Becoming a Grown-up in Middle Age
Accepting (even embracing) challenging emotions takes practice, but it’s never too late.
I’m 56 years old, but, in many ways, it feels like I am just now becoming a grown-up. At long last, I’m starting to look to myself as my primary source of inner wisdom, comfort, and care.
I’ve learned a tremendous amount by watching my daughter’s parenting style. When her two-year-old son cries in pain or frustration, she doesn’t quiet or distract him. Instead, she holds him, strokes him, and lets him cry. Sometimes she says, “I see that you’re feeling very sad” or “I know that hurts a lot.”
Suffering isn’t a tragedy in my daughter’s household. She understands that it’s important for her son to fully feel whatever emotions arise—to learn to ride waves of sadness, fury, or overwhelm until they naturally ebb. She calmly witnesses his pain and stays with the outburst for as long it lasts—a capacity I am just beginning to develop.
When my children were born, I watched my mother in action with her grandchildren and got a revealing glimpse into how I was raised. Every pain, cry, or cough was reacted to with gasps of worry. To my mother, being upset or ill was a calamity that required an immediate remedy. If our upset wasn’t squelched or quelled immediately, her hysteria would begin to build.
At a young age, I learned to flee discomfort as if my life depended on it. My nervous system was in constant overdrive as I tried to navigate the impossible task of having to always be happy. As a child, I was never taught that I could just sit with sadness or discomfort—that pain was a perfectly acceptable and ordinary part of life.
Raising Emotional Intelligence
After decades of living with the many emotional and physical ramifications of denying, repressing, and fearing my uncomfortable feelings, I began working with a master teacher of ancient healing arts, Cain Carroll, who has been helping me learn to allow all of my emotions to surface while I mother myself with many of the same qualities my daughter exhibits when caring for her young son. Being “grown-up” doesn’t mean that I don’t often feel sad, frustrated, or frightened—it just means that I have the tools to care for myself in a healthy way: with love, patience, and acceptance.
Cain teaches that our baseline for physical and emotional safety goes back to the womb, where we were literally held and touched on all sides by warm amniotic fluid. “When we utilize gentle touch in a way that conveys qualities of connectivity, warmth, and care,” explains Cain, “it triggers our body’s unconscious memories of primordial states of security and wellbeing. Feeling soothed and connected, we perceive our environment as safe, which stimulates our rest-and-renew response.”
Through somatic awareness practices, Cain helps people experience that “the body is not a fixed entity, but an ongoing dynamic aliveness where emotions are movements of energy that need to be respected and cared for.”
Mindful Practices for Accepting Emotions
“Anger wants to go up and out,” says Cain. “Grief wants to close in and descend. Depression can feel heavy. Anxiety can feel fluttery, as if the body has no safe foundation. Fear can feel cold, as if something is frozen inside. If we relate to each of these emotions as expressions of life energy (Chinese qi, Sanskrit prana, Hawaiian mana), we can use a host of effective methods for supporting the healthy flow of emotions.”
Cain invites people to accept all of their feelings without judgment and to set aside time and space to feel and express them using a combination of physical movement and sound. During his studies at a healing center in China, Cain could hear people yelling in the forest early in the mornings because the doctors there regularly prescribe forest yelling as a treatment for illnesses related to unexpressed anger.
“The voice is a powerful way to allow emotional energy to move. If you can’t be alone in a forest, you can yell into a pillow when you feel a strong upsurge of rage. The key is to allow your physical body to express the energy of the emotion. Some people also find it helpful to hit a bed or a pillow if the anger feels particularly aggressive. This controlled tantrum of movement and sound allows the body to express powerful emotions without them getting directed toward another person, or repressed and then expressed inwardly as self-harming physical or mental patterns.”
When we are gripped by anxiety and fear—emotions arising more frequently in this time of raging pandemic, deep social unrest, and economic uncertainty—we can feel as if there is no safe place to abide. When we feel unmoored from life’s nurturing embrace, Cain advises us to use soothing sounds and gentle touch to bring us back to center and allow difficult feelings to wash through us instead of getting frozen.
“We instinctively know how to use touch and sound with a scared dog or cat,” he explains. “Yet, sometimes, when we get triggered, it is easy to lose contact with our instinct to soothe our kids, partners, or ourselves. A daily practice of calming self-care helps us remember.”
A Self-Soothing Self-Care Practice
One of the most important “grown-up” skills I’ve learned from my daughter—and from Carroll—is how to soothe myself through my body, rather than through mentally fabricated reassurances. When I treat myself as I would my little grandson—stroking my head with loving tenderness, rubbing my heart and belly, hugging myself while I hum or sing—I quickly calm and settle.
While my life might have been easier if my primary caregiver had been less frantic and fearful, as well as more sensitive and steady in her care, it is never too late to offer those desirable qualities to myself. Doing so changes everything.
- by Myra Goodman