Friday, October 21, 2011
"Your teacher said it's not due for two more days," I point out. "You'll have plenty of time to finish this after your dentist appointment." But that scenario is a nightmare for my son. He now has to face walking away from an assignment before it's done or being late for an appointment. For him this is Sophie's Choice all over again. For me it's not even an issue worth a moment of stress.
Last Sunday we had an issue where he wasn't able to do something because he would have had to arrive a few minutes late. Other kids would be arriving late too and the people running the event didn't care but that made no difference to him. He tried but his anxiety overwhelmed him and we had to turn back. I found it devastating that he was unable to deal with the situation. I began to think, if he can't even handle this how is he going to get through the real challenges in life? In fact I was so distraught that I was reduced to making a tearful phone call to my mom. "I don't understand why he can't just deal!" I cried.
My mother paused and asked, "Have you ever felt panicked before?"
On the face of it, this seemed like a basic question, one that any normal person would have to say yes to and I opened my mouth to do just that...and then I stopped and really thought about it. She hadn't asked if I had ever been stressed, anxious or overly emotional. What she asked, what she meant, was had I ever experienced a true sense of utter panic. And the truth is that I haven't. I quickly recounted a few of the times when I had been in very scary situations, both on a physical and emotional level and how I had done what I needed to do to stay safe and then broke down weeping after what needed to be done was, well, done but that wasn't what my mother was talking about at all. She wasn't talking about a feeling that is brought on by an immediate physical threat or anything like that. She was talking about something that, based on her description, sounded like a heartattack. An emotion that was so overpowering, so out of control that it brought on immediate, extreme and very real physical symptoms.
So going forward I'm not going to try to reason with my son when he starts feeling panicky. That's a strategy that works on me but I can't project that on him. Instead I'm going to focus more on what he's feeling and the physical things we can do to bring the panic down (deep breaths, stretches, running up and down the stairs until he works that tension out). I believe that eventually he'll be able to do those deep breathing exercises while walking swiftly to that appointment he might be a few minutes late for. But we're not there yet.
Likewise when I'm tempted to judge people I'm going to at least try to imagine what they must be feeling. I'll take a second to consider that they might have a perspective and way of processing information that is dramatically different than mine but nonetheless just as valid. And I'm not just going to do this to be PC. I'm going to do this so that I'm better able to resist the temptation to:
A) Throw things
B) Make tearful phone calls
C) Pull my hair out
D) Scrunch my face into wrinkle producing expressions of anger and frustration
See? Understanding and empathy aren't just a gift you give to others. It's a gift you give to yourself.
Bestselling Author of:
The Sophie Katz Murder Mystery Series,
SO MUCH FOR MY HAPPY ENDING