In my last post I wrote about some themes that emerged from a talk with 3 recent graduates at our Mental Health and Wellbeing Symposium. Today I want to elaborate on a critical point made by Daniel: it is important to experience all our emotions and to teach kids that feeling and expressing them is okay. He spoke about having the expectation to be happy and feeling ashamed when he cried. The message Daniel internalized when he was younger was that it was wrong to cry. Instead of feeling and expressing emotions such as sadness, fear, frustration, and anger, he learned to deny that he had them. He pasted a smile on his face and pretended to be happy because school taught him it was expected. Now that he is graduating and about to leave our system, he passionately implored the participants at the symposium to ensure we teach and allow our kids, especially in the younger grades, to feel and express the full range of emotions.
Daniel’s plea to the educators in the room struck a chord with me and I have found myself reflecting on his words as I think about our schools, my private practice, and most recently while sitting in sessions at the Learning and Brain Conference in New York City. The theme of this year’s conference was “Schooling Social Brains” and featured speakers and sessions around the topics of social competence, social thinking, social emotional learning and social media for social wellbeing. Some of the speakers were authors of the programs that we often use in schools.
Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking Curriculum has been very influential in our district. She developed strategies to help her clients with autism understand the social world around them. It was her attempt to teach them how to make sense of the way neurotypical people thought and behaved. The book “You are a Social Detective” teaches children to use their eyes, ears, and brains to try and figure out what others are doing or going to do and what they might mean by their words and actions. She groups the words and actions of people into the categories of “expected” and “unexpected”. It is not unusual to hear a teacher tell a student (typical or not) that their behaviour is unexpected or tell a class that their behaviours need to be expected. But when I heard Michelle Garcia Winner speak, she said this – if you are using her Social Thinking Curriculum to modify behaviour, DON’T. She went on to say that it was never designed to try and change behaviour, only to help her clients understand it. She does not want us using it to try and control behaviour or feelings. Here’s the thing – people, all people, express their feelings in a number of ways. Of course, it’s not okay to yell or hit others when we’re frustrated, but we want to teach kids that our emotions just happen and that’s okay. We need to feel what we feel, it’s how we think and act on those feelings that we can control.
The desire to control or abolish emotions is a theme that I have also seen in my private practice. In the past year, I have had many clients come to see me wanting to change the way they feel. You might be thinking that seems reasonable – you’re a counsellor, isn’t that what you do? Well yes, absolutely – I have been trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help client understand the relationship between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. The theory suggests that if we can identify and change the unhealthy thoughts, it can help with unhelpful feelings like anxiety. However, sometimes clients who come to see me have experienced an extremely upsetting event – a loved one dying, a sudden job loss, a devastating break-up. Some are therapy veterans and when asked what they are hoping counselling will help them with, they often say they want me to help them stop the emotions – they’d had therapy before and found it helpful to change the way they feel, could I help them with strategies that will stop the pain? Sadly, the answer is no. When something profoundly heart-breaking has just happened, it makes sense that we fall apart, that we cry, that we feel like our whole world has just collapsed. I can’t take away the pain, but I can help them process the thoughts and feelings that accompany an overwhelming loss. And I can also hold the space for them to cry, because if you can’t cry when someone you love has died, when can you? It seems to me our society has a bias towards happiness – that emotions other than joy are wrong, or that we are somehow doing something wrong and that’s why we are unhappy. I don’t think I’m the only one who recognizes this. The Disney movie Inside Out, tells us that we need to embrace all our emotions, even the painful ones, because even sadness has a role to play in our wellbeing.
Which leads me back to the wisdom of Daniel’s words. He is absolutely right in stressing the importance of experiencing a full range of feelings and teaching kids that all emotions are okay. Another speaker at the conference, Dr. Marc Brackett, professor at the Yale Child Study Center, agrees and has developed the social emotional learning program, the RULER Approach, based on this concept. Life is an emotional rollercoaster, he told us. There will be ups and downs and some wicked loops and turns. We can’t get off – we need to hold on tight and experience all of it – and sometimes we’re going to fall apart and throw up. And that’s okay.