever, can all serve the role of a Zen master teacher, offering you opportunity after opportunity to reflect on how you’re living life.

But what makes it work is that you have that intention, not just to soldier through it, but to say let this be a place where I awaken graciousness, an inner sense of freedom and peace as things come and go, where I awaken the possibility of presence, and pleasure, and pain, and joy, and sorrow, and gain, and loss, and all the changes that I find inviolable, or a timeless place of becoming the loving witness of it all, becoming the loving awareness that says, yeah, now I’m having a family experience. And this is the place to find freedom. Because freedom is not in the Himalayas or in the Amazon. The only place it’s found is in your own heart, exactly where you are.

Jack Kornfield

2. Explore your internal. Behavioral reactions never come out of thin air, regardless of how it may seem. They’re more like the end domino in a long chain of reactions. What was happening internally before your tantrum that may have contributed to your outburst. Were you tired? Hungry? Already feeling stressed out from a morning commute? Did you have negative thoughts about yourself, someone else or the environment bouncing around in your head just prior?

3. Keep practicing. It’s like when you’re learning meditation. Your thoughts wander off and the goal is not to prevent them from wandering off, but just to notice that they’ve gone astray and gently refocus them. When you’re emotions get the best of you, notice what happened that pushed your buttons and gently refocus yourself and nudge yourself back into alignment.

We all have those moments where we act like assholes, but luckily, we aren’t graded on those single moments or single interactions. Instead, we can use these moments to reflect and grow towards a better version of ourselves.

What was a situation in which, despite your best intentions, you let your emotions get away from you? How did you respond?

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